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9 Ways to Tame the Volunteer Relationship

Committees and faculties and boards can be harder to manage than lions and tigers and bears—but you don't need whips and cages to keep them in line.

Consider this common scenario: You need to get all your presentations in for review for a March 1 continuing medical education activity by February 15. February 15 goes by, as does the 16th … next thing you know, you’re a week out and you haven’t received any presentations. What would you do? 

Or this one: A member of your CME educational committee chooses what he thinks is the perfect faculty for one of your organization’s activities. But when you review her disclosure information, it turns out that she is employed by an organization that the Accreditation Council for CME defines as a commercial interest. When you bring up this not-inconsequential hitch to the committee member, he insists that the faculty member’s conflict of interest can be resolved so she can present, and that you just don’t understand the ACCME’s rules. What would you do?

These are just two of the quandaries that those working with volunteers regularly run up against, said Rebecca DeVivo, MPH, MSW, associate executive director, education, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, during a session at the Alliance for Continuing Education in the Health Profession’s 2017 annual conference, held in San Francisco in January. Here are some of the volunteer-management strategies DeVivo and her co-presenters—Ed Dellert, RN, MBA, CHCP, chief policy and learning officer, American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy; and Suzanne Ziemnik, M.Ed, vice president, continuing professional development, American Society for Clinical Pathology—shared with the audience.

1. Be respectful of their time.
Remember that your volunteers have full-time jobs outside of your committee, and they may not be able to drop everything just because you need them now. One useful tool is a Doodle poll, LINK which can help you find times that are convenient for the majority of your committee members. Ziemnik says she also puts together a calendar of calls for the coming year so they can schedule accordingly. While you may not need the call when it comes up on the calendar, “It’s always easier to take it off than it is to put it on.”

2. Make it as easy for them as you can.
DeVivo said, “Keep in mind that it’s easier to give them something to react to than it is to ask them to create something from scratch.” Not only will you get a quicker response if you hand them an item to amend than if you ask them to come up with the item on their own, but you also benefit from being able to ensure it’s created the way you want it to be.

3. Move from committees to task forces.
Instead of asking your volunteers to serve on a long-standing committee, consider breaking what needs to be done into specific tasks that you can assign to a short-term task force. As DeVivo pointed out, it’s easier for them to commit to something that’ll only take a month or two than it is to take on a yearlong committee role.

4. Know what your volunteers value.
Are they in it to make connections that will move their careers forward? Do they just want to have fun with colleagues, or to develop new skills? Some may be motivated by having the opportunity to give back to their community or support the organization’s mission, while others value the recognition or want the honoraria or other remuneration.

Once you know your people, tailor your committee or board meetings accordingly. If it’s a fun group, make sure you work in some social activities, said DeVivo. If they are seeking to make connections, be sure to introduce them to your board members and other influencers. If they want to give back or support your mission, fuel that passion by explaining how what you’re asking them to do supports the community or aligns with the organization’s goals.

This also plays into how you recognize your volunteers, the panelists said. If your group is made up of limelight-avoiding pathologists, a splashy awards dinner might make them feel more uncomfortable than valued. Some may love having a plaque to show off, while others outwardly smile and inwardly think, “Ugh, not another doorstop.” Some ACEhp audience suggestions that seemed to be generally hailed as valuable to most volunteers are personal recognition for their work by the organization’s leadership, and letters outlining the work they did that they could use to bolster the case for a promotion.

5. Know who your volunteers are.
Are they worker bees, or taskmasters? Idea people or visionaries? “It’s all well and good to seek someone with a particular clinical area of expertise when you need to fill a slot for an educational program,” said Ziemnik, “But you also need to know their passions and weaknesses.” For example, said DeVivo, you would not want to put an idea person, who may be very creative but not overly focused on getting things done, in the committee chair position. That would be a better fit for the organizational skills and get-it-done attitude of a taskmaster. “Worker bees might not have the vision, but they can get the work done for you,” said DeVivo.

Make sure your committee has a good mix of gender, experience level, generation, and ethnicity as well, the panelists advised. “The recommendations coming out of that committee will be richer if you have a diverse composition,” said Dellert.

6. Engage them with meaningful work.
“An idle committee is an unengaged committee,” said DeVivo. “You can actually disengage volunteers if they feel [what they’re doing] isn’t having any impact on the society.”

7. Use technology—but don’t put it in the driver’s seat.
WebEx, mobile apps, Survey Monkey—these are all good tools to keep volunteers connected and engaged, but don’t overwhelm them with e-engagement. Use short, pithy phone calls or videoconferences for straightforward issues, but reserve the strategic deep discussions for live meetings, said DeVivo. And don’t get stuck in a never-ending email loop. “You can save yourself weeks of emails with a five-minute phone conversation.”

8. Distill information down to key points and set specific deadlines.
Don’t over communicate—they’ll stop listening—but do let them know what you need to hear from them, and when, said DeVivo. Don’t just ask them to respond; say “If I don’t hear from you by X, I will move forward as proposed.” If they go incommunicado, don’t be afraid to pull in a boss, chair, course director, or some other “bad guy” to go after them. They often will respond best when the bad guy is another volunteer, said DeVivo.

9. Never forget the power of kindness and humor.
Yes, your volunteers may make you crazy sometimes, but “kindness and humor work much better than being stern and annoyed,” said DeVivo. The more you can develop their trust, the less likely they are to second-guess you, and the more likely they are to listen when you ask them to stick to the rules.

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