Jan. 28 2013 06:51 AM

Finding volunteers continues to be a challenge in many agricultural organizations. A new book outlines a way through to an effective, efficient, volunteer army.

by Lucas Sjostrom, Contributing Editor

To me, 4-H meetings were a place to get things done. We made money through hard work and gave it to the homeless. I balanced our club's 4-H checkbook as treasurer (with what I thought was a HUGE sum of money – over $1,000!). When I was able to serve as our county's federation president as a high schooler, I even participated in my first-ever job interview and hiring process as we searched for a new 4-H program coordinator.

As you can tell, I personally learned quite a bit from volunteering. And my parents made sure that I always (well, nearly always) showed up on time. But as I entered adulthood, and people's priorities changed, I found that volunteering wasn't always number one on my, or anyone else's, list. Members didn't show up or would make excuses on why they couldn't come at the last minute.

Enter 2012, where we see the number of agriculturalists shrinking. Worse yet, the younger generation simply doesn't join organizations anymore. Ultimately, these two trends could mean an end to some of our industry's most beneficial organizations. But according to Mary Byer, co-author of Race for Relevance, there are five big radical changes all of our membership organizations need to consider. Mary spoke at the Minnesota Farm Bureau's recent leadership conference in Bloomington, Minn.

Overhaul the governance model and committee operations
Sometimes the easiest changes are actually the big ones: by-law and organizational improvements most members could quickly agree with. Maybe you're a member of a committee that meets monthly due to by-law requirements but really has no purpose. Consider moving to a task-force model, where committees meet as needed until a specific task is completed.

Another change Byer mentioned was how you phrase terms. One organization that was having trouble finding officers for three-year terms changed to one-year terms, renewable for three years. Because one year is one-third the commitment, that organization found that more people volunteered, and the vast majority were willing to renew their terms after getting involved.

Empowering the CEO and enhancing staff competence
To me, this is simply, "Are officers and committee members doing things that staff could be doing?" Many organizations are so afraid of losing power to staff that members tries to accomplish everything without their help. A little leeway, or maybe more funding for more staff, could accomplish a lot more and put less of a commitment on the membership at large.

Rigorously defining the member market
Defining your membership is hard to do, but organizations that do better realize who they're serving. One client of Byer's had opposing sides of the same coin in their membership. They were trying to make policy for two groups of members; one wanted lower prices and another wanted higher prices for the same good (does that sound familiar?). In the end, the organization realized it would be better served to focus on just one sector and no longer allows the other type of member. A drastic change, yes, but a much more effective organization.

Rationalizing programs and services
Have you ever put a lot of work into a small, not very worthwhile event? I have. Do you see organizations repeat these events yearly because that's what they've always done? I'm guessing you have. One way to figure out which programs and services are necessary is to make a list of EVERYTHING that your organization does and prioritize them. If you went further and estimated the amount of man hours to get things done, then paired it with the goal of the event, you may find that much of what you do should be on the chopping block.

Building a robust technology framework
If you're reading this blog, you're probably already ahead of this curve. Byer says that organizations could do a much better job to use things like social media, email and database management to cut work and improve effectiveness.

While the five radical changes probably aren't the most exciting things your organization wants to talk about, I was convinced that this sort of thinking could save a lot of future headaches and, more importantly, could conjure up a lot more volunteers. I will personally be picking up a copy of the book (www.raceforrelevance.com/) and I hope you do, too.

One last point Byer noted was that research shows groups of six or seven are the best at decision making. To try and include everyone, I often see boards and committees with over 10 or 20 people. Think about the boards you serve on. Are 100 percent of the people coming to the meeting with work done and board materials read? Don't you think you could get a lot more done if you had five or six well-informed and well-intentioned members? I do. So cut the slack in your organizations today so that there will still be an organization to talk about it in the future.