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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Leadership: Working with Volunteers

[Also available as a Podcast]

Everybody knows you should "play nice" when you are working in an office together. If you don't get along, there is the polite smile, or taking another hallway when you see them coming. But you are all paid to work together to get things done, so unless you are ready to quit and work somewhere else, you do need to work things out so that the team somehow manages to function - or eventually one of you might find you are being shown the door.

A Different World - Volunteering

In the world of volunteering, this becomes a totally different situation. Nobody is paying you to be there. Sure the donuts and coffee might be ok, but the real reason that volunteers are there is because they want to be there - they want to contribute to some vision or goal and make a difference.

I have been volunteering in various roles and organizations as an adult since 1984 (and many years before as a youth), and in that time I have had to deal with the same personality types and problems that you find in any office. I am sure I have occasionally been a problem for somebody else too, as nobody is perfect. But I have worked through each of those challenges, and still continue to volunteer because I want to give something back. I guess like most people, I want to make a difference, not for financial gain, or fame or glory, but because I care about something and believe in it.

Why Volunteer?

Volunteering is important for many reasons. From Little League to Board Members of not-for-profit organizations, volunteers drive many of the important things that go on in our world. Without volunteers, the world would be a dull and listless place. People want to be able to give - without necessarily expecting a reward from someone else. So they volunteer their time, energy and skills to things they believe in.

According to the 2011 United Nations State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, “...volunteerism benefits both society at large and the individual volunteer by strengthening trust, solidarity and reciprocity among citizens, and by purposefully creating opportunities for participation.”

Looking at official statstics, in the USA,  2011 statistics show 26% of the population volunteered, with 64.3 million people volunteering at least once per year. In New Zealand, 2008 statistics show 32% of people spent time volunteering. In Australia, 2010 statistics reveal 36% percent, or 6.4 million people gave their time for volunteer causes. In Canada, the 2010 statistics showed almost 50% of the population spent time volunteering. Most developed countries reflect similar statistics to the above. That is a lot of time spent volunteering!

You will often find that people work to get paid - and they volunteer to get satisfaction, and that intangible but very important sense of well-being from making a difference. Some people volunteer and do get recognition - but for most that is secondary, and for some, even a bit embarrassing - because they know everyone else is working hard to make a difference and they don't feel they should be singled out.

The PMOIG Club

A friend of mine told me he was a member of the PMOIG club. "What is that?" I asked. He was a retired school administrator, who still consults and does the work he loves to do (but for this he does get paid). He said in the public sector, they count the years of service, and once you get close to retirement age, depending when you started, you may meet the requirements for a full-pension retirement with your last few year's top salary - before you are at "normal retirement age". In his case, he could have retired several years before age 65. Many people he worked with of similar age were in the same position. He told me they were all members of the PMOIG club. "P**s Me Off, I'm Gone." They could retire at any time on full benefits - they just stayed on because they still enjoyed doing what they were doing. 

And he remains a member of the PMOIG club today - but he continues to work with us and the customers because he loves doing it. Sure, it is hard work sometimes, but he enjoys the challenge, and knows he is making a difference. He has the best of both worlds - he does not need the money, as he has full pension - but he loves what he does. Kind of a "paid volunteer" in some respects.

The PMOIG principle most definitely applies to volunteers - essentially, everyone who volunteers is "pre-retired" - they don't actually have to be there. They are there because they want to, they enjoy it, they feel they are valued and are making a difference. Even the Soccer Mom who feels "she has to do it" because her son or daughter is playing is really volunteering because she cares - she could have said no. (Of course, then there may not have been a team, but you see the importance of having volunteers?)

Rules of Engagement for Volunteers

There are a few key things we need to keep in mind regarding volunteers:
- We need them! The world revolves around volunteer efforts.
- They don't have to be here.They want to be here. At least, unless you drive them away.
- They want to make a difference. This is why we volunteer.
- They need to be respected and valued. We all do!
- They need to be given something useful to do. Don't give them idle work.
- They are buying into the Vision. They will give heart and soul when they do.


