Managing Volunteers

Working in a volunteer organization has changed my perspective about leadership. Being a volunteer project manager is something everyone should try.

At a job, a boss can force any idea or direction and their employees, incentivized by a paycheck, staff will be inclined to make it happen. It's certainly not the same when you're a leader of a volunteer team. In such a scenario there is no monetary incentive. Volunteers follow direction and complete tasks not because they're told to, but because they support the work. A leader of a volunteer team must gain buy-in and ensure the main objectives are adhered to.

# Understand your role

Despite common perception, leadership is vulnerability. A leader has to "ask" if they want the job be done well. Asking is a show of need and the better it is understood the better the ask is. A leader must understand that others are needed to complete the work and the leader alone can't get everything done.

Bad leaders are the ones who try to do everything themselves. I can easily fall into this trap if I forget to actively thing about delegating tasks. Subconsciously, a leader may think it is easier to do something than explain it to someone else. This is usually because the leader is worried about the results. This worry is misplaced.

Instead, a good leader acts as the front-runner. They will not tell others what to do. Having a corporate approach to volunteering kills the joy and burns people out. Moreover, the leader should truly share the project with any volunteer who joins the team.

If there are tasks A, B, and C to split amongst the team, each member should be allowed to pick what they want. Any remaining tasks are to be sold to a person who may do it well. A lot of times people do things differently than what you envisioned. Then think: is this derailing the project from its objectives? if not, accept what they have done.

After all, each member has an ownership in this project. The outcome is the collective vision of the team.

# Paint a picture

Don't go to volunteers with nothing. Say, you want to hold a public presentation event. Instead of just saying that, be specific. Tell everyone that you want to host a two hour long presentation mid-September. Why 2 hours? Why September? You just set the preliminary details based on how you feel but this will give a basis for others to oppose or support. Of course, the team must be ready to make any changes necessary.

# Find the right volunteers

As disappointing as it may be, not everyone you meet will be around. No matter how excellent the first conversation goes, many reasons are beyond your/their control. So don't start imagining yourself surrounded by them. Allow yourself and new volunteers to take your times; get to know the environment and each other better. Once they started routinely participating in activities, then you can prepare for the next stage.

If someone gets disengaged but they are subscribed to a communication channel, don't remove them. Sometimes people like to lurk and come up with reasons to reengage.

# Bring out their productivity

While many reasons for disengagement of volunteers are out of your control, there are still plenty situations that you can screw them up yourself. A mistake project managers can make is giving too much too early. Remember to give volunteers a ramp. Start with small and simple tasks and gradually give them more. This is not just for warming them up to the work; it clarifies how the volunteer gets the work done. Are they sticking to the absolute minimum of what you asked and give you something mediocre? or do they do a decent job that you like to show others? or maybe they exceed your expectations? Having these in mind will improve your position for the next steps.

Be direct about what you ask, but not harsh. Make people feel they are important for the project and you see their value. Example:

"Now it's time to make a list of the good neighborhood restaurants. No doubt we want to keep the attendees fed and happy. Phil, you did an awesome job with food planning and you know this neighborhood like the back of your hand, can you take care of this?"

There is a very good chance you will hear a resounding yes. Let see what we are doing here:

  • Painting a picture of how the task matters.
  • Building on top of their previous success.
  • Acknowledging their strength. Reminding everyone and themselves about their asset that the team has access to.
  • Connecting their strength with the problem. Showing that you are not randomly giving someone a task. You ask them because you know them.
  • Asking them to be the team's knight. We are not asking them to "consider doing it", we trust them and ask them to kill the task once and for all, pumping a bit of adrenaline in the process.

There are other things we are NOT doing here:

  • Being shy or apologetic as if we are burdening someone.
  • Putting people on the spot for something they might not want to learn how to do.
  • Asking open-ended questions from the crowd that no one knows whether they should be the ones answering it.

Some more good advice about asking here. (opens new window)

# Preserve the team's performance

Just like some people who do not stick around for long enough, some people may stick around when they are not contributing. Understanding that not "any" volunteering contributes to the project, is important.

If you need to spend 3 hours on a volunteer who ends up doing only 1 hour of help, they are not adding any value; though this is just an example: all hours are not necessarily equal. Similarly, some tasks only need reliability and consistency, not time. Posting something on social media takes little time, but if the person in charge fails to make the post, all the work that has gone into generating the post's content has been wasted.

Another form of disengagement is when a volunteer is hiding from accepting tasks. This can create a negative environment in your team. A successful team is where people encourage each other with their work. Your other teammates might think to themselves, hint, or outright tell you they are feeling discouraged by a person on the sidelines who refuses to do anything but comments on the work of others.

In these situations, first look within. Could you improve your way of asking? do you need to change your approach particularly for them? or perhaps you need to talk to them and describe the shortcomings? Most of the time, you are looking at a combination of both.

Although it might sound unusual, if the situation progressed, you need to let the volunteer know things are not working out. You are not "firing" anyone, you don't need to have tough conversations with the volunteers who are not contributing. Instead be companionate and try to understand why they are not contributing. Just tell them you feel they have got enough on their plate that they can't juggle your project along with everything else in their life. Ask them to prioritize their life first. Of course, this last resort will be extremely disappointing for both parties most of the time.

# Leave a good taste

All the above should distinguish the volunteers who go above and beyond. It's time for their reward. Give people titles they like "communications guru", "chief of stakeholders", "operations chief", "social media manager". Doesn't matter what a person is doing outside of the team, this might be start of a new career for them or just something to put on their resume.

Offer a recommendation letter if that helps them.

End the day with high fives. Not the fake, forced, bland high-fives shady sales reps give in a multi-level marketing seminar. Give high fives if you really mean them, if not, then don't. You are a volunteer after all.