Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


How to Effectively Lead Volunteers

Volume: August - Mid 2012

By Doug Van Dyke, Leadership Simplified, www.leadershipsimplified.com


Donald had been leading a not-for-profit organization for five years. He was originally drawn to the organization by its mission to help people and the community. He also worked with a committed group of team members whose efforts well exceeded their modest salaries. When Donald first came on board he enjoyed the flush financial times that his industry was experiencing. Soon thereafter though, Donald found himself leading an organization through frugal times. A lower level of giving to not-for-profits called for Donald and his team to be creative, hopeful, and doubly-efficient. It also called for his organization to rely on volunteers more so than in the past. While Donald was certain that his organization would continue to flourish from a mission and results standpoint, he was not convinced that he would survive Munson, his lead volunteer.


Munson had been volunteering at the organization longer than Donald’s tenure as executive director. In fact, Munson had been volunteering with the organization for so long that only one team member had been there longer. Munson was dedicated, talented, and had terrific institutional knowledge. He was also undisciplined, closed-minded, and conducted himself with a sense of entitlement.


Do you have a Munson on your team? I bet you do. In fact, you may have several Munson’s or derivations thereof. Many leaders of not-for-profit organizations, whether it is a philanthropic concern or a service club, face a similar problem: How to effectively lead volunteers. On the surface it seems like such an easy task. You have people who are willing to donate their time and talents to your organization and do whatever you ask. Right? Wrong!


So what to do about Munson, eh? (Author’s note: the “eh” is for all of those Canadian not-for-profit folk out there). Well, there are six actions that Donald should keep in mind as he leads Munson in the workplace.


  1. Realize that you have a baby tiger on your hands. When leading baby tigers, one must realize that they need close supervision and mentoring. In the process of leading you must be able to help them to feel as though they are autonomous and leading the show, despite the fact that you are influencing their actions and direction.


  1. Find their passion. Many not-for-profit leaders assume that volunteers are moved by the mission of the organization. This is not always the case. Frequently, volunteers are passionate about experiencing a sense of belonging – and they have found it in your organization. Your mission may mean less to them then their feeling of being a part of something that is meaningful. On the other hand, some volunteers are solely connected to the mission of the organization at the expense of what makes the organization run. For example, there may be a volunteer at a Humane Society who loves dogs, yet hates bureaucracy (paperwork) and dislikes the organization’s administrators. Volunteers like this talk up the organization’s mission while they tear down the organization’s infrastructure. Regardless, as a leader make certain you know what moves your volunteers and exactly why they feel a connection to your organization


  1. Push their passion buttons often. Once you have clearly identified your volunteer’s passion, positively reinforce their passion frequently. Make certain that your team members also know about the volunteer’s passions so they can tailor the volunteer’s experience with your organization.


  1. Establish boundaries. It is easy to simply be grateful for the time and effort that volunteers contribute to philanthropy. However, it is the savvy leader that shares clear expectations with volunteers. While sharing expectations, be certain to address behaviors, as well as tasks and rules.


  1. Keep them connected to the organization’s mission and vision. Whether the volunteers are “into” your organization or not, be certain to frequently communicate the mission, vision, and core values of your organization. This is easily accomplished by morning huddles, team meetings, and casual conversation.


  1. Lavish praise. Leaders of not-for-profit organizations are busy. They have a board of directors that demands attention. They have team members to manage. They have a fantastic cause to support. They have fundraising to worry about. They have a curious media to keep informed. The last thing a leader needs or wants to worry about is praising volunteers. Yet, praise is often the payment for which volunteers are thirsting. As such, your feedback should be fast on the heels of a volunteer’s success. On the other hand, be quick to reel a volunteer in when they appear misguided or have made a mis-step. It is a delayed response in the latter category that is deadly – and leads to the creation of baby tigers.


Bottom Line: Some not-for-profit volunteers crave power or a sense of belonging. Other volunteers are passionate about the organization’s mission or they just want to keep busy. And some volunteers just like you and want to follow you. Whatever the motive of a volunteer, it is the leader’s duty to connect with volunteers in a manner that maximizes their contribution to the organization while satisfying their emotional intelligence needs. The results that these talented leaders experience will be a higher performing organization that runs lean and satisfies a noble mission.


Until next time, be well. 


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