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Can't Put a Price on It: The Value of Fostering Volunteer and SME Engagement

By Carla Caro, MA; Jacqueline Carpento; and Anthony Gage, MS

For many credentialing bodies, volunteers are their MVAs (most valuable assets). Whether an organization runs entirely on volunteer power or engages subject matter experts (SMEs) for specific activities, it is critical that they are effective and engaged. Drawing upon the experiences of the National Healthcareer Association (NHA), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA), and 32 other credentialing organizations (through an online survey), this 2016 ICE Exchange session focused on the unique considerations that organizations may encounter when recruiting and retaining SMEs and volunteers, and forming representative and qualified panels of SMEs. 

Standards Pertaining to SME Panels

Subject matter experts are discussed in a number of the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) Standards, most notably Standard 13: Panel Composition. The overarching goal of Standard 13 is to ensure that certification programs use representative panels of SMEs that reflect the characteristics of the population to be certified during key program activities. Relevant characteristics depend on the profession and purpose of the credential, and may include experience level and educational preparation, practice setting, industry, geographic distribution and demographic characteristics. The process of recruitment and involvement of SMEs must prevent the undue or disproportionate influence of any individual or group; strategies to meet this standard may include a rotation schedule, fixed terms of service and limiting overlap of SMEs across panels with different functions. Credentialing organizations should strive to provide a fair opportunity for interested volunteers to serve in a variety of capacities. It is critical that programs document the qualifications, selection criteria, responsibilities and recommendations made by panels of SMEs involved in all aspects of the program, from job analysis through item writing, exam development and standard setting. 

Additional NCCA Standards that reference SMEs include Standard 2: Governance and Autonomy, which notes that the selection of SMEs is an essential certification program decision. Additionally, Standard 3: Education, Training and Certification requires that SMEs be impartial with regard to the education and training leading to initial certification, and recommends that appropriate firewalls be put in place to ensure this is done. To ensure credentialing programs protect privileged information, Standard 10: Confidentiality requires that SMEs sign nondisclosure or confidentiality forms. These may relate both to candidate information and intellectual property (i.e., exam items). Policies must be developed to maintain strict firewalls between those with access to exam items and those providing examination preparation. Finally, Standard 23: Quality Assurance suggests that documentation of SME training is important to ensure certification programs meet the highest levels of quality as the certification exam and preparation products are maintained. 

Strategic Plans for Volunteer/SME Engagement 

Although many credentialing organizations are engaging volunteers/SMEs — and may be successful at getting them involved — this doesn’t mean they have incorporated volunteer/SME engagement into their overall strategy or that they have strategic plans for this engagement. About 60 percent of respondents to the survey did not have a formal strategic plan for volunteer/SME engagement. Organizations that have built strategic plans for volunteer/SME engagement focus on developing clear goals and objectives regarding SMEs/volunteers — such as increasing their numbers, finding more qualified individuals, increasing their percent of returning volunteers, etc. — and determine specific methods to meet these goals. 

Managing Volunteer/ SME Information 

As organizations continue to recruit and engage volunteers/ SMEs, a great deal of information will begin to accumulate (for example, demographic/background information, contact information, previous engagements and notes on participation). Through the survey, we found a small number of organizations purchased a database solution specifically for volunteer management (VMS), and some use their application management system, but the majority track this information using Microsoft Excel. 

It is important to make sure this information is organized and can be easily accessed and updated by members of the organization. The value of thorough and organized documentation of SME information becomes increasingly evident as the number of programs under development grows. For example, with nine active NCCA-accredited certification programs, it would be nearly impossible to effectively manage the development of exam content without fostering and maintaining a quality pool of available content experts at NHA, particularly for those SMEs who may serve as experts for more than one allied health certification program. 

