chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
Vol. 36, No. 2

Microvolunteering: More opportunities for member engagement

by Deirdre Reid

“I wish I could, but I don’t have the time.”

Are you hearing that more frequently? As life becomes more complex, members have more options for spending their time and, consequently, more demands on their time. Juggling their work, family, and social lives with association service isn’t as easy as it used to be. The traditional membership experience—volunteering for committee and board service—requires a commitment of time and energy that many are no longer able or willing to give.

“The younger generation will change the dynamic of the membership and volunteer experience,” predicts Jill Eckert McCall, director of the ABA Center for Continuing Legal Education and past chair of the Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyers Section. “We want to engage and serve in ways that are very different than generations before us. We don’t just give lip service to work-life balance; we actually go out and get it.”

Bar associations have the opportunity to provide an alternative volunteer path for those of all ages who want to get involved, give back, and have a meaningful membership experience, but on their own terms.

Microvolunteering: new name, familiar practice

Microvolunteering, ad hoc volunteering, and episodic volunteering are the terms used by the nonprofit industry to describe volunteer tasks that can be accomplished in small increments of time. “Microvolunteering isn’t a new concept,” says Cynthia D’Amour, leadership strategist at People Power Unlimited and founder of the Chapter Leaders Playground. “Many associations provide microvolunteering opportunities on a minor scale now; they just don’t label them as such. But its magnification can have huge benefits for an association.”

The term microvolunteering became part of nonprofit jargon with the 2008 launch of, a website that helps nonprofits leverage the professional skills of a network of online volunteers. Nonprofits post challenges that will take 10 minutes to an hour to complete—for example, providing feedback on a logo, translating a document, or editing copy—and ask volunteers to pitch in.

McCall welcomes the microvolunteering trend. “Many of our best and brightest members can’t commit the time and energy required for leadership roles,” she explains. “Their talent is lost to us unless we make it easy for them to integrate volunteer activity into their busy lives.

“If we want to engage the next generation in leadership, we need to start thinking now about how we can get them interested and engaged in a way that will help us all grow.”

Some professional associations are recognizing the need to take a new look at how they engage members. “We have ad hoc volunteering opportunities for our members, most notably our community service programs,” says Conor McNulty, membership director at the California Dental Association, “but we’re not even scratching the surface on what we could be doing.”

‘Macrobenefits’ of microvolunteering

How can microvolunteering benefit your association?

A larger pool of volunteer talent will bring new, diverse perspectives, voices, recruiting assistance, and influence to your association.

More helping hands allow you to put on more programs. More programs lead to greater member satisfaction and increased nondues revenue.

Some members will use microvolunteering as a stepping stone to committee or board service, resulting in a deeper leadership bench.

Retention rates will increase as more members get engaged.

Russell Rawlings, communications director at the North Carolina Bar Association, says the bar plans to take a deeper look at its programs. Like those at many other bar associations, NCBA members help on an ad hoc basis with community service, CLE programs, newsletter articles, mentoring in person or by email, career fairs, and mock interviewing.

“Our young lawyers, in particular, are more engaged and committed to providing community service than any other group I’ve been around,” Rawlings notes. “But I’d like to see where else we can offer ad hoc opportunities.”

Other low-commitment ways for members to contribute might include:

  • making phone calls to welcome or check in with new members and to collect data or get feedback from existing members;
  • visiting, writing, or calling policymakers during political action campaigns (where not prohibited by Keller rules); 
  • greeting and hosting new members and prospects at events; and
  • helping out at annual meetings and conferences.

Volunteers can also work from their home or office by: reviewing and proofreading publications and marketing materials; testing website usability; reporting back from outside conferences and meetings; and helping with social media—for example, by writing blog posts, submitting links for curated posts, commenting on other blogs, and monitoring mentions of particular names or issues.

A shift in leadership culture

What can associations do when the “best and brightest” members aren’t interested in taking on leadership roles that require a great deal of time and energy? By changing leadership expectations, associations can continue to retain and recruit the best and brightest by opening up more microvolunteering opportunities.

