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Discovering the volunteer.

Brian O'Connell, recipient of ASAE's Honorary Key Award, believes volunteers are an organization's most important resources.

The board makes the policy, and the staff carries it out. How many times have you heard that said about association management?

"An absolute myth," declares Brian O'Connell, president of Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of 850 foundations, corporations, and national voluntary organizations. "The truth is that the board--with the help of the staff--makes the policies. And the board--with the help of the staff--carries them out. Essentially, the staff's role is to make the most of the resources of the organization, which start with the board members and include other volunteers."

O'Connell, who receives ASAE's Honorary Key Award at the Management & Meetings FORUM '94 this month, has developed his philosophy during an association management career spanning more than four decades. Over the years, he has witnessed explosive growth in associations--not only in their numbers but also in their influence.

"Forty years ago, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association were just getting started. Since then, I've seen many other organizations start and grow to have an enormous influence on the public and on issues such as women's rights, the environment, and health services.

"The mutual-assistance, self-help movement has exploded as well," observes O'Connell, who began his career at the American Heart Association, Dallas, and served 14 years as the national director of the National Mental Health Association, Alexandria, Virginia. "Today, whether one has a mastectomy or loses a child or has a substance abuse problem, there's a group waiting to help. Associations provide the vehicles for people to make a difference in thousands of causes, aspirations, needs, and dreams."

Fueling those vehicles takes dedicated and hard-working volunteers. Since taking the helm at the Independent Sector 15 years ago, O'Connell has seen a welcome change in the demographics of volunteers. More people--representative of more income levels and ages then ever before--now give their time and money to the organizations they believe in. The Independent Sector's most recent survey, Giving and Volunteering in America, indicates teens as well as baby boomers have embraced the ideas of volunteer service and involvement.

The staff's role is to capitalize on the resources and energy exhibited by this new breed of volunteers. A good organization, says O'Connell, concentrates on working with an increasing number of "nontraditional" volunteers--people of a different age, ethnic group, or gender than those who have been tapped in the past.

"For the organizations still looking for the 'inner circle' of leadership, it will be harder to get volunteers. But for the organization that recognizes there are all kinds of talented people who haven't been in the circle before, it's the best of times," he contends. "More and more people want a sense of belonging, a sense of making a difference. The problem is they are rarely asked--we keep asking the same people again and again."

O'Connell has written several books on volunteerism and philanthropy, including The Board Member's Book: Making a Difference in Voluntary Organizations. In the recently revised second edition, he describes the trusteeship and stewardship responsibilities of serving on a board. One section, for example, offers advice on recruiting, encouraging, and evaluating the organization's executive director. O'Connell, who oversees a staff of 45, knows firsthand the challenges of working with both volunteers and staff--and he doesn't think it's a job for everyone.

"Many people are just not suited temperamentally to the role of executive director. It requires someone who can deal with many different volunteers, a great deal of emotions, and a great deal of ambivalence," he notes. "You often don't find satisfactions coming on a daily or weekly basis. It may take a year before you can look back and see what you've accomplished. A lot of people don't like to be so unsettled.

"One lesson I've learned is participatory management--and I don't mean that just in terms of jargon," he continues. "When I was younger, I thought I should have all the answers and inspire the staff to pursue my interpretation of those answers. But if you're dealing with an issue that's beyond the capacity of one individual to sort out, it makes more sense to bring in a group of people whose judgments you trust." Now O'Connell prefers to gather volunteers and staff and say, "I don't have the slightest idea what to do. Let's talk about it."

Looking ahead, O'Connell identifies several challenges. He believes organizations must "make a better case for themselves" with the public and with potential volunteers rather than rely on emotional appeals. That means being open, accountable, and able to prove your association makes a difference in the cause it represents. He also foresees the need to make better investments--in people.

"We tend not to believe much in investing in staff development, board development, or volunteer development on the grounds that all money should go into programs. We're finding that's shortsighted. A good organization has to invest in the things that will make it more effective in fulfilling its public service role 10 or 15 years from now," he says.

"Now, and even more so in the future, the effective staff person is one who makes the most of all the talents and energies of volunteers rather than trying to do everything himself or herself. One lesson of the last 10 years, with the cutbacks in all kinds of organizations, is that volunteers can do all sorts of things that we gradually squeezed them out of in the name of professionalism." In other words, concludes O'Connell, "We've discovered the volunteer."

Sandra R. Sabo is a free-lance writer based in Mendota Heights, Minnesota.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:volunteers as organizations' most important resource
Author:Sabo, Sandra R.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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