You Don’t Know Jack About Working With Volunteers

(Here are some of my notes from Cynthia D’Amour’s Lazy Leader Road Show “Creating A Surplus Of Volunteers” which recently stopped in Dallas.)

Martyr leader volunteers! Our organizations are rife with them.

They are the survival strategy for many nonprofits. Yet, focusing on them can actually kill an organization.

The Awful Truth About Our Current Volunteer Strategies

We reward volunteers who are over-achievers. The ones that throw their entire lives out of balance each year in the name of volunteering. The harder the volunteer works, the more likely they are to get an award.

We shine the spotlight on them as our organization’s best, brightest and most effective. We incentivize their competition against other volunteers for the Martyr Leader Of The Year Award.

We reward those that give 110%. Their blood sweat and tears. Their determined commitment. Those that put volunteering above their families and relationships.

Most of these volunteers do all the work themselves. They are the ones that say, “It’s easier for me to do it than train someone else.” Or they say, “Others may not do it right.” Or, “I can do it quicker, better, faster.”

Those watching the martyr leader’s rise to glory sit in awe and say, “I could never do that. I don’t have time.” Or, “I can’t give 110%. I can only give an hour a week.”

And we wonder why more people won’t step up to replace these bright, shiny, martyr leaders.

Nor do realize that these martyr leaders are actually risk management issues. If they die, all of the knowledge about the projects they lead (translation: do by their self) dies with them.

Time To Rethink Our Volunteer Strategies

We’ve got our thinking about working with volunteer leaders backwards.

“We need to shift gears and create new volunteer leader strategies,” says the Cynthia D’Amour, maven of the magnificent lazy leader concept. “We need to create lazy leaders that focus on developing people rather than doing the work. They create teams of excited volunteers who share the workload.”

We need leaders that get the work done through others.

Changing The Volunteer Pitch

D’Amour says that organizations need to change the way they ask for volunteers. Most have a yearly cattle call for volunteers. Many look at a potential volunteer’s profession and then try to plug them into a committee that aligns with their profession. That doesn’t always lead to success.

People volunteer for organizations for three reasons:

1. Personal or professional development. Skills development.

They are looking for a safe place to learn some new skills. They want to improve their personal and professional lives.

2. To make a difference.

3. Meet new people.

These volunteers are looking for community. They want to be part of the party. They enjoy networking.

Instead of an annual volunteer fair, volunteer recruitment is done all year long. Staff and leaders are trained to quickly identify the hot button of the potential volunteer. As new people attend meetings, leaders ask, “What brings you here? How can I help?”

Then with some gentle questioning, the leader can identify the volunteer’s hot button. Aligning the potential volunteer’s hot button with the right role leads to success.

This is one of the first steps to create lazy leaders and organizations with a surplus of volunteers.

What do you look for in a volunteer opportunity? How can we help organizations shift from martyr leaders to D’Amour’s Lazy Leader approach?

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  1. I love this post. I have been thinking a lot about volunteers. I started volunteering a lot and it has given me a greater appreciation for the people who volunteer for my association. I love the different perspective on volunteerism.

    I think that in order to get people to volunteer we have to focus on the value that they get (WIIFM). We all like to think that our associations are top of mind, but they have real jobs too. Like everything, it’s all about the value.

  2. Deirdre Reid says:

    I truly believe that Cynthia’s book, The Lazy Leader’s Guide to Outrageous Results, should be bought in bulk by every association and given to all their incoming directors, chairs and vice-chairs. There’s so much work to be done and so many members who would be willing to do just a little piece of it if only they had the chance.

  3. Mike McCurry says:

    Jeff, great post.

    I would add a fourth element… that ppl volunteer because they are interested in building their personal brand. What better way to build credibility with industry peers than to participate on a committee, or task force and actually walk the talk.

    Too many ppl offer criticism on how things should be different or better, yet they don’t put their actions where their words are. The “Do’ers” are the ones that make a difference, not the philosophers.

    Thanks for a great post.


  4. Jeff, I was thrilled when you came to the debut in Dallas. Even more excited to see your write up of key points! Nice job.

    Jessica – way to go on embracing volunteering. It’s a neat space to learn a lot, make a difference and have a lot of fun.

    Deidre, thanks for the kudos for the Lazy Leader book!

    Mike – I agree with you for the potential to show what you are made of and strengthen your personal brand through volunteering. In my mind that could be personal/professional development of sorts.

    That said, it is more important to realize as volunteers we do not come from cookie cutters. They have to showcase relevant value in our involvement – whatever that may be! Leaders have to speak to us – rather than just want matters to them.


  5. Emily Breder says:

    This post was really enlightening. I’d never thought about it in exactly those terms, but you’re right. You need to create activities and engagement geared toward each volunteer type.

    I work with several non-profits that really need to read this article. I will pass it along.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading, commenting and passing the article along. Cynthia is the diva of all things related to volunteers and a great resource. Her free Chapter Leaders Playground, for volunteer leaders, has a wealth of information and resources.

  6. […] thing that I have noticed is that while it can be rewarding, it can be very frustrating. Jeff Hurt, in a recent blog post, shed some light on this. Expectations for volunteers are not always clear and many times […]

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