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Vol. 28, No. 2

Getting to ‘yes’: How to motivate busy people to volunteer

by Valerie Brown

It was Dale Carnegie in his groundbreaking book How to Win Friends and Influence People who said that the only way to get someone to do something is if he or she wants to. Psychologists tell us that people generally cannot be forced, cajoled, or embarrassed into performing to our expectations. The most effective volunteers are those who earnestly accept your organization, have a vested interest in its success, and see themselves as connected to the organization.

National and state statistics point to the challenges ahead. Volunteers are budgeting time commitments strictly, with family, civic, and religious interests competing for “leisure time.” The proliferation of U.S. nonprofit corporations means greater competition for volunteers. Recruitment and retention of volunteers increasingly reflect generational attitudes, needs, and behaviors.

The good news is that more people are volunteering, as high school service requirements introduce youths to volunteerism. Corporations, including law firms, find that volunteering is a part of the overall business strategy, and lawyers in particular have a strong history of pro bono service. With these significant trends in mind, bar associations, now more than ever, need to develop strategies to capitalize on identifying volunteers, training them, and including them in the association’s mission.

Here are some practical tools we can all remember and use to develop volunteers, our precious resource and the lifeblood of every bar association. While they are geared specifically toward cultivating volunteers for the bar’s legislative efforts, they are useful for anyone working with volunteers, regardless of the type of project.

1. Establish clearly articulated goals for volunteers. The ability to communicate effectively and win cooperation requires that we understand the goal and directly communicate that to volunteers.

2. Show the volunteer what the “face” of success looks like. A key to motivating volunteers is focusing on success. Be prepared. Expect the unexpected. Communicate with confidence to volunteers the direct benefit to them of their efforts. Use words of encouragement and be positive, yet realistic.

3. Encourage excitement and interest in your bar association by acting as a role model for volunteers. Nothing more beautifully illustrates commitment than a committed person. Practice what you preach. Enthusiasm is contagious.

4. Limit your requests. No one, especially busy, high-powered attorneys, wants to feel that he or she is constantly being asked to “give” nonbillable time away. Carefully consider how many times you go to the same well.

5. Realize that not all legislation is of equal importance. Prioritize legislation into low, moderate, and high priority. Request volunteer assistance on matters of high importance. This will enhance your association’s credibility with the legislature, focus your efforts, and bolster your association’s credibility where it matters.

6. Give honest, sincere appreciation for volunteers’ efforts. Suggestions here could include certificates made in-house at your bar association or a volunteer recognition luncheon or breakfast.

7. Establish an active, updated database of key contacts and attorney volunteers who can be matched with legislators or members of the governor’s office or executive branch to achieve results.

8. Hold at least one annual hands-on training program for volunteers.

9. Develop written materials for volunteers about how to be an effective “citizen/lobbyist” on behalf of your association.

10. Report to volunteers on the outcome of their efforts through e-mail, fax, or newsletter.

Some of these strategies are common sense, others are grounded in psychology, and still others are fundamentals of human resources and corporate development. But however you label these steps, they are designed to enhance your ability to recruit, train, and motivate volunteers. Motivating busy volunteers is critical to maintaining a robust organization and serving the interest of your members. What could be more important?

Valerie Brown is legislative counsel for the New Jersey State Bar Association.