Specialties: Strategic and Tactical growth for Membership Organizations, Business Management & Development


When I talk to leaders of associations, three things always come up: Their membership isn’t growing the way they need it to, they don’t have enough volunteers, and their leadership is getting burned out.


I’ve addressed the first two issues in recent podcasts, How to Grow an Engaged Membership, Does Your Association Need More Volunteers? and Build Your Best Chapter, so let’s tackle that third one: burned-out leadership.

(Spoiler: These stressors are actually all related, so by solving one, you make progress on the others. Read on to see what I mean.)

Why Leadership Gets Burned Out

Before you can solve a problem, you have to understand the problem. So, let’s ask the question: Why is it that so many association leaders get burned out? The obvious answer is that they have too much to do. But let’s dig a little deeper and ask the question Why do they have too much to do?

This is when we start to get to the heart of things: Association leaders get burned out because they have too much to do because they don’t have enough help.

Aha! What we’re really looking at here is not that there’s too much work that needs to get done; it takes a lot of work to keep an association growing and thriving. The real challenge is that there aren’t enough people to do all that important work.

Now the question becomes How many people do we need? The answer is You both need enough people to accomplish two things:

  • 1. You need enough people so you can chunk work into manageable tasks that won’t burn anyone out.
  • 2. You need enough people to grow into leadership so no one has to serve longer than they want to.

No problem, right? Just find more future leaders.

I know; I make it sound so easy. And yet it can be—if you follow these five steps.

(By the way, I’m using the word association, but these five steps work whether we’re talking about leadership at the chapter, regional or national level.)

#1—Grow Your Inventory of Potential Future Leaders by Growing Your Association

I recently talked to an association leader who asked me how he could find more volunteers. When I asked how many members he has, he said 12, spread across several states. I had to ask him to repeat that. Only 12 members?!

It turns out this is a new chapter, so it’s not surprising that they have so few members. The challenge is that 12 members isn’t enough to source all the volunteers he needs. What I told this gentleman is that his first job is to grow his chapter. The more members you have, the more potential volunteers you have.

This is true regardless of how big your chapter is. You will always have people leaving or needing to step back because of career or life changes, so you always need new blood. New members bring fresh energy and enthusiasm; they also bring a fresh eye, which can lead to new ideas and improvement.


This does take intention and effort. Even when you have plenty of members, it’s a lot easier to keep going back to the same pot for volunteers. That’s because engaged long-timers know what they’re doing. Relying on them is a surefire way to be sure the work will get done.

Unfortunately, going back to that same pool over and over again is also a surefire way to burn people out. You’re also losing an opportunity to engage your members on a deeper level that makes your association even more valuable to them.

So, first things first: If you want to grow your inventory of future leaders, you need to grow your membership. Need some help? Listen to my podcasts How to Grow an Engaged Membership and Build Your Best Chapter. You can also reach out to me to learn about my talks and trainings for association boards.

#2—Develop a Leadership Track

When I talk to business owners and managers, I tell them that business doesn’t just bring itself in. They need 8 to 10 marketing, networking and selling strategies—and hope, wish and pray don’t count. The same goes for associations: Leaders don’t materialize out of nowhere. You can’t hope, wish and pray for leaders to step up. That’s because many people don’t see themselves as leaders, even though they could be great ones.

To get the word out and help potential future leaders develop themselves and get comfortable with the idea of leading, I recommend you develop a leadership track. Here are the four elements a good leadership track needs to enable you to identify, recruit and support your future leaders:

  • 1. Communicate that you need future leaders. This may seem obvious, but it’s key. Especially in associations where leadership has been in place for a long time or you have a few people rotating between positions, your members might not realize there’s a need for future leaders.
  • 2. Seek out and vet potential future leaders. Not everyone will make a great leader for your association. Get to know potential future leaders during meetings, at events, and over coffee or lunch. Learn about what kind of person they are and what they want out of their business, their life and the association.
  • 3. Recruit potential future leaders. Don’t wait around for someone to volunteer. Once you have someone in mind, actively recruit them. Invite them to participate in a Future Leader Orientation or a series of seminars on what it means to be a leader and how to become a leader in your association.
  • 4. Develop your current and future leaders. Even when someone is interested in becoming a leader, they may worry that they don’t have the right skills. Worries about public speaking, for instance, hold a lot of people back. Offer a mentoring program and leadership-related workshops and trainings to all of your leaders, current and future.