“We have a skewed definition of leadership—the doer instead of the leader,” D’Amour believes. “We should reward and honor those leaders who create opportunities for others to get involved, members who aren’t already sitting at the board or committee table.”

Sharing the leadership workload by delegating projects and tasks, and creating microvolunteering opportunities, will help to prevent burnout and make the leadership path more appealing to others, many say. D’Amour suggests creating leadership support teams: members who can’t commit to a traditional leadership role because of work or family responsibilities but are willing to support leadership in ways that fit their busy lives.

She recommends rewarding those who make efforts to shift the leadership culture in a more healthy direction; for example, by giving a monthly award to the committee that has the most members involved.

Create opportunities for others

Take a step back and look at all your programs, services, and projects with fresh eyes. Where else do microvolunteering opportunities lie? Committees unintentionally hoard involvement opportunities by asking only those around the table to take on small jobs. A committee member can be selected to act as a volunteer liaison, someone who will identify volunteer opportunities that staff can then announce to the entire membership.

McCall suggests asking past leaders to work with committee chairs to drive the microvolunteering culture. “Many outgoing leaders have a tough time withdrawing from service and still wish to contribute in a meaningful way,” she explains. “Building a culture that honors delegation and microvolunteering is more likely to succeed with a trusted leader at the helm.”

Getting the word out

Once new volunteering opportunities are identified, the challenge is to stand out in a crowd of organizations competing for your members’ time.  Tell your members how they will benefit by giving an hour or two of their time. Get your message out in every way you can.

Feature a rotating volunteering opportunity on your homepage.

Create a Web page describing all your ad hoc volunteer opportunities. One possible model is the American Society of Association Executives Volunteer Town Square, where the list of open jobs can be filtered by time commitment and level of effort required.

Announce opportunities in your newsletters, magazine, Facebook page, LinkedIn group, and Twitter stream. Create a Twitter hashtag specifically for volunteering announcements, like #abavol.

Feature a volunteer opportunity of the week in your newsletter and on your homepage so members become familiar with the variety of ways to get involved.

ASAE’s Decision to Volunteer study found that personal invitations are the most effective volunteer recruiting method. When a member agrees to volunteer, encourage him or her to invite another member to participate, too.

Members want to meet other members. When an event involves many volunteers, list their names online so others will be encouraged to sign up.

Special recognition

By tracking volunteer hours, you identify members who aren’t participating much and whom you might be at risk of losing, as well as volunteers deserving special recognition. It also shows volunteers that their service, whether ad hoc or traditional, is deserving of notice and not taken for granted. However, tracking hours is a time-consuming task that may not be a wise use of staff resources. If association management software and website technology allow, ask members to report their hours online directly into their member profiles.

Give extra recognition when members reach milestones—for example, 10, 20, and 40 hours of service. Tell them in a handwritten thank-you card how their work impacts the association and its mission.

Big payoff for small jobs

The motivations for membership haven’t changed much, but expectations have. Members expect value and meaningful experiences. The path to obtaining those experiences isn’t always obvious or attractive. By providing a menu of easy, quick ways for members to get involved, give back, and meet others, you’ll add value to their membership experience. By encouraging a leadership culture where opportunities are shared, you’ll open the door to even more satisfying and transformational experiences.

The message McCall wants members to hear is, “It’s your home. You’ll always be welcome, you’ll always be relevant, and you should come and go as you please.”

Microvolunteering allows members to become part of the association community in the way that works best for them—and that’s ultimately best for the bar, too.

Deirdre Reid

Deirdre Reid is a freelance writer and blogger based in Raleigh, N.C. She posts about association management and a variety of other topics at Her experience in association management includes positions at the California Building Industry Association, where she was director of member services, and at the National Association of Home Builders. She spoke at the 2010 ABA Bar Leadership Institute, on the topic of working with committees and sections. Reid can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @deirdrereid.