Organizational Culture

What it Takes to Get Buy-In from your Stakeholders



On June 17, Elizabeth Engel and I were interviewed by Cynthia D’Amour on her Success Stories of Happy Active Members. (You can hear this interview here). We talked about how our concept of outside-in engagement in our white paper could be applied by chapter leaders to engage members and volunteers.

I thought about the topic some more over the week-end.  With few resources at their disposal, chapters rely on volunteers for their survival but it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit them. What can be done?  For starters, though people want to skip to quick solutions, we need to go back to the drawing board to reconsider our concept of volunteer recruitment, outside of habitual assumptions.

In the inside-out perspective, employed by most associations, you begin with the products you want to sell, the tasks you want help with or the roles you believe will engage volunteers and then, in essence, proceed to “sell them” to stakeholders. The outside-in approach begins with members in the sense of first identifying what truly resonates with them and then developing the programs, services and volunteer roles that facilitate it.

The thing is that there is a sea change in how today’s professionals view work, define value and like to engage that requires the outside-in approach. To expand volunteer leadership and engagement well beyond the usual group of leaders and “insiders,” organizations have to understand what makes other existing and potential members “tick” and what most motivates them.

Leadership expert Michael Maccoby has written a great deal about motivation in the knowledge age.  He believes that today “people are motivated when what they do addresses the values that drive them, allows them roles that tap a wide range of their talents, have responsibilities and rewards. He calls these the “four R’s.”

Keeping in sight these four R’s of motivation will be a good checklist to use in recruiting and keeping volunteers and/or members. In short, try to motivate others through:

1) Giving them real Responsibilities that are meaningful and engage their abilities and values.” The Metals Service Center Institute (MSCI) breathed new lives into its chapters by giving them sole responsibility for a scholarship program for the children of the employees of member companies: fundraising, assembling a scholarship committee, determining selection criteria and awarding scholarships.  Chapter volunteers are highly inspired and gratified by the difference they are making to individual families, their employers and the community. The association benefits enormously from increased retention, deeper relationships with the member companies and ties to the community. It’s a win-win.

The most successful membership organizations in our research develop and utilize the right members into partners, giving them staff-like roles and real responsibilities for entire areas rather than single, isolated tasks. For example they employ them as specialist consultants for a majority of generalist members; online community managers and monitors; content curators, mentors for an assigned group of new members; co-product developers etc. In other words, they succeed in expanding their staff and resources through volunteers while, at the same time, deepening engagement and increasing member value.

2) Enabling value-generating Relationships:  good, meaningful relationships, Maccoby says, motivate. Interactive and collaborative relationships have very high value for people today.  This is why enabling collaboration and exchange on online community platforms has become the heart of the membership models and value propositions for the most successful and innovative organizations in our research. There are infinite ways chapters can leverage relationships, in addition to becoming virtual.

For example, they could make use of community, social media platforms to enable volunteers (and/or members) to interact with and learn from each other. They could facilitate sharing of resources and expertise among a variety of stakeholders, including other chapters, and extend the lives of on-site programs with online discussions about how ideas can be applied.

Successful chapters in our research leveraged their networks of members to create recruitment opportunities for local corporations; or brought together community colleges and employers for workforce development or cultivated new networks of potential members who do not ordinarily join.  In other words chapters need not rely on the same formula of standalone events and products. Enabling relationships and interactions that are conducive to both parties’ success and packaging them as services can be a powerful source of value as well as provide volunteers with opportunities for business contacts, reputation-building or new competency development.

3) Appreciation and recognition are powerful motivators. And they don’t have to be formal awards. Increased responsibilities and trust, matching volunteer roles to personal passions or helping stakeholders shine before potential clients or bosses can be highly gratifying to volunteers or members.

4) Providing larger Reasons for the smaller tasks people perform “can be the most powerful motivators of all,” according to Maccoby. “Workers doing repetitive, assembly-line tasks during World War II were highly motivated because they were helping to win the war. The same work in peacetime might well be seen as unrewardingly boring. People take pride in work that contributes to the well-being of others and the common good.”

Asking volunteers to take on logistics is not that inspiring. Placing small individual tasks or logistics in a larger context–as the stepping stones to the fulfillment of a meaningful shared or personal purpose– will galvanize your volunteers. This is where leadership is critical in identifying shared purpose and other sources of motivation while keeping in sight a larger strategic business objective.

Microsoft created a prestigious program called MVP (most valuable professionals), for which they accepted customers who were “passionate about Microsoft technology and recognized for their exceptional technical expertise, their willingness to help others make the most of their technology…”   To expand to global markets it relied on its most influential international MVPs for help with the development of new customers and partners in their communities. In return Microsof facilitated these MVPs’ relationships with potential customers for their own business and helped them showcase their expertise.

Chapters could develop an equivalent MVP circle of “star” volunteers who can assume a partnership role.

The point here is that getting real buy-in from volunteers (or members) requires more than techniques for persuading them to perform tasks (or buy a product). It requires that you have enough insight into people that you can identify and tap that which most motivates them; and flexibility and creativity in customizing products and roles beyond usual categories to match them with people’s motivations. In addition, it requires strategic insight to link motivation to organizational strategic objectives; individual fulfillment to business goals. It’s mix and match rather than stuffing boxes. It is developing collaborative relationships rather than giving top-down assignments.  And all this means that getting buy-in requires strong and people-centered leadership and simple people skills.