As many associations report declining volunteer and membership levels, leaders say it’s time for organizations to rethink the way they manage volunteer programs and take steps to encourage more participation at meetings.
Volunteers are a vital element of keeping association meetings and events running smoothly, but what happens when that pool is shrinking? With association membership dropping even before the pandemic, how are organizations coping and what can they do to improve the situation?
An indicator of the membership and volunteer difficulties that associations are facing is a 2020 survey from Marketing General Inc., a consultancy to the association industry, which reported that 45 percent of associations experienced a decline in membership renewal and 47 percent a decline in total membership. Similarly, a 2019 survey from Wild Apricot, an association management software provider, found that 68 percent of organizations were having trouble recruiting new members.
So how serious is the situation two years into the pandemic? EventMB spoke with several association executives to get their take.
The Covid Factor
If there is one element that all of our interview sources agreed upon, it was that Covid has had a significant impact on volunteer rates at associations.
Kai Troll, president of Brussels-based ASSOCIATIONWORLD, said he is finding declining participation to be a problem across the board for volunteer-driven associations these days, no matter what their size.
“I think they’re all suffering,” he said. “It’s a natural given the global circumstances and the pandemic. I’m personally involved with three organizations that heavily depend on volunteer engagement. Some of that could move online, but, of course, volunteer involvement is typically very much of a local engagement. And that, of course, has suffered.” According to Troll, participation can often hinge on the ability or willingness to meet in person, and we have yet to see a full return to pre-pandemic norms in this respect.
Signs of Hope
Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC — an association that largely consists of conference venue operators — similarly acknowledged the volunteer challenges his organization has faced during the pandemic. Cooper, however, believes things are already on the upswing.
“We definitely went through that period of time when everything was shut to volunteering,” he said, adding that the return of live meetings last year has led to a resurgence of participation.
“It led to restabilizing, with folks coming back into our volunteering groups and communities,” he said. “It was a lot more solid. I guess people were managing their time again. We’re starting to feel a little more comfortable.”
Cooper is especially encouraged by the fact that attendance at IACC’s annual conference held in Las Vegas last month was strong, with many members flying in from across the country. Strong virtual participation also contributed.
“There were concerns over infecting household members, but people did show up, either virtually or in-person,” he said. “We had 100 percent attendance in our board meeting and conference planning meeting because those who couldn’t attend in person did commit to coming in virtually. So that’s what gives me more hope that volunteering hasn’t gone for good.”
Competition for Time and Energy
Although it may at first seem counterintuitive, another sign of hope may lie in the fact that some of the decline is directly attributable to immediate circumstances. Once the pandemic begins to move into a more endemic stage, volunteer rates may bounce back.
The medical field is a case in point. With healthcare workers especially under stress during the pandemic, it’s no surprise if medical associations are particularly challenged to find volunteers. Malek Lebsir, associate director of strategy & partnership for the European Society of Cardiology, acknowledged the strain many in the healthcare field are facing.
“There are volunteers who were impacted by Covid in their daily practice and have less time,” he said. “With less time there is also less engagement. Some of our volunteers who eventually left were giving less to their teams because they don’t have any more [energy] for that.”
Another indicator of lessening participation among association members is in the number of candidates seeking to serve on boards, committees, councils and in other positions, he added.
“Do we have as many candidates as before?” Lebsir said. “That is another sign that engagement is not what it was.”
Drivers of Decline: Regulations, Corporate Policies, or Personal Choice?
What is to blame for a decline in association participation?
Along with fears stemming from the pandemic itself, Troll believes various government policies and regulations regarding Covid are playing a part in the decline of volunteerism. He sees it happening at corporations as well as associations.
“Before the pandemic, corporate volunteering, especially in North America, was very popular and used to be just part of any large U.S. corporation,” he said. “That has decreased because companies and organizations reflect government policy. And to a large extent, the government policies were very restricted and limited. Therefore a lot of the volunteer body that we naturally use is affected.”
As workplace restrictions begin to ease up, something he sees happening already in North America, Troll predicts that volunteerism should come back as well.
Personal concerns about Covid safety are also making people hesitant to volunteer, he added.
“It’s not that we don’t want to [volunteer] but we don’t want to spread infection to others,” Troll said. “And we’re trying to keep our environment safe. So I think it is a combination of things that relates to government policy, but also to personal concerns.”