Every volunteer needs to be treated with respect. Well, everyone should of course use the Golden Rule with everybody else, but for some reason a few people forget this with volunteers, and actually treat their volunteers like slaves. They may forget that although these people are not getting paid, they are providing a valuable service - because they want to, not because they have to.

There are no "unions" in volunteering, but if the "working conditions" become too unfavourable, they will vote with their feet on the way out the door. So be nice to your volunteers, remember they are people contributing their own invaluable time to your mission/initiative/organization/cause.

Making a Difference: Feeling Valued

Every volunteer joined your cause for one main reason: they wanted to make a difference. Give them the opportunity to do so. Find a task that will match their skills/talents and will challenge them - but not drown them. Give them opportunities to excel, and make sure they know how their contributions affect what you are doing. They may be "just photocopying and stapling" but it serves an important function. Everybody's role is important - from the bottom on up. But make sure that you make good choices in your assignments - check in with them to see how they are doing, and if they feel they are contributing and making a difference. If they don't feel it - they will probably quietly disappear.

Too Many Volunteers?

While many organizations struggle to get and maintain volunteers, sometimes you may actually be faced with having too many volunteers. Your media promotion may have exceeded your expectations in your call for volunteers.

What to do? Well - you might have a wonderful opportunity on your hands. You may be able to tackle a few projects that you could not do before, because you did not have enough people to help make it a reality. If that is the case, great! Make a plan to use the new volunteers mixed with current volunteers to get those things off the ground. You may be at the beginning of your best year ever!

But sometimes, you will have too many volunteers, and nothing for the "extras" to do at the moment. What do you then? There are a few options. 
- Do you need "backups" for certain roles? If so, then you can discuss this with the existing volunteer and the potential volunteer to see how that might work - they could shadow and provide support, and fill in when the main person is away. 

- Ask them if they would like to volunteer with another organization you know is short of people. Quite often volunteer circles interact/overlap - you will know something of what is going on with the other organizations and who may need help. The prospective volunteer may be delighted to help the other group - and the other group will be glad for the help (and your good-will referral). They may also be able to help you in kind one day.

- Thank them and let them know there are no current opportunities, but take their name for the future if they are OK with that. You might have something come up unexpectedly where you will need a replacement, or your cake sale was so successful that you now have funding to take on some new things. If you have a list of willing volunteers, you can then ring them up and see if they are still interested.

Expectations: The Volunteer Job Description

A job description for a volunteer? Come on - really?

Yes, I am being quite serious. Many people who get involved "as a volunteer" were sucked in, without proper disclosure of what was involved, or what was expected of them. These people will often feel resentful, and may choose not to volunteer (for anything) in the future, once this current activity is complete. Or they may not be doing the job you needed done...because you did not tell them what it was!

Frankly, that is straight manipulation - and does nobody any good. People have a right to know what is likely to be involved when they are asked if they would like to volunteer for something - or if they approach you wanting to volunteer, to know what your expectations of them might be. This can include the average number of hours per week, the types of activities and responsibilities, and who else they will be dealing with (other volunteers and whoever they might be serving). Again, it comes down to respect - be fair and open with what you expect from them.

The "Job Description" may be verbal or it may be written - but the more responsibility involved, the better it is to have it written down. In an ideal world, you would have a brief (or long) description of each role - so you know what you are looking for, and they know what they are getting into. Perhaps post it on your web page for each type of role you have. Be open about the roles and your needs.

It is also a good idea to ask why they want to volunteer. You might find that their goals and your goals might not actually align... In which case you might not actually want to "hire" the prospective volunteer. Who would have thought you might not want someone? But sometimes, it happens - and better to find out early than later on.


Volunteers need leaders - and Leaders need volunteers. And you can be both at once. But remember the best role is the Servant Leader... You are not the boss of anybody. Things will work best when you realize that the role of the volunteer leader is to support the volunteers, coordinate things and make decisions so that the job can be accomplished. You might need to be the public face, but internally you are serving the volunteers by what you do, to help them help you, so together you can fulfill the purpose of the organization or club.

