An excerpt from the book Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations, by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE
Managing volunteer committees or task forces takes skills that not everyone possesses. You must understand how to manage a project. You must understand how to com- municate, build consensus, and deal with conflict. You have to know how to schedule and manage meetings. You must know how to make a recommendation and write a report and how to navigate the association’s bureaucracy and work within its policies. Some volunteers possess some of these
skills.A few possess most of these skills.A rare number haveall of theseskills. And some lack all of them. Volunteer training and development pro-
grams can help, but often time-pressed members are unwilling to spend the time to participate. They want to get to the task at hand, prepared or not. And even if they do avail themselves of volunteer development opportunities, by the time they have had to practice them, the year has come and gone and another inexperienced member is in the driver’s seat. In addition to the skill set required to
managea committee or task forceis the fact that the issues we now ask committees and task forces to address are more complex. They aren’t simple tasks. They require a higher level of sophistication than in the past. And a part-time amateur (also known as a volunteer) is often out of his or her depth. A good example here is meeting site-selection and hotel-
contract negotiations. In the good old days a committee han- dled these functions. They went on site-selection trips and had a hands-on role in making the meeting arrangements. Today the legal complexities of contracts and room blocks as well as the intricacies of negotiating arrangements are consid- erable—not necessarily something you want to leave to a practicing CPA or dental hygienist. Another example would be state lobbying for a profession.
Decades ago, a committee of a handful of doctors with an understanding of and interest in the political process could handle the job for a state medical society. In recent years, this has been out of the question.A professional lobbyist is required. Putting professional staff in charge of managing commit-
tees has consequences for staff competencies and qualifica- tions. Staff must know the industry or profession at a level many association staff have not had to in the past. They don’t have to have industry or profession experience (although they might), but they must have a basic, well-grounded under-
standing of the profession or industry. In many cases, this will require significantly upgrading staff whoseonly rolein the past was to “hang thecoats and takethenotes.” Once professional staff is in the driver’s seat, they will
have the authority to put together their committee or task force. And like board composition, the process to do so must be based on the competencies needed to get the job done. Not who knows who. Not who wants to. But instead, what does the committee need in terms of talent and knowledge? Which members (or non- members) could bring that to the table? Of those that could, who arethethree to five individuals best qualified? Professional staff will need to be a little
like search consultants, using search-like processes to identify and recruit the right players for the team. They might have a database of members organized by expert- ise and experience. They will know how to seek out and qualify candidates. And once a committee is assembled, they will have to know how to manage the people and the process in a way that makes the highest and best use of the volunteer resources at hand. An association executive described the
approach as “Just in Time (JIT)” volunteer utilization. In JIT manufacturing, parts arrive only as needed. You don’t have inventory sitting around idly. And in this approach by associa- tions, you don’t have volunteers sitting around idly. You don’t mobilize them until you need them. And when you need them, you use a rigorous identification and selection process to optimize results. The net result is a significant improvement in the quality of engagement for the volunteer. Research has identified engagement as an important key to affiliation. But it is folly to believe that any and all committee engagement is positive and results in a stronger tieto theassociation. Onecould argue that much of the current committee experience is mar- ginally satisfying or meaningful, and some of it is frankly nega- tive and disappointing. The time-pressed environment raises the expectations of those considering committee service.A volunteer with an unsatisfactory committee experience is likely to go back to work, family, and friends and let other members spin their wheels on the association’s committees.