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Volunteers are an integral part of an association's staff. They commit their time and expertise to help move the mission forward and do it solely to help. And while having a large pool of volunteers is never a bad thing, holding onto them for years could be a problem.  

Whether your volunteers are reluctant to leave their posts or your governance is making it hard to do so, finding effective ways for offboarding association volunteers is essential.  

But how do you do it? In this article we’ll dive into some of the challenges associations are facing when it comes to volunteer management along with effective strategies that make offboarding a positive experience for all.  

Do Associations Struggle with Sunsetting Volunteers? 

All associations are different – some struggle to find enough volunteers to fill their roles while others have folks who have been in the same role for decades. Improving your volunteer pipeline can be a challenge, but finding ways to sunset long-time volunteer leadership is often a bigger one.    

Bob Moore, Executive Director of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians is no stranger to this situation. “Our volunteers have been so active, that some struggle letting go,” he says. “And the biggest challenge for us has been how do we create that rotation so we can identify new leaders and volunteers that may not have been exposed to a certain committee, workgroup or task force?”


The Roadblocks to Volunteer Changes 

Whether your organization has realized it or not, there are often barriers that prevent association leaders from easily moving beyond their existing volunteer workforce. This can include: 

  • Lack of clarity from governance in relation to term limits or election processes.  
  • Specific skillsets that are difficult to replace.  
  • Fear of backlash caused by removing a well-liked or respected volunteer.  
  • The potential impact on ongoing projects and initiatives.  

Improving your pipeline and providing training for incoming volunteers can help address most of these concerns. However, when it comes to governance, associations need to ensure their leaders have the power to make changes as needed.  

“Our group of members don't like to upset their friends and colleagues in the association world, they are a family. So, the path of least resistance is to reappoint them,” says Moore. “The organization needed to give our leaders support and something they can hold their hat it becomes less personal.” For ACOFP, this meant changes to bylaws, the institution of term limits and more communication around the volunteer program – a process that took over two years to complete.  

Related: Addressing Volunteer Accessibility: Strengthening Your Program Learn More >

6 Tips to Make Offboarding Association Volunteers a Win-Win 

“When volunteer relationships become unhealthy and people see themselves so much in an organization's product, event or committee, that it's part of their identity, it becomes hard for them to let that go,” says Moore.  

One of the best ways to create a positive experience is to consider the end from the start. Effectively offboarding association volunteers helps maintain a positive relationship with members and ensures a smooth transition for everyone, regardless of their level of commitment to the organization.  

And while not everyone is going to be happy about moving out of the role, at the very least, association leaders can work to make it a win-win for all.  

  1. Develop a clear offboarding policy: Establish a standardized process for offboarding volunteers, which includes steps such as notification, exit interviews and post-departure follow-up. 
  1. Communication: Notify the volunteer about their offboarding in a timely manner and provide the reason for their departure if applicable. 
  1. Exit interviews: Conduct an exit interview with the volunteer to gather feedback on their experience, identify areas for improvement and learn about their reasons for leaving. 
Related: Association Newcomer: The Value of Volunteering Learn More >
  1. Recognition and appreciation: Show gratitude for the volunteer's contributions. Whether you’re celebrating them at your annual meeting, hosting a farewell event or simply sending a personalized thank-you note. 
  1. Knowledge transfer: Ensure that the volunteer's knowledge, skills, and experiences are documented and passed on. This is also a great opportunity to establish a mentorship opportunity for your incoming volunteers 
  1. Reassignment opportunities: Of course, just because they’re no longer in a specific role, that doesn't mean they’re out of the organization. Offering alternative volunteer opportunities can help re-engage your departing volunteers and avoid those hard feelings.   

Lessons from the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians 

Part of the reason volunteers may be upset with losing their role is because of their involvement with the success and growth of an organization. According to Moore, this is where celebration becomes an integral part of your offboarding experience.  

For ACOFP, this included an article from the president in their quarterly journal, a thank-you gift box before their annual meeting and events where their peers have an opportunity to celebrate them during the annual convention.  

“So, while it was a hard pill to swallow that they were leaving a role that they loved, we were doing it in a way that really tries to send them off on a positive note,” says Moore.  

Empowering Your Association & Volunteers  

Whether it's association governance getting in the way or concern over backlash, there’s no doubt that moving on from a volunteer can be a challenge. However, as associations look to grow, bringing in new and diverse perspectives is critical.  

“If we're trying to be relevant for future generations of our membership, we need to allow current generations to see themselves in these leadership positions,” says Moore. “Otherwise, if it's all people who have been members for 30, 40 years, they're going to say, ‘well, why do I even apply? I don't see people like me in those groups.’” 

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
May 4, 2023
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.