With an overall increase in the number of associations recognizing the need to provide formal leadership development programs for members, association managers often struggle to create sustainable funding for such an initiative. In this article, we explore key strategies that association managers can use to build support volunteer leadership development. We draw these strategies from our work as leadership consultants who have helped associations design and implement volunteer leadership development programs (V-LDPs).
What is a V-LDP?
A volunteer leadership development program is a comprehensive and structured program for developing association members who have the confidence, skill, and readiness to take on volunteer leadership roles. Well-designed leadership development programs are an integral part of the four domains of a talent management system:
Sourcing future leaders through recruiting activities and programs
Selecting future leaders from a talent pool through interviews
Developing future leaders through training, mentoring and other development programs
Retaining leaders through programs to engage them to serve long-term in support of the association
While many associations have established leadership training programs, most of them focus on tactical issues associated with board governance or technical topics related to their professions. Relatively few concentrate on enhancing leadership skills and confidence needed to succeed in these roles.
Initial and On-Going Support
The leadership challenge for association management interested in establishing a V-LDP is two-fold:
Initially, they need to gain support for the design and implementation of the program and
They need to build ongoing support for continuing the program for multiple years
Our association clients experienced widespread enthusiasm and interest among their members to participate in association-sponsored formal V-LDP. Association members have limited opportunity to develop leadership skills especially if they are in smaller organizations with limited advancement opportunities. One critical reason to build support for a multi-year V-LDP is that once introduced, the backlog of member applications can be quite substantial. Associations can use their overall membership numbers to determine the size of the pool of potential applicants and to estimate the total number of V-LDP offering needed to address the demand.
Strategies for Building Initial Support for a V-LDP
In our experience, several key strategies can be used to build support for the development and implementation of a multi-year V-LDP.
Strategy 1: Sell the problem
The first step in justifying this investment is to educate key stakeholders and board members about the insufficiency of their leadership pipeline. One method to use to develop a clearer understanding of the pipeline is to conduct a talent review. Talent review meetings can take many forms but typically focus on identifying high potential future leaders and any gaps in their ability to lead. Association leaders are often shocked by the glaring lack of sufficient leadership talent to take over critical roles.
Strategy 2: Gather best practice support
With an increasing number of associations implementing V-LDPs, a useful way to influence board members to get on board is citing best practice data regarding what other leading associations are doing to fill their leadership pipeline. It is especially useful to gather intelligence on V-LDP efforts in organizations whose mission is similar in professional focus or industry.
Strategy 3: Tap the voice of members
Member surveys, particularly those that focus on career development needs, are excellent sources of support for the establishment of formal leadership programs. Focus groups of representative members can also be used to gather more detailed needs and interests.
Strategy 4: Link leadership development to other strategic priorities
Another excellent way to build support is to link the enhancement of leadership skills among current and future leaders to other strategic priorities. Many associations have created long-range goals in their strategic plans that address membership leadership development. A V-LDP is an excellent way to address those objectives.
Sustaining Support for a V-LDP
Once a V-LDP is established, specific strategies can be used to ensure sustainable funding and support
Strategy 5: Involve and engage board members
Involving Board members is an excellent way to provide on-going support for a V-LDP. If the association has a leadership committee or succession planning committee, then these individuals members can also be good program advocates. With our clients, we invite board members and key stakeholders to speak in each training session we conduct to reinforce the importance of the skill we are teaching.
Strategy 6: Gather success stories and measurable outcomes
Part of telling the success story is gathering two types of data about the impact of participating in such a program: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative data consists of feedback from participants and alumni about the effects of the program on their careers, their volunteer roles and attitudes toward the association. Quantitative data consists of data points associated with learning objectives from the program as well as views of participants. With our clients, we administer a pre and post-training survey that measures changes in self-efficacy (self-confidence) as well as these other variables:
Satisfaction with the association
Willingness to assume a leadership position
Expectations of success in a future leadership role
Strategy 7: Involve graduates immediately in leadership positions
There is nothing as powerful for sustaining support as having a graduate of the program demonstrate his or her leadership ability in a committee meeting in front of board members.
In summary, the implementation of a formal leadership development program is an important tool for ensuring your association has leaders who are ready, willing and able to step in and lead. Offering such a program once may not translate to a robust pipeline of volunteer leaders. Astute association managers recognize the need to use a variety of strategies