Ten Rules for the Care & Feeding of Volunteers
By Robert A. Hall, CAE, Executive Director, American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry
Recently a friend read my article, ―Murphy’s Laws for Association Executives,‖ and commented
that my years as an exec had perhaps made me jaded about working with volunteers. Specifically
she was referring to my first ―law,‖ with which she heartily agreed, being a volunteer leader in
her own professional association. There I wrote:
―Often, an Executive Director’s most important job is to keep the volunteer leaders from
wrecking their association – without getting fired!‖
I pointed out that the article was humor for executives, though humor with a point, but her
comment brought me up short. Had I become jaded about volunteers? I don’t think so. After all,
I’ve had a wonderful career as an association executive. I count many former volunteer leaders
among my closest friends and strongest references. Every association I’ve been with has thrived.
And while my resume takes credit for those 24+ successful years, I’m acutely aware there would
have been no success at all if I didn’t work well with and deeply appreciate the volunteers.
Even before that, my five successful campaigns for the Massachusetts state senate would have
been failures without volunteers. On the morning after Election Day in 1972, I was sitting on a
nine-vote lead, out of over 60,000 cast. If just one volunteer had not shown up one Saturday to
deliver flyers, there would have been a different outcome. Working successfully with volunteers
has given me a great life.
But I don’t belong to the ―All volunteers are equally wonderful‖ school of association
management. So here, then, are ―Bob’s Rules for Working With Volunteers.‖
1. Often, an Executive Director’s most important job is to keep the volunteer leaders from
wrecking their association – without getting fired!
Yes, I’m standing by it, but I’m not suggesting that the volunteers are out to destroy their
association. And an executive should always try to avoid an adversarial role with volunteers,
though sometimes the exec’s duty to the membership and the organization may require it.
There is a natural tension between the volunteer leadership, who want great things to happen
during their term of office, and the executive, who has a responsibility to build a strong fiscal,
staff and programmatic structure for the years after the current volunteer leadership has moved
on. Volunteers have a different focus and different experiences than association execs. They
need, in fact they deserve to be managed and guided. They need the executive’s knowledge
about our profession. The subcommittee that created the Hydrolevel decision wasn’t trying to
destroy their association, either, and probably saw themselves as acting from the best of motives
when they brought millions of dollars of losses onto their organization. Too bad the executive
didn’t find out what was going on, and step in to stop it.
You cannot fulfill your duty to your association and its membership if you are willing to sit by
and let a good-hearted and highly motivated volunteer create havoc with the organization, even
out of the purest motives.
2. Every member is a volunteer
Unless you happen to manage an association where membership is compulsory, such as a bar
association or promotional board where dues are assessed by state law, every member volunteers
to belong, conference attendees volunteer to come, members contact legislators because they
want to, and members who use your services, publications and products have other options. Treat
every member as a volunteer and don’t let your staff forget this rule. You cannot survive without
3. All volunteers are not created equal
Those who give of their time in governance, to make the conference work, in political advocacy,
and to serve on committees need to be especially cherished. Like the rest of the world, we work
with the 80/20 rule: 80% of the work will be done by 20% of the members. If they feel well
appreciated for their efforts, they will extend them. If the 80% see that the 20% are cherished,
some will be motivated to move up to that level, contributing to the association’s success.
4. Volunteers have many motives
I joined the Marines at age 18, because: A. I’m a patriot and wanted to serve my country, B. I
thought young women would be impressed by the pretty blue uniform, C. I had no skills and
needed three hots and a cot, or D. All of the above. The answer for almost everyone’s motivation
for acting is usually ―D.‖ Humans are complex critters, with lots of different motivations for
their actions, which vary daily in importance. That’s the joy and the frustration of being an
association executive. We need to constantly try to understand and work with the complexities
that motivate particular volunteers. And to be sure that our motivating efforts are ethical.
5. There are bad volunteers
The fact is that there are incompetent and clueless volunteers, who need to be steered in the right
direction. There are jobs for their talents, but it may not be as the chief elected officer. In the
wrong position, an incompetent volunteer can make damaging statements, commit inadvertent
anti-trust violations, and do all sorts of harm.
But incompetent and clueless isn’t as bad as it gets. Just as in other areas of life, you can be
presented with volunteers who are out to use the association for their own self-aggrandizement or
self-enrichment, and who don’t really care if the association suffers in the process as long as
their sense of entitlement is gratified. Execs are not usually competent to diagnose psychopathy,
sociopathy or anti-social, narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. But I recommend the
book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, by Dr. Paul Babiak and Dr. Robert D.
Hare. The Sociopath Next Door by Dr. Martha Stout may also be of value in helping you
recognize and cope with the often-charming people who have these tendencies. If you haven’t
met someone who scores high on the psychopathy checklist during your career, you are very
Jim Collin’s admonition in Good to Great to ―Get the right people on the bus‖ applies to
associations as well as for-profits. The problem is that as an association exec, you stop the bus
each year, and the volunteers who pile on are often selected by a system where you had little
influence. Thankfully, the vast majority of the volunteers who get on your bus will be honorable
and decent people, even if of varying competency. But you and the solid volunteer leaders need
to have your eyes open for the few. One sociopath in the wrong spot will be a major setback.