Communication 

Balancing efficiency and effectiveness when communicating with volunteers/SMEs is important for all organizations. Organizations are using multiple methods (e.g., newsletters, social media, website posts) for this communication, but the most common by far is email communications. Email is very efficient for directly communicating with large groups at once. For this reason, the use of telephone outreach has decreased. It must be mentioned, however, that individual telephone calls are often the most effective way to combat non-responsiveness. 

Without quality communication, projects are bound to be delayed. At NHA and NASM, the biggest risk for slippage of production timelines comes from unplanned delays of virtual meetings. Several points through the development process require multiple content experts to attend. Clear communication of expectations surrounding such meetings and commitments is the only way to minimize delays. Requiring that SMEs/volunteers annually sign a participation agreement (including sections on commitment expectations, work for hire, confidentiality, security, conflicts of interest disclosure and others) is recommended. Additionally, when working with vendors, it may be best if a credentialing organization makes the initial contact with a SME as the organization having the established relationship. After that, they can implement a planned introduction to transition communication for a project to vendor team members. The less complicated the communication plan, the more organized the effort will appear to the SME volunteers. 

Volunteer/SME Retention and Engagement 

Although rotating volunteers/ SMEs is essential to ensuring new perspectives are brought into credentialing processes, organizations recognize that having a pool of solid volunteers/SMEs that are willing to return for multiple engagements is invaluable. Organizations participating in the survey reported an average of 43 percent of their first-time volunteers signing up for additional activities.

According to the survey, commonly used SME/volunteer engagement strategies include:

  • Providing incentive for participation
  • Offering a diverse set of volunteer opportunities
  • Sending formal thank-you letters
  • Hosting volunteer appreciation events
  • Using targeted, interactive communications to reach out to potential volunteers
  • Developing the organization’s social media presence
  • Keeping volunteers well-informed of strategic initiatives and goals 

Of these, survey respondents reported “Offering a diverse set of volunteer opportunities” and “Keeping volunteers well-informed of strategic initiatives and goals” were the most effective. 

The strong majority (77 percent) of survey respondents never provide stipends to their SMEs for participating in credentialing activities; another 13 percent reported they sometimes do; and 10 percent always do. 

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Not all volunteers and SMEs are rewarded by the same things. It is beneficial to have a good variety of rewards/incentives for SMEs to ensure you are hitting the mark. Monetary compensation is great when resources are available, but sometimes SMEs just need to have their contribution acknowledged and appreciated. Sincere appreciation goes a long way toward retaining quality SMEs and engaging them in future assignments. 

Continuous Improvement 

Knowing whether volunteers/SMEs are satisfied with their involvement is important to keeping them engaged. About 60 percent of survey respondents collect feedback regarding satisfaction and potential for improvement. This is done mostly through informal discussions and satisfaction surveys. A feedback loop is something that can easily be built into the processes and will likely have a positive impact on SME and volunteer engagement. Organizations can quickly identify areas where they can improve the experience of their SMEs, leading to both more rewarding participation as well as improvements in processes and output from volunteers. Keeping SMEs engaged and empowered ultimately permits credentialing organizations to fulfill their mission more effectively.


Carla Caro, MA, is a research director at Professional Examination Service (ProExam, an ACT-affiliated company). Caro has previously worked as a public policy analyst and in the area of educational advocacy. Her volunteer activities with ICE include serving on the NCCA Standards Revision project in the Technical Advisory Group for Psychometrics and on the Publications and Government Affairs committees. Caro holds the ICE certificate and is a frequent presenter at the ICE annual conference.

Jacqueline Carpenito is a research director at Professional Examination Service (ProExam, an ACT-affiliated company). She holds the ICE certificate, has served on the ICE Publications Committee, and is a frequent presenter at ICE and other industry conferences.

Anthony Gage, MS, manager of psychometrics at Ascend Learning, has been in the measurement and assessment industry for 10 years. Currently, he is responsible for managing psychometrics activities for all nine NASM and NHA certification programs. His work with subject matter experts has included facilitating practice analysis, standard setting studies, and the development of low-stakes assessments for continuing medical education.

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