By: Jessika Reed - HOALiving
When you think about volunteering—just the concept of it for now—what images come to mind? People in neon T-shirts handing out water bottles at marches, walks, and runs? Musicians donating their time and talents at VA and children’s hospitals? Maybe you envision environmental efforts or holiday-specific commitments.
Maybe your mind is beating me to the punch line and you’re already thinking about the board of directors at your community association.
It’s true—this world of HOA living and managing (and developing and advising) relies heavily on the selflessness and cooperation of volunteers. Merriam-Webster defines volunteer as “a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service.” This certainly applies to the individuals who step up and run for board positions—those who are elected, those who are appointed to officer positions (president, treasurer, secretary, etc.), and those who are appointed by the board to different committees.
Neil Schiffman is a Community Manager for FCS Community Management, part of the HOALiving network of companies. He works directly with community associations and their respective boards, interacting firsthand with the volunteer network that is characteristic of HOAs.
“HOAs function best with volunteer participation,” Schiffman said. “Owners feel that they have a say in the operation of the community, even if they are simply paying more attention to the landscape or janitorial services. Associations that have strong committees to help provide guidance and feedback to the board are very high functioning. Owners who are willing to effectively communicate their feedback through surveys and board meeting participation seem to be happier with the outcome.”
Community associations run on volunteer efforts, but this past year and a half has seen countless changes in how nearly everything runs. The same force that has us covering our faces, increasing our distance, and working from home must surely be affecting the volunteer landscape, as well, right?
Multiple volunteer organizations have published studies regarding the effects of COVID-19 on volunteering. Looking at general trends can inform specific needs—like successfully running HOAs.
First, some context. Leading up to the pandemic, volunteering was already on the rise. According to Sterling Volunteers (reporting on the Volunteering in America 2018 study by Corporation for National & Community Service), the United States saw a volunteer rate of 30.3% in 2018, up from 24.9% in 2017. This is good news for any industry that relies on volunteer efforts, but in nearly every sense, we aren’t in 2018 anymore…
Just prior to the pandemic, Sterling Volunteers and VolunteerMatch published their “2020 Industry Insights Report.” This gets us one step closer to understanding the volunteer landscape pre-COVID-19. Here are some of the key takeaways:
For volunteers seeking social connection, working with neighbors to build community could be the perfect fit. Some HOAs may have an advantage here! It makes sense that this trend would survive, or even grow, during a pandemic, but what can be said about the optimism? Are people still optimistic about the future of volunteering?
Points of Light released a study (“Civic Life Today: A look at American civic engagement amid a global pandemic”) in September 2020, reporting that while 36% of Americans participated in volunteer activities in the year leading up to the pandemic (an increase from 2018), 73% believe that volunteering will be “more important than ever after the Coronavirus.” An impressive 95% intend to “maintain their current level of involvement or do more to get involved and make a difference after the pandemic passes” (Points of Light).
Still, the studies above report heavily on intent and mindset in the broader volunteer landscape. Many of the numbers are laden with predictions and promises that carry weight (and optimism) but are by no means concrete. Looking back on the past year, and remaining community-association-focused, we can more clearly see how all of this is playing out in our industry.
Regarding the pandemic, Schiffman said, “We have seen extremes in the rate of volunteer participation in HOAs. Associations that have struggled with filling board positions and committees in the past have seen large increases as owners are home more and finding time to help in the operation of their community. On the opposite end, associations that have had plenty of volunteer participation in the past have seen that participation dwindle.”
He went on to say that economic demographics may play a role in determining participation during COVID. Owners who have been able to successfully transition to remote work are in better positions to volunteer. Their associations are benefitting from this new dynamic. For those navigating the challenges of COVID-19 outside of their homes, community participation may seem impossible, even if they have participated in the past.
According to a study by VolunteerMatch (“2020 in Review: The Impact of COVID-19 on Volunteering & The Social Sector”), the “fear of being exposed to illness” is the primary barrier to volunteer commitment at 21%. Other prevalent barriers include “regulations or recommendations” (20%) and the “fear of exposing others to illness” (19%).
The combination of more general volunteer trends and those within community associations provides us with positive implications for the future of volunteering in HOAs, especially the post-pandemic future. With interest in volunteer participation growing across the board, increased involvement in some communities, and barriers that will likely diminish with time, it seems we have reason to be optimistic.
Positive trends and optimism might not be enough to drum up volunteer participation in your community association, however. Here are some things to consider:
According to Sterling Volunteers, people are volunteering to gain skills or keep skills sharp. Think about ways to honor this interest—there is nothing wrong with increasing a volunteer’s return on (time) investment.
“Before the pandemic, volunteers were already demanding more short-term projects and flexibility” (Sterling Volunteers). At HOALiving, for example, we see this need firsthand, and we are always looking for innovative solutions to the issue. Our clients are given homeowner portals through Vantaca, and volunteer board members have expanded, real-time access to financials, violation reports, and other essential documentation. As a result, board meetings can be shorter and more focused on pressing action items.
Virtual volunteer opportunities in 2020 rose from 32% in March to 51% in October (Sterling Volunteers). Have you considered ways for community members to volunteer or participate virtually? Have your meetings already moved to Zoom? This virtual connection could help boards maintain momentum, even during a pandemic. At HOALiving, our Board Lunch and Learns have evolved into monthly, virtual Association Essential Series (AES) sessions. We discuss the ins and outs of HOAs—returning with new content in 2022. All are welcome—clients, future clients, and those we may never have the privilege of working with.
In the weeks and months to come, prioritize increasing volunteer engagement (or engaging as a volunteer, yourself!). Capitalize on the ability and willingness of your community members to serve one another, especially in the wake of a global pandemic. A final call to action from Schiffman, “Board members need to regularly solicit feedback, not just at annual meetings but during the year. Requesting help in newsletters can go a long way with a particular project.” People are ready to participate, post-pandemic.