Albemarle County’s Board of Supervisors wants to review its volunteer boards and commissions in 2020.
Currently, according to numbers provided by Albemarle staff, there are 42 active county boards, commissions, committees, task forces and authorities in Albemarle that have volunteers as members, for a total of 239 volunteer members.
There are 55 open seats on those boards, 37 of which are “long-term vacancies,” meaning they have been open for more than 90 days.
“If something has been vacant for more than 90 days, there’s a challenge to the recruitment on that vacancy,” said county spokeswoman Emily Kilroy.
Earlier this year, Lettie Bien, a county resident, analyzed how Albemarle could reduce the number of vacancies on the volunteer boards and commissions as part of her master’s degree requirements at the Frank Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy at the University of Virginia.
Bien recommended that the county develop a comprehensive outreach program to inform the community about the volunteer boards and commissions and when they have openings.
She said one of her most important findings was the lack of communication about the opportunities available.
“I found a significant void on the part of county residents — a lack of knowledge, if you will — about the county boards, committees and so forth, and citizens’ opportunities to serve,” Bien told the Board of Supervisors at a December work session. “So many people had no idea about these committees.”
Bien broadly referred to all boards, commissions, committees, task forces and authorities as “BACs” in her report.
“As the county grew at such a rapid rate, it appears that the desire also grew to allow for more input from residents to be in fact more inclusive,” she said. “It was through this concept that the BACs expanded as well, but with little definitive process or procedures to guide future evolution.”
With more residents, there was a higher demand for public services, she said, and the number of groups started to grow.
“Unfortunately, over the years, there’s not been any successful efforts to decommission BACs that no longer have viable missions, hence the proliferation of BACs, and with that, a greater requirement for more volunteers,” Bien said.
While noting that there is limited academic research on why volunteer rates are declining, her report cites a Stanford researcher who states that time limitations, inflexible schedules of meetings, uninspired volunteer work, a lack of information and “no one asked me to” all keep people from giving their time.
During Bien’s review, she found that about 20% of volunteer positions on county groups are vacant at any given time.
Bien gave four overarching recommendations to the supervisors for what they can do to reduce vacancies — do nothing, implement an outreach program, create a dedicated training program for volunteers or hire a dedicated volunteer coordinator. She suggested they implement an outreach program.
“Although [an outreach program] does not rate as high as an option for reducing vacancies, it can have a more immediate impact, especially if the expanded use of already existing Albemarle County mediums is utilized such as Facebook and email,” she said.
She also recommended that the county conduct an analysis and an evaluation of the overall program and a survey of currently serving county volunteers.
Bien also said there was a “suboptimal volunteer selection and onboarding method,” and also recommended a revision of the standard operating procedures for the applications, recruiting, selection, training and retention of community volunteers.
“That is the elephant in the room — a lack of an established, coordinated and transparent process,” she said.
Some of the county supervisors expressed support for reviewing the boards and commissions.
Supervisor Diantha McKeel said she wants to review which boards and commissions are completing their assigned missions and which could possibly be rolled into others or be decommissioned.
“I do think every organization at some point owes it to those volunteers and we owe it to our county to look at this process and see how we can improve it,” she said.
Supervisor Rick Randolph, whose term just ended, said volunteerism is down across the country.
“I think if we could organize our way out of this dilemma, we would be unique in the annals of government in terms of having come up with a lasting and effective solution to address this,” he said.
Since Bien’s report was completed in the spring, some changes have been made in the county, including a new online system for boards and commissions that notifies current volunteers when their commission is expiring and will show them how to reapply if they are eligible.
“It may help us reduce vacancies, but it’s still too early to tell,” Kilroy said.