Volunteer Leadership Development Programs: An Essential Solution For Sustaining Association Leadership

Consider the following scenario:

Helen sat at her desk and put her head in her hands. As an experienced association Executive Director, she was well-versed in managing the dynamics of marshalling paid staff and dedicated volunteers to achieve mission. Her staff is wonderful but the volunteers are causing her to have many sleepless nights.

The current Board is having difficulty getting things done. Most of the Board members are experienced professionals with 15 to 20 year service records. The challenge is that they are all highly experienced technical professionals with little to no leadership experience.  The members with leadership titles in their organizations lean heavily on a command and control leadership style which is pretty ineffective with volunteers. The result? Board meeting are like herding cats; Board members stick to their own opinions like glue and consensus decisions drag on for hours.

To compound Helen’s woes, three Board members are stepping down next month and the pipeline for new Board talent is virtually empty. The younger association members seem reluctant to serve on task forces and committees.  Incentive for devoting the time needed for serving in a leadership capacity just don’t seem to appeal to the younger generations. Helen reached for her bottle of aspirin and sighed.

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, it should.  Thomas J. Tierney, a noted expert in nonprofit management, writes:

One of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits today is their dearth of strong leaders—a problem that is only going to get worse as the sector expands and baby boom executives retire. Over the next decade nonprofits will need to find some 640,000 new executives, nearly two and a half times the number currently employed.[1]

In this article, my partner, Dr. Kevin Nourse, and I will explore the use of a Volunteer Leadership Development Program (V-LDP) as one solution to building a strong and effective pipeline of volunteer leadership talent for associations.  Dr. Nourse and I have spent the last few years designing and implementing V-LDPs for various membership-based associations.  We will tap these experiences to present factors and conditions which produce strong, results-based V-LDPs and mention those barriers and roadblocks to program implementation to avoid.

Specifically, we will focus on the three main beneficiaries of a robust V-LDP: the association, the members, and the members’ employers. In our experience, V-LDPs have positive measureable impact not only for the association and the participating member but also on the participating member’s organizations.

The Case for Associations

As demonstrated in the scenario above, one of the most pressing reasons to implement a V-LDP from the association’s point of view is to ensure that volunteer leaders obtain training and experience in the right kind of leadership skills and attributes.  Members who volunteer for leadership positions can either lack managerial or leadership experience or have the wrong kind of leadership expertise.  Members who are leaders in their professional role often hone their leadership style based on the culture of their organizations.  If that culture encourages leaders to rely heavily on the formal attributes of power such as job title or rank in the organizations they will have a style that is incompatible with leading fellow volunteers.  In our experience, collaborative and inclusive leadership styles are much more effective in leading volunteers yet this more influential style is difficult to experience in formal organizations.

According to ASAE research[2], another critical issue facing associations today is how to involve younger generations:

Although the Millennial and Gen X members were slightly less actively engaged than older members, and are likely to volunteer differently, they actually believe more strongly in the importance of volunteering. The challenge for associations will be in finding meaningful and substantive ways to involve these less experienced but eager young professionals. Given the high turnover rates we found among association volunteers, the efforts to recruit new volunteers, particularly among the youngest members, are critical.

One way to address this eager and willing cohort is to offer a V-LDP specifically developed for emerging leaders with high potential. By growing their leader skills early in their career and offering them opportunities to hone those skills with leadership responsibilities, associations are not only filling their leader pipeline, they are building loyalty and advocacy with this critical member base.

One of the foundational steps to launching a V-LDP is building board support and documenting this intention in a strategic plan or annual priority statement. One professional association we are familiar with captured their intention in an annual strategic priorities document which they posted on their website:

Planned Initiatives: Increase online learning opportunities and clinical resources, implement clinical leadership development program and create a volunteer leadership development program

Another professional association identified specific pillars or priorities and articulated specific objectives that included formal leadership development:

Design programs and processes to support integrated leadership development opportunities.

While there are many ways to document the intention of your board regarding their desire for taking a structured approach to leadership development, it is critical to communicate this intention in the strategic or operating plans.

Lastly, but most importantly, associations with long-range strategic plans often have initiatives and projects targeted at volunteer leaders’ development but struggle with ways to make headway in these initiatives.  They may have internal resources that offer leadership programs but these programs are focused on internal staff development rather than volunteer development.  Volunteer leaders by definition lack the situation power base of internal leaders and thus must tap a very different set of skills and expertise to succeed.  A well-designed V-LDP can be a single-step solution to addressing strategic plan objectives created to grow and strengthen the association.

The Case for Members

As strong as the case may be for associations, members need to see the program’s value for themselves before they will commit the time and the necessary expenses.  The most compelling reason we’ve heard from our clients’ V-LDP alumni is the opportunity it affords them to learn leadership skills that they would not obtain from their employer.  Members who work in smaller organizations or who are the single employee in their professional niche do not have opportunity for leadership growth from their employers.  As one of our V-LDP alumni shared with us:

I am the only technical specialist in an organization of professional financial services staff.  Although I am considered a top performer in the work that I do, advancement opportunities for me are limited.  For me to advance up the leadership ladder, I would need to go back to school and get an accounting degree or even an MBA. I love what I do and don’t want to change fields to advance.  The V-LDP program has given me the knowledge and skills I can use to apply for jobs with other organizations who more value my technical skills and who will recognize the value of a year-long leadership institute like the V-LDP.

A further value of the V-LDP in the eyes of its members is the credibility it can lend younger members with more senior association members.  As mentioned above, associations critically need to recruit and retain Millennials and Gen X ers.  Younger association members may be reluctant to volunteer for committees if they feel like their lack of experience is a barrier to them being heard.  Having completed the V-LDP gives them the confidence to volunteer for more challenging roles.

The Case for Member Organizations

To successfully implement a V-LDP, associations need to also consider the benefit such a program will have for the employers of the participating members.  For a program participant to be successful, they need to be approved and supported for the time commitment as well as potential program expenses.  The leadership skills acquired in the program will easily translate back to the job, making the member/employee stronger and more confident in their leadership abilities and potentially much more able to advance within the organization.

Well-designed leadership programs often include the requirement that participants complete a leadership project as a means for applying their leadership skills and gaining visibility. Our experience has been that most participants find strategic opportunities in their employer organizations. Many of these projects directly benefit their organizations; some example projects include designing new treatment protocols, improving cross-discipline processes, conducting evidence-based research projects, or developing mentoring and training programs to benefit organizational staff.



One interesting finding form ASAE’s research report[3] on volunteering answers the question, why do members volunteer:

The top methods by which members were recruited into volunteer activities were through participation in chapters or annual meeting, and through a request by staff or other volunteers. Passive recruitment techniques such as web site postings were not nearly as effective as more direct approaches.

So it comes down to, as the old movie line goes, “Who you gonna call.”  A V-LDP provides association leadership with a way to generate a continuously growing roster of proven talent who will be expecting that call to action.  It builds confidence and experience in its participants while also benefiting their organizations.  Pretty solid reasons to add one to your list of member benefits.


[1] Tierney, T. (2006) The Leadership Deficit.  Stanford Social Innovation Review. Summer 2006.

[2] Gazley, B. & Dignam, M. (2008) The Decision to Volunteer: Why People Give Their Time and How You Can Engage Them. Washington DC. ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership.

[3] Gazley, B. ibid.