6. Let a volunteer deal with a volunteer
When you have a problematic or even a rogue volunteer, it’s always better if a peer from the
profession or trade can deal with him. Hopefully the problem person isn’t your chief elected
officer, and you can go to your boss. If it is the top person, you may have to take the risk of
discussing the problem with other board members.
Unfortunately, you can get a volunteer leader who is such a nasty piece of work that no one
wants to confront her. This is especially true if you have a board that comes from a profession
where caring and cooperation are more valued than competition. They may simply be too nice to
deal with the person creating the chaos. Or, the difficult person may be highly charming, and
your board members too decent to believe ill of him. Psychopaths, especially, are able to woo
and convince people who can be of use to them—look at the intelligent, but lonely and
vulnerable people who send money to criminals they’ve ―fallen in love‖ with.
In those rare cases, what does duty require? How should you proceed? Each case will be
different, and the ―not getting fired‖ part of the first rule may be difficult for the ethical
executive. There may come a time when, like Horatio at the bridge, you may have to pay the cost
of defending ―the ashes of our fathers and the temples of our gods‖ first and your employment
7. Encourage good volunteers
As an association executive, being seen to be biased in elections is a sure path to unemployment.
It’s sometimes hard to stay neutral, particularly if a candidate endorsed by the nominating
committee is pushing you for support against a rival running from the floor. But it’s
imperative—and the right thing to do.
Though you can’t control who gets on the bus through the electoral process, you can encourage
good volunteers to get in line at the bus stop. When you see volunteers with the ―right stuff‖—
ability, commitment, attitude and ethics—encourage them. Lots of folks won’t put themselves
forward, but a word of support may open vistas of involvement they would never have thought
about. ―You should think about serving on the Board someday,‖ or ―Have you ever thought of
serving on a committee‖ can be just the boost your association’s next great leader needs. And
telling someone you can see her as a future president is flattering, and may get the wheels
turning. Keep a list of good potential volunteers, so you can help the elected leaders and
committee chairs select good folks. Encouraging people to think about getting involved is part of
an exec’s job, and is very different from taking sides in an association election.
8. Volunteers deserve recognition and respect.
Almost everyone craves recognition. Napoleon said, ―A man will fight long and hard for a bit of
colored ribbon,‖ that is, for the recognition due the brave. He might have said, ―A volunteer will
work long and hard for another ribbon on his name badge.‖ In every association I’ve been with,
there were jokes about the name badge ribbons. But volunteers still wanted them.
Don’t neglect the ribbons, the plaques and pins, the recognition at the annual dinner, the thank
you lists in the newsletter, and the personal note from the exec. I make sure every board and
committee member, every conference volunteer and every other worker bee gets a little note of
thanks from me every year. Without volunteers, I fail. The least I can do is thank them for their
part in the association’s success. Most volunteers only want the reward of knowing that their
efforts make a difference and are appreciated.
Treat every volunteer with respect. It’s hard when the volunteer falls into one of the tough
categories mentioned above, or when their sense of entitlement leads them to abuse staff or
others they consider beneath them. But taking the high road will pay dividends for you and the
association. If I haven’t always followed this advice, I’ve always regretted it when I didn’t.
9. Don’t be afraid to say “No.”
Cherishing volunteers does not mean toadying to them. There are times when the association’s
policies or bylaws, state or federal law, or common ethics will require you to say ―No!‖ That’s
an executive’s job, and if you don’t have the moral courage to stand up for what is right, then
you shouldn’t be an executive—you are not giving the membership what you owe them. Bowing
before one volunteer whose sense of entitlement is creating problems is a disservice to the entire
Nor should you tolerate a volunteer or member who abuses or curses at your staff. Such behavior
is so destructive to staff teamwork, commitment and efficiency, that the member who is allowed
to get away with it is stealing from the rest of the members, because the membership will no
longer get the service and commitment it deserves from the staff. But be sure you don’t sink to
the abusive person’s level when confronting the problem.
Some things are not matters of law and ethics, but matters of opinion. Yes, it may be easier to
bow to the volunteer’s wishes and keep quiet, if you are dealing with a volunteer who is so
insecure he becomes angry if you disagree with his ideas. But you are being paid for your best
professional judgment—not to give it is to cheat all the members. If your volunteer leadership
doesn’t support you in upholding policies, law, ethics and your staff, perhaps it’s time to put
your resume in the mail to an association that will.
All that said, when the decision goes the other way, and the law or ethics isn’t an issue, then your
duty is to get with the program, and give the decision your support and best effort. You owe the
members that as much as you owe them the courage to say no.
10. Never forget what you owe volunteers
Each of us in association management owes the volunteers—not just a few, but all the volunteers
in our associations—everything. It is they who provide the funds that allow us and our families
to have good lives. It is they who provide the resources and the work force that allows us to
make such a positive impact on the trade or profession we work in. It is the volunteers who have
given each of us the opportunity for a rich and rewarding career in association management.
So should we be jaded by the actions of a few? Never. But we should be alert to be sure that we
do what we can to make sure all the volunteers are not cheated by a few who would abuse their
Robert A. Hall, CAE, is a Marine Vietnam veteran who served five terms in the Massachusetts
state senate, before becoming an association executive in 1982. Currently he is executive
director of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry in Madison, WI (www.aacd.com). His
book of anecdotes about association management, the senate and the Marines is available at
www.thegoodbits.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.