Commitment is Key with Volunteers

The commitment topic is a tough one for leaders and an especially tough one for leaders of volunteer teams and organizations. Recently I spent a couple of late hours with a team from a philanthropic group that had just completed a large event. In the debrief, the greatest frustration was the leadership quandry of working with volunteers. You know the thought process…since these people aren’t getting paid and this isn’t their “job,” then it is difficult to hold them accountable to whatever outcome has been decided.

Is that really true? As I was thinking about this it occurred to me that this is based on an interesting assumption: if a person has a job at stake, they will be more committed than if they are volunteering. Like most assumptions, this one is dangerous in the conventional wisdom that it supports. We wouldn’t have to deal with commitment issues at work because the consequence of “job” would translate into commitment by our employees…a situation that we know is not true.

That’s not to say that leading volunteers is without it’s unique challenges. Many times people will “commit” to a volunteer endeavor without understanding the obligation that is actually necessary to make it successful. This is partly the volunteer's fault because they haven’t thought all the way through it, but it is often a problem created by the leader as well who, in recruiting the individual, focuses on the altruistic outcome as opposed to the work or responsibility actually expected of the volunteer.

Nonetheless, leaders of volunteers can learn a lot about leadership from their non-volunteer counterparts. If you are challenged with leading a voluntary work force, conLeading Volunteers can be Challengingsider the following:

1. For followers, the objective has to be clear. It is crucial that the leader is clear about not only the objectives, but the SPECIFIC objectives of the individual’s activities. For volunteer organizations, the mission is often quite broad…to provide affordable housing, or to bring food to the unfed. But for any individual volunteer, it is important that they have a clear picture of what THEIR objective is going to be. For a person to be committed, they have to understand what they are trying to accomplish in both a micro and macro way.

2. The ability to “walk away” should not be reason to be held hostage. This again is true both in the corporate and the non-profit sector, except in volunteer organizations there is generally a “thankfulness” issue from the part of the leader. We are so grateful that the volunteer is willing to help that we engage in a dysfunctional arrangement from the beginning. The follower may feel entitled to a degree of appreciation that they do not expect in their workplace (sad but true). So you already have a “one-up, one-down” relationship except in this case the organization is the “one-down.” If followers are not committed enough to fulfill their obligations, you should let them go wherever they want. The hostage situation never works long-term.

3. Make clear that once a volunteer signs up, they are accountable. Volunteer groups often avoid setting up guidelines or rules for their followers…starting on time, ending on time, being at every meeting or event, etc. Because it is so unbelievable that a volunteer organization would actually “fire” a volunteer, it also sometimes feels that rules and guidelines for participation can not be imposed because the resource will disappear. Unfortunately, this means the leader is focusing on keeping the ones who are not 100% committed as opposed to respecting the ones who are. If you have a volunteer who has agreed to fulfill a role, and if you have been clear and transparent on the expectations of that role, then there is no reason to avoid accountability once the process has started.

Non-profit organizations, churches and volunteer teams are all integral parts of our society. Without the willingness of people to give freely of their time to causes of significance, our advancement and success would be greatly impacted. That said, volunteers need leadership as much as non-volunteers. This means direction, encouragement, engagement and accountability to the cause of the organization. The leader has to take this responsibility seriously as well. This exchange of commitment between the leader and follower will produce greater satisfaction and results for all involved.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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