As a former nonprofit employee and a volunteer leader, I’ve made many mistakes when it comes to volunteers. Here are a few I’ve learned the hard way, either through my own leadership missteps or from serving as a volunteer board member, committee chair or volunteer at large.
1. Don’t think about each volunteer individually.
Don’t carefully consider each volunteer’s strengths, talents and weaknesses. Don’t ruminate about finding the right fit for them. Successful volunteers need room and time to grow. Let them.
2. Assume everyone you ask to serve will stick around until the end.
People stay in the game because they feel needed and valued. Wise volunteer coordinators and committee chairs ask volunteers the following questions frequently: How can I better support you? How can I make things easier for you? What tools do you need?
3. Don’t allow people to tell you where they want to serve.
Here’s your choice. You can sell a depressing story of your organizational need and hook someone who can’t say no. Or you can go for the partnership of win-win. Conversations with potential volunteers about their desire to be involved, experiences, history, talents and wants create winning partnerships. Allow them to test-drive the experience by connecting with another person serving in that role before committing to the assignment.
4. Give them a task with no instruction, expectations or feedback and expect them to hang themselves.
Job descriptions, clear vision and expectations are keys to successful volunteer roles. Coaching, direction, guidelines and support along with feedback, re-training and direction can lead the volunteer to new heights. Omit these items and you can expect failure.
5. If people are doing their job well, don’t worry too much about their personal and professional lives.
A volunteer is only as good as their personal and professional lives. If the volunteer is spending extraordinary amounts of time on the project, a discussion is in order. What are they avoiding or escaping? How are they meeting their own family, health and personal needs? Finding leaders that can balance their volunteer roles with their personal lives is imperative to success.
6. Just make up the rules as the project grows.
Before recruiting volunteers, have a purpose, a plan and a budget. Identify and discuss the needs and opportunities. Telling new volunteers that you trust their judgment is the way to open the door for the volunteer to do what they want. After they have proven themselves for a while, they you can give them authority to call the shots.
7. Distinguish too much between staff and volunteers.
It’s easy to blame volunteers for mistakes, errors and being unmotivated instead of accepting the blame for our inability to coach them. Staff must equip and support volunteers. We must move past the we-they territorialism.
8. Keep volunteers in their current roles even if it is the wrong fit.
Never leave a volunteer in a role very long without assessing and evaluating the fit. If it is wrong, end it immediately and give them a new volunteer role.
9. Direct the program from the Ivory Tower.
Never ask someone to serve where you have not tried the role yourself. You need to understand the commitments and responsibilities needed. See your volunteer as a partner in service not a minion to do your bidding.
10. Consider volunteer job descriptions are passé.
A printed and agreed upon job description is a good way to make sure you and your volunteer are on the same plan.
What are some other ways to ensure that your volunteers will fail? As a volunteer, what do you wish your organization did to help you be successful?