Vol. 40, No. 5

Service in small bites: Microvolunteering and member engagement

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Does your bar association offer plenty of opportunities for members to get involved via microvolunteering?

If your immediate answer is “No” or “What’s that?” it may be that you are offering these small bites of service—or easily could—and just haven’t been thinking of them that way.

That’s all too common in professional associations, said Peggy M. Hoffman, president of Baltimore-based Mariner Management and Marketing LLC. When it comes to volunteer involvement, she told attendees at the 2016 ABA Bar Leadership Institute, “We talk about it only in terms of ‘terms,'”—as in, a lengthy period of service on a committee or board. 

According to a study by the American Society of Association Executives called Decision to Volunteer, about 30 percent of members volunteer, Hoffman noted. Among the ones who don’t, about two-thirds say they would like to do so—if there’s an opportunity that is a convenient fit with their schedule.

A different ASAE research project, Exploring the Future of Membership (from the ASAE Foundation) found that associations still persistently create and maintain the “engagement path” that works for baby boomers, Hoffman added, but that model doesn’t work as well these days. What do a lot of your potential volunteers want instead? To do “meaningful, mission-related activities,” Hoffman said, “and then go home.”

Assigning a lower-commitment task requires two key pieces of information, Hoffman said: 1) what the purpose or “charge” is and how it’s connected to the mission, and 2) exactly how much time it will take, and when. For example, in recruiting volunteers to help with a gala, you would tell them what the purpose of the gala is, and also that you’ll need them to meet for a certain length of time on a certain date (perhaps with pizza and beer), make a few phone calls, and then arrive an hour before the event itself.

Numbers help make the case for microvolunteering

In most professional associations, Hoffman said, there are about 100 to 150 traditional volunteer roles (committee chair, board member, etc.) available. If your bar association has, say, 5,000 members, and you’re only plugging 100 to 150 of them into meaningful volunteer service—and two-thirds of your non-volunteers would accept a convenient opportunity—then that’s a sizeable pool of talent and energy that you may be leaving untapped.

Furthermore, Hoffman said, research also shows that involvement and service are important drivers for joining an association in the first place. The No. 1 factor cited in the Decision to Volunteer study as a reason to join a professional association? The chance to help others. No. 2? The chance to help one’s profession. The opportunity to take on a leadership role, Hoffman noted, was nowhere among the top responses.

ASAE measures something called the Net Promoter Score, Hoffman added; this refers to a member’s loyalty to an organization and likelihood to recommend it to peers. In another study, that score was found to increase by six percentage points if the member had been involved in just one small volunteer activity.

Is this a generational issue?

Yes and no, Hoffman said. It is true, as mentioned earlier, that the traditional engagement/leadership path was designed to suit baby boomers, and that it isn’t a good fit for Millennials, who are earlier in their career path and perhaps also have young children.

But the corporate marketplace, including such by-the-piece services as iTunes, has taught all of us—regardless of age—to do things incrementally, Hoffman believes. Members of all ages then bring those same expectations to bar service, she continued.

The other reason the “leadership ladder” isn’t such a great idea, even for baby boomers, Hoffman said, is the question of what happens once someone reaches the top of that ladder and can climb no higher. The answer, she said, is that this leader then “falls off the ladder,” meaning that there’s no further opportunity to share his or her time and talent.

A continuum, not a ladder

A better idea, she said, is to think in terms of a continuum of member engagement, in which a member moves freely among the following areas, according to his or her career stage, time availability, interests, and other needs:

  • consuming, which is when a member simply reads association-produced content, attends an association event, etc.;
  • promoting, meaning that the member “consumes” and then also recommends or helps publicize the associations’ offerings, such as by liking and sharing on social media;
  • creating, in which a member participates in surveys, speaks at CLEs, writes articles, etc.;
  • serving, such as on a committee or task force; and
  • governing, which means serving in a leadership role such as board member or committee chair.

It’s important to note, Hoffman said, that identifying other, smaller service opportunities doesn’t mean that governance goes away or should be broken into small pieces. But within the other areas along the continuum, there may be smaller tasks that you can pull out as microvolunteering opportunities.

For example, she said, does everything really have to be done by a committee? If you’re willing to step away from that idea, there could be literally hundreds of small tasks that individual volunteers could do equally well—and without having to join anything extra.

Where do you already have microvolunteers?

If your bar association has a blog and/or a social media presence, with any luck, some of your members “like” and “share” that content. Even this minimal level of interaction can make a big difference for your bar—and can count as volunteering. After all, that member is helping to promote the bar association and its content to his or her peers and to a wider audience.

Make sure it’s easy for members to like and share in this way, Hoffman said, and acknowledge and thank them when they do so. In fact, she added, you can use this opportunity to move them further along the engagement continuum: If they “like” a post on a particular topic, is there some small task they could do that’s associated with that topic?

Over time, she said, you can even move someone all the way from “consuming” to “governing,” if you pay attention to where they currently are and suggest small, well-timed steps toward greater involvement and commitment—when they’re ready.

Technology can help

When it comes to actually signing people up for small, discrete tasks, “Technology has caught up with our needs,” Hoffman said; she recommended SignUp Genius, an online tool designed to make this job easier for both parties. When someone registers to attend an event, she suggested, perhaps the email acknowledgement they receive could also mention a volunteer opportunity associated with the event, with a link to the sign-up for it.

Your website, too, should help make it easier for members to see exactly where there are short-term and long-term volunteer opportunities—don’t bury this information on committee pages, Hoffman said. Instead, display them prominently, identify them as short-term or long-term, and make it so someone can click once for either “tell me more” or “sign me up.”

A cultural shift

But it’s not just technology that needs to change, Hoffman said; opening the door for more microvolunteers also requires a “cultural shift.” It may be, for example, that the bar needs to rethink its nominating committee, thinking in terms of “talent scouts” instead—individuals who are tasked with identifying who may be primed and ready for more engagement.

There’s nothing wrong with the traditional model,” Hoffman said. “It just doesn’t work anymore.”