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Purpose-driven organizations have a significant impact on communities, industries and individuals, often with a small team of dedicated staffers. However, these staff sizes can also pose a challenge for organizations as they, for example, look to grow their audience, create new programming opportunities, or even look to host more ambitious events. 

While this may be an issue, it’s also an opportunity to leverage one of their most important roles – volunteers. 

For association newcomers, volunteering can be one of the most valuable ways to interact with fellow members and gain a better understanding of your association’s impact and mission. 

But how do you get started and what should you be looking for to make the most of your volunteering experience? We have you covered. 

Why Are Volunteers Important to Associations?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 62.6 million people volunteered in 2015. From local footbanks to educational service programs, volunteering is routine for many. The stakes, however, are much higher in the association space where staff is limited and some organizations run entirely with volunteer staff. 

While established association members know when, how and why to volunteer, this can be more of a challenge for younger professionals or those just joining their first association. But, they do have one significant advantage – their members are already committed to the organization's purpose. 

“We work in associations because we are passionate about the mission and vision of our organizations,” says Amy Thomasson, Vice President of Marketing & Communications for Cure SMA. “We get into this space because we want to help others, so find something that you can connect to on a personal level as well.”

Association Tip: Work on Your Role Descriptions

While the onus often falls on the volunteer to apply and make the most of their experience, there is also work to be done on the organizational level. Finding the best volunteers and ensuring they have a rewarding experience starts with setting clear expectations and providing a goal-focused job description. 

Additionally, tying these goals directly to the mission and looking for ways to move that mission forward should be a top priority for leaders looking to grow their volunteering programs. 

Common Examples of Volunteering Roles

So you’re interested in volunteering – but how do you get started? 

While most people have some volunteer experience – often in community-specific roles – association volunteering can be a bit more complex. While there are general opportunities, like helping staff your organization's upcoming events, there are more complex opportunities that can impact the governance and operations of your association. 

Some examples of the buckets that volunteering roles fall into include: 

  • Events: For associations, events require the most logistical support, which is why volunteers are so important. Whether you’re helping with setup, breakdown or simply day-to-day operations, it can be a great way to get involved without needing a lot of technical experience. 
  • Skill-Based: Your association may require assistance with highly technical tasks – think legal or marketing efforts. If those skills are within your wheelhouse, it can be an excellent opportunity to complete some volunteer work without a long-term commitment. 
  • Committees: When your organization has a specific task, for example, creating a fundraising event or identifying editorial topics, committees may be formed to handle it. Joining a volunteer committee not only lets you impact the direction of your organization but may also give you governance-specific experience that could lead to board member opportunities down the line. 
  • Speaking: While many of the other volunteering roles focus on tasks, the member-facing side of volunteering can also be an opportunity. If your organization is looking for speakers for an upcoming event, throw your hat in the ring. While this role may have more pressure, it also provides significant professional development.  
  • Content: Articles, webinars and even podcasts fall within the purview of content volunteering. Producing content is an integral part of associations' member engagement strategy. Volunteering your expertise can be a great way to volunteer virtually while building your professional portfolio. 
Related: 4 tips to help out and stand out as an all-star volunteer Learn More >

Strategies to make the most of your volunteering experience

  • Set expectations: As we mentioned before, organizations should be working to improve their descriptions when posting a call for volunteers. This can also be an asset for you. Understanding what your responsibilities are and setting specific goals and expectations will help you make the most of your experience and help you stand out as a volunteer, which can lead to opportunities down the road. 
  • Make connections: Outside of being a rewarding experience, volunteering can also help you network within your community and industry. Not only should you ask the volunteer coordinator or leader for introductions, but make it a point to speak to your fellow volunteers. Asking them about their organizations, work experiences and past volunteering can also help give you an idea of potential opportunities. 
  • Don’t overcommit: Like anything in your professional career, the impression you make can have a lasting impact. When volunteering, the last thing you want to do is commit to a volunteer role only to miss deadlines or not complete the work at all. Instead, be sure it’s something that fits within your work and personal schedule. There will always be volunteering opportunities, but never another chance to make a first impression within your association or industry. 

