Managing Volunteers

Lyn Turknett

Co-founder and Co-chair, TLG

What’s the biggest problem you’ve ever had managing volunteers? If you’ve ever been a volunteer and have let a volunteer commitment slip to meet a “real work” deadline, you likely know what most people answer: holding people accountable when you have no authority over them.  

Interestingly, though, that problem is one of the reasons that management guru Peter Drucker insisted that volunteering for a nonprofit or association was the best management training available. And if that was true decades ago for Drucker, it’s even more true today, as our work becomes less about managing tasks and more about leading knowledge workers who have a lot of choice about where they work. We can rarely use our position power to make things happen, even in our day jobs.  

To manage volunteers, you have to do the same three things any leader must do – you have to create a shared vision, build strong relationships, and then execute, finding ways to manage accountability and assure follow through. Creating a shared vision is the first step. Dan Pink in Drive argues that people are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In a volunteer situation it’s important to build on the sense of mission and purpose that people often feel when committing volunteer time. Tell your team why you are committed to the cause, and, if possible, ask each person to share their commitment so that others can hear. Work to build a vision for each project you work on as well. Why are we doing this? What will it look like when we finish? What will make us proud?  

In leadership it’s important to be aware of two things at all times – one’s own personality and propensities and the exact situation at hand. That awareness is especially important as you build a team and manage execution. Most of us find one of those areas of leadership more difficult than the other – either it’s easier for us to build relationships and a strong team, or it’s easier to hold ourselves and others accountable and manage follow through. I have found two models especially useful as leaders build the skills they need – the Leadership Character Model ™ and situational leadership.  

Leadership Character

Leadership Character Leadership is grounded in character – people willingly follow only leaders they trust and respect. In a business setting people may stay on the team of a scoundrel for a pay check only, but you can rest assured that in a volunteer situation they will quickly jump ship. The Leadership Character Model™ is a representation of the kind of character anyone needs to lead, whether they are running a Fortune 50 company or a volunteer fundraiser. Leadership Character is visually represented as a scale, with Integrity as the strong, solid base and Respect and Responsibility balanced on either side. On the Respect side leaders must develop Empathy, Humility, Emotional Mastery, and Lack of Blame. On the Responsibility side of the scale they must develop and demonstrate Accountability, Self-confidence, Courage, and Focus on the Whole. Most of us find one of those areas of leadership more difficult than the others. Balancing the two sides is key – if someone on your team isn’t pulling their weight you need a pitch perfect balance of empathy and accountability to address the issue.  

leadership model  

The Leadership Character Model ™

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership theory was first developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard when collaborating on the first edition of Management of Organizational Behavior in 1969 – and it is just as useful today as it was then. The idea is that leadership style needs to vary according to the situation and according to the maturity/developmental level of the person they are managing. Leadership styles are basically combinations of Direction and Support. If you are strong and balanced on the two sides of the Leadership Character scale you will find both Direction and Support relatively easy. If you are high on Responsibility and low on Respect, though, you may find Support difficult. If you low on Responsibility and high on Respect, Support may come easily but you may struggle getting people to follow through, especially when you are leading only by influence.  

Developmental level varies not simply by person but by task. For example, if you have a seasoned accountant on your volunteer team that person may be at a top development level for most tasks within his or her company, but will may be new to the volunteer organization and in need of information and close management.

Ken Blanchard’s describes Development Level as a combination of competence and commitment. He says that when people start a job – or join a committee – they are highly motivated and committed, but their competence is low. At Developmental Level 1 volunteers need lots of Direction. They are eager at that time for tons of information, but too often no one takes advantage of that motivation and hunger for information. Remember that when you are leading volunteers. When a new person joins as a volunteer, you will strengthen motivation if you provide great orientation. Include things like:

An explanation of the most common acronyms of the organization and a sheet that describes the rest. 

A history of the organization and a description of all programs 

Names and a bit of history on current leaders – too often names get thrown around and the new volunteer feels like an outsider.

At Developmental Level 2 people still need a good bit of Direction, but now they’ve likely lost some of that beginning enthusiasm – and perhaps they’ve encountered some roadblocks. Now they need both Direction and Support – information, project plans, and deadlines along with appreciation and supportive conversation. A few ideas for support might be:

  • Send frequent notes of appreciation and encourage the group to do the same for each other. You can bet that every volunteer frequently thinks, “I don’t have to do this; this is not my real job.” The next thought is, “And someone should thank me.” 
  • Keep mission front and center. You want everyone thinking first about why they are doing this – the mission of the organization and the cause they are trying to advance. 
  • Let volunteers participate in idea generation and brainstorming. The more excited volunteers are about the mission of the organization the more they want to add their voice. If you are in the meeting, hear all the voices and acknowledge, but keep the meeting moving toward closure. 
  • Make meetings fun when you can. You may want to set meeting ground rules that all agree on early on. I find the ground rule of balanced participation extremely helpful in any meeting. One option for expressing this is: “We need all voices. Speak up if you tend to be reticent, and limit your air time if you tend to be very vocal.” 
  • Connect people who would benefit from knowing each other – that can help the volunteer experience be even more helpful for a career, and certainly builds loyalty.

Many of us, no matter what our natural propensity, struggle with holding others accountable when we are not in charge. There are some great ideas in Stanley Portny’s Project Management for Dummies. A few that may be helpful when managing volunteers are:

  • Be specific regarding end results, time frames, and expected levels of effort 
  • Get a specific commitment! 
  • Put it in writing 
  • Emphasize the urgency and importance of the assignment 
  • Tell others about the person’s commitment  
  • Agree on a plan for monitoring the person’s work (in a volunteer setting this will mean setting deadlines that all are aware of) 
  • Always acknowledge good performance – never forget the support!

At Developmental Level 3, according to Blanchard, people are knowledgeable about the task, and don’t need much direction, but may still lack confidence, and often need support, encouragement, and a willing ear. And the volunteer may be more confident and competent about that project than you are. I remember a year when I served as the leader of all the major events for an Association. One person on my team had managed the major fundraiser for several years, and had the project down cold. She did a phenomenal job, and any meddling from me would have added nothing. That’s the kind of volunteer we are all hoping to grow – and become!