They go by many different names – volunteer councils, auxiliaries, “friends” groups, and more – but regardless of their varied titles, such groups share a great deal. Designed to assist and support an organization (and most commonly hospitals, museums, libraries, and arts organizations), these groups historically focus on raising funds, sometimes manage the volunteer corps, and nearly always maintain their own governance system.
As the field of volunteer engagement has become more professionalized and as organizations grow and mature, many that historically benefited from auxiliaries now recognize some of the challenges inherent in these relationships. How do you navigate the potential power struggle when an organization shifts priorities or identifies new needs and the entity responsible for providing volunteer talent in support of priorities is governed independently?
Of course, there are auxiliaries that are adaptable, responsive, and truly collaborative. But there are also many that are, well, less so. This is precisely why some hospitals retain an auxiliary to run the gift shop, while also maintaining an entirely separate volunteer corps, managed by staff, to fill patient care roles.
Lessons from the Field
In recent years, we have conducted surveys and interviews at institutions with longstanding volunteer councils. The assessments reveal some undeniable benefits to these structures, including volunteers with profound pride in the historical contributions by these entities, remarkable dedication of council leaders, sincere interest in recruiting new volunteers, and a deep passion for the organization’s mission.
At the same time, these assessments consistently reveal challenges, including:
- Lack of clarity or agreement about the purpose of the council/auxiliary;
- Lack of diversity among council membership;
- Membership requirements that are simply not appealing to younger and more diverse members (e.g., dues, lengthy training requirements, expected attendance at meetings);
- A weak (or nonexistent) leadership pipeline to sustain governance;
- Hierarchical culture due to a perceived “pecking order” based on years of service, volunteer title, or level of training; and
- A drain on staff time to attend council meetings and support subcommittees, etc.
A Path to Change
So, how are these institutions addressing the challenges while also leveraging the strengths of the model? Well, first and foremost, they are proceeding slowly, carefully, and collaboratively. And they are following these four steps:
Building the Case
- Using data from their own assessments and from the field, they are making the case for change to staff and to volunteers. Evolving organizational priorities (such as a commitment to having a staff and volunteer corps that reflects the communities being served), volunteer engagement trends (such as increased desire for short-term and flexible volunteer roles), and challenges filling leadership positions go a long way to establish a need for change.
Mapping the Change
- This is where collaboration is especially crucial. All these organizations established a task force comprised of staff and volunteers whose responsibilities included reviewing the volunteer leadership structure and suggesting changes (ranging from minor adaptations of policy to a complete overhaul of structure). In one case, a more flexible system of short-term work groups is replacing the ongoing council structure; in another, the volunteer council recommended disbanding in light of a well-resourced commitment by staff across the whole organization to engage and manage volunteers, not just in the one or two departments where volunteers began serving decades before. Those recommendations are then presented to leadership. Having an outside facilitator helps to ensure that all voices are heard and that the process keeps moving forward. Another key element is involving both veteran volunteer leaders (to honor the past) and new voices.
Implementing the Change
- As the changes are rolled out and implementation begins, these organizations have been careful to communicate frequently and in many ways. Some have explicitly deemed the new model a “pilot,” thereby leaving room to tweak it based on feedback. Additionally, they recommend offering past volunteer leaders the choice to join the new leadership model, or to step back. This gives such individuals the opportunity to remain involved or an honorable path to leave room for others to take on the mantle of leadership.
Sustaining the Change
- Finally, the changes must be institutionalized by incorporating the model into new strategic plans, policies, training expectations, etc. By assessing the volunteer engagement efforts and comparing findings against the original data, they can demonstrate the return on the investment for the change. Of course, it helps to celebrate progress while also acknowledging the challenge of change.
Already, these organizations are benefitting from the ideas and contributions of new volunteers and staff report that they are more efficiently gathering volunteer input without having to spend time attending meetings that don’t relate directly to their work. Long-term volunteers are still able to do the work they love, while benefitting from some more flexible options as well.
Change is rarely easy and changing longstanding systems like volunteer councils is especially challenging. But these organizations have demonstrated that change is possible… with patience, care, collaboration, and strong communication.