Tips for Finding Volunteering Opportunities  

For new association members, finding opportunities can be one of the biggest obstacles to getting started. Additionally, having the confidence to put yourself out there and interact with long-time members can also be a cause for concern. According to Thomasson, there are a few strategies that you can implement to get started. 

Be proactive

While there are boards that can help you find opportunities, you need to empower yourself more often than not. 

“Frankly, I've tried them without a whole lot of success. So I take more of the proactive approach,” Thomasson said. “I start to follow organizations I might be interested in and then go to their websites or follow their social media, and look for those opportunities. Even if you don't see an open call for volunteers, I don't know many associations that would turn down people who are reliable, open and willing, and have the time to volunteer.”

A good starting point is to look for organizations you’re interested in working with, find out who's in charge of the volunteer program, and simply reach out with a  brief introduction.

Don’t be afraid to look outside your organization 

Just because you’re a member of a certain association, that doesn’t mean you’re only limited to volunteering with them. Thomasson suggests looking for organizations that offer opportunities that cover any and all of your interests and values. 

She says, “maybe you're volunteering at one type of association, but you would love to be working in an association that deals with animal welfare or animal rights, for instance. Well, a great way to start to tiptoe towards that path is to volunteer with an association in that space.”

Not only will this help for a better connection with your volunteering work, but also it can lead to potential career opportunities down the road. 

Understand your skills and sell yourself

For members just joining the association world, that lack of experience could hamped your confidence and stop you from applying for opportunities. “Don't concentrate on your lack of volunteer experience; concentrate on the experience you do have,” says Thomasson. 

“Even if you're new in your career, you have education, you have schooling, you have real-life experience. Everybody has something of value to bring to the table, and that's something you should be able to identify and articulate.” 

One way to help gain confidence when applying for roles is to write up a quick one-paragraph elevator pitch. Not only can you use it for your career, but it can be an easy thing to include when reaching out to volunteer coordinators. 

Leverage your network

The importance of networking cannot be overstated, especially in today’s career landscape. And for young professionals looking to gain some volunteer experience, that network can also come in handy. 

Thomasson recommends looking at association professionals who inspire you and look through their LinkedIn presence. What volunteering have they done in the past? What has their trajectory been like? Are they still involved in those organizations? If you see someone you want to connect with, reach out. 

“I know if anyone emailed me asking for an introduction or to talk about my volunteer journey and what I've learned or how they can get started volunteering, I would love to talk to somebody who's interested and engaged,” Thomasson says. 

And if cold messaging isn’t your thing? Think about creating a LinkedIn post or event exploring a message board where you can let people know what your skills are and what you would be interested in doing. 

Create a roadmap for growth 

Finally, one of the best tools for excelling in the volunteer space is to have a general idea of what you would like your trajectory to look like. 

“You can volunteer somewhere just because you like to do it. But if you're volunteering to build your career, then take a step back and think about what's in it for me as well,” says Thomassen. “One thing I would say is it's not selfish to volunteer and to also want to gain something for yourself. That's just being smart with your time.”

While this can be difficult to figure out on your own, working with a mentor can go a long way to keeping on track. Not only can they offer regular advice, but also they can help you chart those initial steps in your volunteering roadmap. 

Get Your Volunteering Journey Started

Volunteering is key to the operation and growth of associations and can be a rewarding experience for new association members. While there may be challenges getting started, the reality is there are plenty of opportunities out there that can suit your style. 

For example, if you’re well versed in marketing or legal, opting for skill-based volunteering is ideal. However, if you simply want to get involved and network within your organization, helping out at local events and joining committees can be the way to go.

The critical thing to remember is that volunteering also needs to benefit you and your professional development. Whether that means building your portfolio with speaking appearances and articles or gaining leadership experience on a committee, you should always be looking to grow from your volunteering experience. 

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
April 21, 2022
Jose Triana is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.