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?
Cynthia D'Amour says
Nice list Jeff. Another would be:
11. Micro-manage everything the volunteer does.
Too often,in wanting to make sure a volunteer does it just like they do, volunteer leaders make all decisions for volunteers. And may even do the work for them – giving the message they are not trustworthy. Today’s volunteers want to make a meaningful difference with their work – not be uber micro-managed.
Jeff Hurt says
Yep, I’ve worked under those type of volunteer leaders. Thanks for adding #11.
Mike Burns says
Jeff and Dave, also consider having your volunteers sign off on a contract that lays out mutual expectations, invested time required, goals and outcomes from all parties…Peter Ueberroth made some great points in his book “Made In America” about volunteerism and how he managed this during the 1984 Olympics
Jeff Hurt says
Thanks for the great addition: have your volunteers sign a contract that clearly explains the expectations, time investment, goals and outcomes. Excellent point.
Thanks for reading and commenting. Appreciate it Billy.
Billy Kirsch says
Great guide Jeff, and your title caught my attention and made me want to read the article. This is worth keeping.
Liz Giannini says
These are excellent reminders and a post that I will revisit. Thanks, Jeff.
I’m not sure I agree with #1. I have found that it is important to treat each volunteer as an individual – with different strengths, weaknesses, backgrounds, experiences, and motives for volunteering. By recognizing and appreciating these differences, you can place each individual in a position and role that will benefit the larger team and organization. What about a Baby Boomer volunteer and a Gen Y volunteer? They must be treated differently, given different tasks, communicated with in different means (written and telephone vs email/web). I’m curious to hear your thoughts on my thoughts! Please follow-up.
Wait, on second read, did I completely turn your #1 around? I’m slightly confused by the way you wrote your numbered points on the list. Some have “don’t” in front of them, while others do not and maybe should? Now I’m confused… Sorry!
Jeff Hurt says
I’m so glad you don’t agree with number 1 and turned it around in your thinking! If not, we would never have seen your insight. You added a great comment that illustrated how you treat volunteers with respect and integrity! Thanks for adding it.
Yes, it’s a list of how to make sure that your volunteers fail, not succeed. And yes, some of them start with different words. Thanks for reading and commenting!
David M. Patt, CAE says
Add #12. Force volunteers to endure numerous interviews. After all, you want to be sooooo sure you’re letting the right person donate time.
Add #13. Conduct criminal checks on volunteers. After all, you can’t just have anybody handing out packets at a registration table, can you.
Jeff Hurt says
Love both of those! Especially #13 conduct criminal checks on volunteers. Might as well add financial background checks too. 😉 Thanks for adding them.
joy cook says
my mom worked for m.o.w. (meals on wheels) for 20 yrs and they recently forced her to retire. (budgeting reasons) She’s 76 yrs old and since that job basically kept her going, she kept going as a volunteer. She had been head cook, so she volunteered in the kitchen. Well, the other volunteers who work out front complained that they weren’t allowed to work in the kitchen for insurance purposes, so the head lady of m.o.w. told my mom she couldn’t volunteer anymore. Couldn’t she sign a waiver of liability? She’s been trained and has food handling certificates that are current. She’s been trained in the safety measures of the kitchen and, of course, there’s her experience of 20+ years in that same kitchen. I’m worried now her quality of living will deteriorate…..
Rosemary Peppercorn says
14. Criticize and never thank volunteers. Enable volunteers to publicly humiliate other volunteers.