One Volunteer Volunteers Advice On Getting Volunteers

Plenty of credit unions are looking for good volunteers for board and committee positions or at least say they are. But one volunteer says "good" just doesn't cut it. And that's not all. While many credit unions have pared the number of volunteers they use, whether out of necessity or design, this same volunteer says his credit union is consistently creating new positions in which people can volunteer their time. Indeed, his own credit union has 32 people volunteering in some capacity.

David Gilbert, a well-known volunteer with Aberdeen Proving Ground FCU in Bel Air, Md., told a group assembled at a recent CU meeting and largely made up of volunteers themselves, that "We're not looking for good volunteers, we're looking for outstanding volunteers. Volunteers are so much the difference between us and other financial institutions."

It's a difference that was relevant when credit unions were founded nearly a hundred years ago, and one that will be relevant 50 or a hundred years from now, according to Gilbert. The time will pass quickly, he reminded, asking an audience made up of folks with long memories whatever happened to polio scares, house calls, milk men, slide rules and carbon paper, and then asking what will happen to fax machines, paper checks, telephone poles and even cash. He then posed the question, "Will credit union volunteers join those lists? Are credit union volunteers teetering on the edge of disappearing, too," asked Gilbert. "Do we need volunteers when we have a large, paid staff and we look like other financial institutions?"

If you listen to Gilbert, it's apparent he doesn't believe that volunteers won't be around when credit unions are marking their bicentennial, but rather, credit unions won't be around that long if there aren't volunteers. But listening to Gilbert, too, it struck me that it doesn't seem that long ago that you frequently heard from board members at credit union meetings. It seems much more rare now to hear volunteers at meetings, even though their numbers seem to have grown at many events as credit unions have gotten larger (and with them their budget for travel).

Perhaps those hosting meetings should borrow a page from Gilbert's and Aberdeen Proving Grounds' playbook. He said that if a credit union is looking for a way to get someone involved, "rewrite your policies once in a while. Tackle a sensitive topic, such as travel reimbursement."

He noted that two-thirds of credit unions report having difficulty getting volunteers, and said the reasons are no secret: shortage of time, family commitments, awareness and even a lack of self-confidence among some that they are up to serving on a board. "Good and successful talent is usually very busy," observed Gilbert.

So how does a credit union overcome the objections and resistance from those candidates? Gilbert said one strategy is to let them know that by serving on a credit union board they can "make a difference."

Credit unions having difficulty recruiting volunteers need to consider a new approach, according to Gilbert. That includes documenting opportunities, publicizing the role of volunteers, doing a better job with internal organization, being flexible with time, task and positions, streamlining meetings, and even noting the state and national traveling opportunities that are available.

The board does not need to be a retirement home, he stressed. For young people, "there are benefits to serving that are often overlooked. This is a resume-building position. As a volunteer at a credit union you are enrolled at a cooperative school of finance."

It is in that kind of communication where a key problem lies in volunteer recruitment, he said, especially in publicizing the role of volunteers.

"This is the weakest link in credit union operations," said Gilbert. "We keep saying we want to differentiate ourselves; you're not going to find any volunteers playing a significant role at the local bank."

APGFCU regularly features volunteers in its marketing efforts, for instance, and ensures volunteers are on hand for any major announcement.

Meanwhile, the credit union has also documented its organization, including boards and committees, along with alternate positions that are available. Documenting who's responsible for what "keeps the board out of the CEO's job and out of personnel decisions, and keeps the CEO out of board politics."

As noted, Gilbert said he is a big believer that the credit union cannot have too many volunteers, and that rather than overwhelming the operation, it uses all the volunteers to limit time demands on volunteers. The committees are empowered to keep every little matter from coming before the board, he said, meaning the board must trust the committee and empower it. For some boards, such as that at MicroManage Federal, that may be the biggest challenge.

Gilbert, who says there are three things every volunteer should do at any conference: have fun, make a one-page report of events and topics you thought were most significant, and make one new friend, has a similar list for keeping board meetings from turning into bored meetings. The list includes creating a consent agenda, sending an email to board members for agenda planning, time targets for topics, a poll on all key decisions, and staying focused on the agenda.

Following that list, he says, keeps those who have lots of time from turning off all the prospective board members who have far less time. And it's an even better way to ensure that whatever it is that disappears next, it won't be one of the unique aspects of credit unions.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of The Credit Union Journal and can be reachead at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com.