Troll noted that yet another factor could be the inertia instilled in people after many months of staying home.
“There’s a certain laziness to get off the couches and away from the screens and to actually be motivated to go back and do volunteering,” he said. Finishing on a note of optimism, Troll suggested that volunteerism could be the key to overcoming the effects of the pandemic, both on a personal and on a community level:
“Actually the field of volunteerism could be a very good way to get people activated again. It would be a good way to get people back not only to work, but to also say, ‘Yes, other things like mental health and wellbeing are also important.’ And we partly achieve that through volunteering because it is just very satisfying to go and volunteer and help others.”
– Kai Troll, president, ASSOCIATIONWORLD
Sell the Benefits
What are some possible ways that organizations can motivate people to volunteer?
Troll believes that organizations need to be more proactive in promoting the benefits of volunteering, including the sense of satisfaction and well-being it provides.
“I think we need to push it,” he said. “ I don’t think it’s on people’s radar. Volunteering does not only fulfill one purpose, meaning the purpose of doing good for others, but it also makes people feel very good about doing something for others.”
Lebsir suggested that organizations may need to step up emphasis on how meetings can foster learning and networking opportunities for professionals seeking to advance in their careers. He noted that opportunities for learning and collaboration are especially strong motivators for those in the healthcare field.
“You want to learn and exchange,” he said. “When you go within an association in cardiology, you would be more able to focus on some very specialized areas where you would find experts within your field and you would be able to share knowledge and exchange practices — concrete practices — when we talk about reducing cardiovascular disease, or reducing a particular combination of issues.”
Another strategy for maximizing attendance and participation, particularly in an era when many people are stretched for time, is in co-locating events. Cooper found this to be true when IACC held its recent annual meeting in Las Vegas during the same week as PCMA’s Convening Leaders.
“At least a handful of our volunteers went to PCMA and our events,” he said. “So in terms of return on investment of time and travel, we were giving them more value by co-locating. If you can do that, that can really help your course as well and help with participation.”
Virtual, Hybrid Options
Options to accommodate people who cannot attend the meeting in person are also important drivers of participation, according to Cooper.
“Have opportunities for those to participate remotely if they cannot travel or don’t have the bandwidth to do the traveling, but still have the bandwidth to participate and the willingness to do so,” he said. “I was incredibly impressed by those who said, ‘I can’t make it to Vegas — I’ve got a young child that’s at risk.’ They could have not participated at all, but they did. They showed up and sat on Zoom for five hours, which, for me, was even more of a commitment than getting on a plane.”
Rethinking Volunteer Outreach and Opportunities
According to Troll, it’s also essential to consider new sources for volunteers, perhaps among students seeking experience. Just as importantly, organizers should look to expand the possibilities for volunteerism at events
“I think there are very many areas where people haven’t really thought that they can use volunteers. I think the event side especially is one of them,” he said. “We have two events coming up this year where we are going to use volunteers from a university and a school of business tourism. I think we generally could do that more, because it’s becoming part of their student experience and gaining that practical experience.”
He added, “And as much as we can motivate people to volunteer, not only seeing the cause, but the overall benefit, I think then it becomes much more of a thinking that people can relate to in a different way.”
Ensuring that volunteering will benefit the organization and volunteers alike is also important. Troll notes that providing a good experience for volunteers means giving them proper training and being careful to assign the right number of volunteers for the tasks involved.
“One thing that is very important is that volunteers need a role; they need something to do,” he said. “What you don’t want is an event where you have 100 volunteers and 90 only stand around with nothing to do. If you only need 10, then recruit 10. Or use the other 90 to do something you haven’t done before.”
Recognize and Celebrate
Organizations may also need to recognize and celebrate the efforts of their volunteers more than they once did, according to Cooper.
“Before the pandemic we were maybe a little too silent in terms of celebrating volunteers,” he said. “Just go out of your way to really encourage that and you’ll get a great succession pipeline.”
Associations, which were facing declining membership even before the pandemic, need to take steps to encourage the volunteer efforts that keep meetings and events up and running. Promoting the benefits of volunteering, including the sense of satisfaction and well-being it provides, is one way, as is looking for new sources. Making meetings convenient to attend by co-locating with other events and providing virtual options can also be vital strategies.