How Do You Leverage Volunteers in the Product Development Process?

by Tim Hopkins

What roles do volunteer leaders typically play in product development at your association?

For many organizations, volunteer leaders engage in the initial ideation phase of the product development process. Whether invited to contribute ideas formally through a committee or by playing an informal role as an “ideas person,” volunteers can be critical to the value organizations deliver. But sometimes those same leaders can hinder — rather than enhance — the product development process. In those cases, the result can be a robust portfolio of products and services that underperforms, drains morale and fails to align skills and insights with appropriate roles. (Raise your hand if you have any products created by volunteers that you find difficult to sunset!)

We suggest leveraging volunteers’ experience and enthusiasm to deliver valuable products with a more deliberate and data-informed product development approach. In this reimagined model, association leaders identify explicit roles for volunteers and create natural boundaries that ensure volunteers remain focused contributors.

Why turn to volunteers?

In the intersecting role of highly engaged members and industry professionals, your volunteer leaders hold unique insight into the industry and your association. They can provide context around data, evaluate industry challenges against association realities and even test ideas within their organizations. With volunteers, you have a safe, informed research panel to leverage at any stage of the product development process. The critical step is to choose where and when you plan to engage them.

How to leverage volunteers effectively

  • Ideate—with clear boundaries. Broadly collecting new product ideas is fine—but without boundaries, volunteer expectations can be unnecessarily raised about which ideas will eventually become products. A better approach is to conduct qualitative interviews with a group of member volunteers. In these interviews, ask very specific questions focused on gaps in services, needs and pain points. Then, this research can be used to identify top product concepts to test with a smaller group for further validation. All of this should occur before bringing anything to the market.
  • Identify competition and differentiation opportunities through environmental scanning. As product concepts are developed and research is gathered, it is valuable to ask volunteer leaders where they turn for similar resources and why they may choose those resources over what your organization offers. During this phase, you can identify gaps in the market or your own product portfolio. This helps identify products already offered by other organizations (and potential competitors) to gauge whether you should pursue a similar product, or perhaps partner with that organization to deliver the product to your audience. You may also choose to change focus to a different idea altogether.
  • Shift to a more formal, broad and objective research phase. The knowledge of volunteers provides much of the expertise needed to create product concepts. However, a broader audience beyond your most active volunteer leaders will provide valuable insights, as they will also be among your product customers. In this approach, you could conduct a comprehensive survey or follow-up research with audiences outside your core volunteer leaders, who may skew your results. You could also ask volunteer leaders to bring product concepts back to their colleagues in their workplaces for feedback. The point is to gather diverse viewpoints to help set up your product research for success.
  • Develop minimum viable products. Once your research is complete, engage volunteer leaders in an exercise to refine and potentially even narrow down product concepts. To save time and reduce risk, remember to think in terms of minimum viable product (MVP) rather than fully formed product concepts. You may need to help your volunteers become comfortable with this approach.
  • Test your minimum viable products with the market. Get reactions early before investing more time and money into your new products. While the MVP won’t be fully formed or perfect (what product ever is?), members and end-users will be able to experience it and tell you whether it’s valuable or identify key areas to improve. Gaining this feedback early in the product development cycle is crucial. It helps avoid spending thousands of dollars and waiting months or years for a “big reveal” product launch that doesn’t meet the needs of your audience!

Potential pitfalls

At an organization I worked with in the past, we took great pride in engaging our volunteer leaders to help us ideate and launch important products. However, we learned that not every member or volunteer leader is going to understand the MVP concept or even be comfortable with it. Many volunteers couldn’t understand why the “very good” product they were using or piloting for us wasn’t “perfect.” Or why the laundry list of features they provided weren’t all implemented. To respond to this took patience and refinement of our invitations to volunteers. We needed to be clear on what the intent was behind the MVP and how they’d be involved.

Additional tips for success

  • Choose the correct volunteer audience. For example, if you are trying to come up with a product that will engage young professionals, get in front of a similar audience within your volunteer leadership.
  • Ask the right questions. Identify true pain points and tensions that keep members up at night. Brainstorm gaps in resources, needs and other areas that will inform your direction. Lead your inquiry from a place of empathy. Get to know how you can truly develop a solution that will make a difference in the day-to-day lives of the audiences you aim to serve.
  • Gather knowledge and input strategically. While tapping into the brain power of an association’s board and volunteers for data and input is critical, it’s important to leverage their knowledge strategically. For instance, when engaging in very early brainstorming, there’s a chance that volunteers will come up with ideas that they love and get disappointed if those aren’t developed. Therefore, it’s important to intentionally structure their involvement.
  • Make it fun. Volunteers have full-time jobs outside of their work with you, so when you seek their input and collaboration, it’s important to make it engaging! Provide incentives for their participation, such as small gifts (coffee mugs, t-shirts, etc.) to show your appreciation for their involvement. A little appreciation goes a long way!

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