#3—Start Small


In my podcast How to Grow an Engaged Membership, I talk about the 5 Layers of Member Engagement. When you’ve been with an association for a long time, especially if you’ve been in leadership, it can be hard to remember what it’s like to be a new member. You know the value of the association, and you know how things work. That is not the experience of a brand-new member, and there’s no better way to intimidate someone than asking them to jump into volunteering with both feet.

Take the time to welcome and acclimate new members. Help them get to know your association and other members. Make sure they get value from their membership. Only then will it be time to invite them to volunteer.

Even then, start small with activities that don’t require pre-work. Monthly meetings and special events are full of these kinds of opportunities: helping set up, staffing the registration desk, meeting and greeting affiliates, hosting the speaker.

Once someone has done this sort of volunteering a few times, they’ll be ready for greater involvement— one step at a time, all the way up to leadership. Learn more about those 5 Layers in How to Grow an Engaged Membership. What I love about this approach to growing future leaders is that by starting small and stepping people up one layer of membership at a time, you are growing future leaders who really know, understand and value the different aspects of the association.

#4—Make It Easy

I have three words for you: communicate, communicate, communicate. People can’t volunteer if they don’t know how, so make announcements at meetings about volunteer opportunities. Be specific: Let people know what kind of volunteers you need, what the time commitment is, what the benefit to them is and how to get involved.

Don’t stop there. Make it easy to volunteer by having information readily available about your committees and volunteer opportunities. Include the purpose of the committee, the point of contact and when and where they meet. I love QR codes for this: You can post them at the registration table and on tables throughout the room.

One important point here: It should always be easy to volunteer and to keep volunteering, at all levels, including the leadership level. Even people who are eager to volunteer can get discouraged by barriers. Remember that this isn’t their job; they don’t have to do this. Make it easy, make it fun and make it valuable.

#5—Sell Leadership By Sharing Why

When you think about leadership work in your association, what words and phrases come to mind? Overworked. Stressed. Tired. Too much to do. Busy. Tired. Harried. Over it. Tired.

If that’s what you think, guess what? That’s what your members think, too. That’s no way to recruit future leaders; no one wants to volunteer to feel like that. And anyway, that’s not why you got involved in your association in the first place, right?

In my work with associations, I focus a lot on membership value. My main program for associations is even called Maximizing Your Membership. That’s because, at the end of the day, your members are your customers. They join to get results. So if you want people to step up, you need to make sure they’re getting what they want.

What do members want? They want connections, community, education, and advocacy—and one of the most effective ways they can all get that is by becoming leaders who deliver those results to the rest of the membership. All that sounds a lot better than overworked, stressed and tired, doesn’t it?

So sell that. At every meeting and event, have a current or past leader share their story about what they do as a volunteer and leader, how they got involved and, especially, why it’s valuable to them. Notice I used the word story. This is personal. Ask each person who shares to think about what they would say to their past selves, when they were sitting in that audience, before they ever volunteered. What would it take to convince them this is an association worth serving?

Always end by letting your audience know what volunteer and leadership positions are open and how they can get involved.

Everything is Connected


Remember at the beginning, when I said that membership growth, volunteers and burned out leadership are related? You can see why, right? Membership grows when members are engaged and getting the value they need and want out of their association. Engaged members are more likely to volunteer, especially when it’s easy and not overwhelming. A healthy, engaged volunteer team keeps your association running, growing and thriving—and supports your leadership so they don’t get burned out. A happy leadership that isn’t burned out inspires others to become leaders.

It doesn’t happen overnight, but when you get this synergy going, you will be amazed at how it runs itself with just a little care. So, start growing your future leaders by growing your membership, developing a leadership track, offering small, accessible volunteer activities to your members, making volunteering easy, fun and valuable, and having leadership share their why with your membership.

I would love to help you make this happen for your association. Please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and let’s talk about how to find your future leaders while giving your current leaders the support they need.



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