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Leadership in a Volunteer Organization: Mission Impossible?? post image

A volunteer leader on my team, in an organization where we both serve, passed me in frustration yesterday as one of his team members didn’t live up to their responsibility and put him and the rest of the team into panic mode.  I quickly said to him that we have to have a conversation with this person.  He tersely said, “Yeah right.  That will do a lot of good in a volunteer organization.”

How can that work? How do we effectively lead in an organization where unpaid, volunteers are the life-blood of the organization and where there isn’t a bench of volunteers waiting to step-in if one falls down on job.  We’re often thankful when they just show up.

Here are the five key elements to enrolling (or re-enrolling) team members in a volunteer organization.  Ironically, these will also work in our for-profit organizations.  A paycheck doesn’t always bring with it diligence, reliability and full commitment.  Those are gifts that can only be volunteered.

  1. Higher purpose
    • Share and share again the vision and mission of the organization that moves beyond profit and loss and answers the “why?” you are doing what you do.
    • Remind each individual on the team of their distinct role in fulfilling this purpose
  2. Impact on others
    • As you set expectations and make agreement on the role, point to the positive impact a team member’s efforts will have when the responsibility is handled well.  Very rarely does our work only effect ourselves.  A job well done is to the benefit of those we work with.  Individuals, especially in volunteer organizations, typically have the best interest of others at heart and will live up to agreements that benefit others.
    • When performance falls short of what was agreed, this key element also applies.  Point to the impact their behavior has on others.  Many people don’t even realize the impact their performance has.
  3. Process
    • When possible, build in a process or system that reduces the reliance on a single person’s memory.  Enroll the individuals in the design and implementation of the process.
  4. Acknowledgement
    • Be generous (and authentic) with your gratitude and appreciation for their work and efforts
  5. Consistent conversation
    • Leaders in all organizations so often get in the weeds of doing the work and any conversations that don’t pertain to the work are seen as a luxury that just can’t be afforded.  Whether paid or unpaid, your people are the force behind getting the work done and done well – ensuring they are engaged should be a leader’s highest priority.
    • Create dedicated time to connect with each person and in addition to items #1 – #4, ask them what help or support they need from you to fulfill their responsibilities

Who in your organization will you have a conversation with today?

April 12-18 is National Volunteer Week.  Start planning now how you will say “thank you” to those who volunteer in your organization.  Here is an article from Church Volunteer Daily to spark some idea.


Jeff HarmonJeff Harmon is the president of Brilliance Within Coaching & Consulting which specializes in developing servant leaders while helping them translate their strategies into actionable plans that drive business results. Jeff is the author of “The Anatomy of a Principled Leader.” Jeff has been developing leaders for nearly 20 years and has led the execution of over 100,000 hours of business strategy for information technology, financial services and non-profit organizations.

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