Tough Love

Sometimes, you may actually need to "fire" a volunteer. They may not be contributing, and may actually be detracting from the overall efforts. This is usually not because they want to sabotage anything - it is more likely they are "burned out" and need to change tasks or possibly take a break from volunteering for a while. Have a kind but candid conversation in private with them - discuss what they see happening with their volunteer role, if they feel they are still contributing, and feeling they are valued. Ask if they feel overwhelmed. Perhaps their circumstances have changed and they can give less time...but feel obligated to stick with what they said they would do. Remind them it is ok to say no to a task.

Perhaps there is another role that they can take on that will recharge their batteries. It is harder to get a new volunteer than to keep one, most times - so if they are still interested in being involved, something else to do might just be the thing to keep them engaged, happy and productive. And if they are truly, really burned out - "let them go", thanking them for their valued contributions but remind them they are welcome back later - when they feel up to it and have the time for it.

Burnout? - Share the Load

People do get burned out - especially in a volunteer setting. It is important to watch out for it and share the load - "by force" if necessary - so that one person is not taking on too much. They will eventually wear out and may get resentful, but they may not talk about it, suffering in silence. Help them by discussing their tasks and how they might see them being "done better" - nobody likes something being taken away from them, but if you can show them that they may be contributing more by focussing on one or two less things, the result will be better and they will feel less stressed - they may be more likely to accept someone else taking on the other roles. Besides, most people work and have family obligations too... So be sure to share the load around.

A role for everyone

When you do get volunteers, be creative. Someone may only be able to help an hour or two a month, while others can provide a few hours per week. Find something for them to do that fits their available time, and do not pressure them to commit to more. If they feel valued and can give more time, usually they will tell you-they will come to you asking if there is anything else they can help you with. And if they don't... Be thankful you have them doing what they can do. Every little bit helps.

But also be realistic... If there truly is no role to fit the few hours they can give, thank them for their offer and ask if it is ok to contact them later when something comes up that may fit.

Dealing with difficult people

Occasionally you will have difficult people to deal with. It is the nature of things that you will, at some point have to face up to someone you cannot get along with. When you do, you need to look closely at the source of the problem, and this will involve talking to them about it.
- are they used to leading, and don't like "being led"?
- perhaps they do not feel challenged?
- are they competent at what they have signed up to do?
- are their own goals still aligned with the shared vision?

If they are feeling under-utilized, give them something more, or something else to do. Perhaps they can manage a sub-team for you if they are used to leading, or would like to try it.

If they are just one of those "difficult people" but they have skills you desperately need, find a way to make it work. Give them something to work on that will challenge them, but maybe not so close to your own chain of command. Perhaps you can "transfer" them to work with someone else they may get along with better. Who knows? Your personalities might not just mesh.

But, if they seem to be consistently at logger heads, and particularly not in alignment with the vision, perhaps it is time for some "tough love" , thank them for their time and send them on their way. (Yes, you can "fire" volunteers). They may be more suited to a different type of organization.This might be the best for both in some cases.

Note: Volunteering is no place for an "empire builder". Servant leadership, remember?

Summary - The three R's

Working with volunteers can yield some of the most rewarding experiences of your life. You may have chances to do things and get experience in things you never would be able to with your "day job". But remember the three R's:

Respect - treat all of your volunteers with respect, and regularly thank them for their contributions.

Relationship - great things are accomplished by teams, and good relationships are at the core of every well-functioning team. Nurture those relationships!

Realistic expectations - people buy into vision. Be clear about the goals and how each person can contribute. Don't pull the wool over their eyes to try to suck them in...people soon wise up to that. Be truthful about what you need and what you expect from them, and they will often outperform your expectations because they have bought into the vision.

If you have never volunteered... give it a try! You will find you get as much or more from it as you give. You will also make new friends you would not otherwise have had.

If you do volunteer, and especially if you "manage" or lead volunteers, I hope you have found this useful and are able to apply the above principles in working with your volunteers.

Happy Volunteering!


  1. I use the term role description at every opportunity to differ from job. Coaching the individual volunteer experience has led to stronger engagement bringing out the volunteer strengths and connectivity. Engagement for me is "satisfaction + commitment".

  2. Respect, Feeling Valued, and being Fully Engaged with a challenging position - These are the true motivators that drive outstanding performance. Thanks for writing such a fine article that brings it all together so well.