Leading Volunteers is (Not) Easy

Volunteerism is American as
A WWII Red Cross Volunteer Poster

Leading volunteers is not easy. It would seem axiomatic that leading a group of volunteers would be easier than leading any other group, but it can more difficult because both the “transactional” relationship and the “mission” relationship are different from other types of teams.

In a for profit venture the primary motivation is making the company successful, and it’s easy for leaders to let that be the only motivation they employ. Profit and loss are objective measures of effectiveness, and even though taking care of the people is just as important in a for profit enterprise as it is in any other sector, when all other forms of motivation fail the boss can hand over a handsome paycheck to keep the team moving.  This is not to say people in for profit business don’t care about each other or the mission of their company, but compensation and the promise (in some cases) of doing better financially if the company does well are powerful motivational tools. Put another way, high performing companies motivate their employees by getting excited about the mission of the company, but merely mediocre companies can survive even if they produce a quality product from an unmotivated workforce. The challenge for leaders in this environment is not to let the economics of the business outweigh the need to lead the people in the company.

Not so with volunteer or non-profit organizations. In these situations, leaders must rely more heavily on creating a shared sense of mission and commitment to that mission among the team, primarily because there is no direct compensation. Volunteers have the ability to “un-volunteer” relatively easily in most cases. This means leaders have to maintain a unity of purpose and commitment to the mission at much higher levels than perhaps is necessary in for profit companies. There are a wide variety of volunteer organizations, from non-profits with paid staffs to community organizations. Leading these volunteers can be a challenge unless we understand why people volunteer in the first place, and what keeps them coming back even when it’s tough work. Employees in non-profits willingly accept less compensation because they believe in what they’re doing so much, the personal satisfaction of their contribution “pays the bills” and is worth a smaller paycheck.  The challenge is connecting them with the mission first, and inspiring them to see the indirect compensation they receive.  It’s not an easy task!

According to Guidestar.com volunteers contribute for skill development, personal growth, and to take on a challenge. Taking these factors into account means leaders have to keep the organizational mission at the forefront, and continually remind volunteers why they volunteered in the first place.  Additionally, leaders have to be mindful of the volunteers’ need for challenging work and opportunities to grow. That requires a high degree of commitment from the leader, and a level of communication both within the team and with stakeholders.

In my book Leading Leaders, I recount the story of a friend of mine who took over leadership of a volunteer re-sale shop. It would’ve been easy to simply do the minimum, but that’s not my friend’s style so she took on the challenge. The previous leadership had begun to improve the environment and the store, but was unable to finish so my friend was asked to pick up the mantle. She and her leadership team began by listening to the volunteers and addressed their personal concerns about the rigidity of the workplace, and then went on a communication campaign to remind all the volunteers why they were there. It was an effective leadership style but it required a great deal of work on her part to get the organization moving again. When she turned over leadership to her successor, the volunteers were happy and the resale shop was thriving again. It’s amazing what a great leader can do when she connects with her people and then connects them to the mission.

In the end, volunteers are there because they want to be. They may or may not be financially compensated, but for volunteers the mission is the thing. When leading volunteers, that’s the most important fact to keep in mind.


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