Leading Volunteers: A Rewarding and Challenging Experience

Published on
August 30, 2020
Time to read: 
2019 HRPA Eastern Conference: Emerging Workplace Trends.
Promotional image for the 2019 HRPA Eastern Conference. Courtesy of HRPA.Promotional image for the 2019 HRPA Eastern Conference. Courtesy of HRPA.

This week I’d like to talk about leading volunteers. For example, as a Board member with a not for profit organization or in a professional association.

Volunteering to lead other volunteers, is a great way to get leadership experience, particularly if leading people is something you enjoy doing, and/or aspire to do in a professional capacity.

Leading volunteers can actually be more complex and challenging than leading people you’re being paid to lead. Volunteers agree to work because they believe in what they’re doing. They have the latitude to choose how much work they’re willing to do, and when they want to do it. If volunteers don’t like your leadership style, they will find somewhere else to volunteer. People will often stay in workplaces where they don’t agree with the leaders, or like their style of leadership, because they have bills to pay. If their work bosses abuse their authority, the paid workers will often choose to do the minimum possible amount of work, in as much time as they can, using what human resources professionals call “presenteeism” as their work ethic. Volunteers on the other hand, don’t stick around when the culture shifts to something contrary to their values. They find somewhere else to volunteer.

The key to leading volunteers is to get to know who they are, what they’re interested in, what their aptitudes and strengths are, what they aspire to accomplish both as volunteers and in the long term outside of volunteering. Give volunteers the training and resources to perform their roles, additional training if they aspire to do other roles, and the opportunity to try new things. If you have a group of teenagers volunteering with your organization, and two express an interest in leading others, split your teens into two groups and assign work to those groups, under the guidance of the budding leaders.  Be there to answer their questions, and provide encouraging words of advice, while still allowing them the opportunity to lead. The best practice is to give new leaders some training before assigning them that responsibility.

When you know what your volunteers like and are good at doing, you can assign people the tasks they are best suited for. Know what your volunteers don’t like to do, or are not good at, and avoid assigning them those tasks. For example, I’m quite happy to brainstorm strategic plans and help figure out where to get the resources needed to bring those plans to fruition. However, I know I’m not the right person to do detail work, such as keeping the books and creating financial records. I understand and can explain balance sheets and income statements, just don’t ask me to input the credits and debits in the books.

Everyone performs better when they are assigned roles that they enjoy, are good at, and want to do.  This is as true for volunteers as anyone else you’ll lead. If the majority of the tasks you assign to volunteers are things they don’t like, they’ll quit.

Setting clear objectives for your volunteers is important. They need to know what they’re working towards. People perform better whey they understand why they’ve been asked to do the work, and how it fits into the organization’s overall mission.
Another thing to consider, is that sometimes volunteer’s other commitments (family, work, life) get in the way of them completing their tasks. I recommend setting aspirational due dates for deliverables and creating back-up plans such as knowing which volunteers can take over additional tasks, if others are unable to complete their work.

It's important to check in with your volunteers, to learn what progress they’ve made, and to keep them in the loop about what others are doing, so they understand how they fit into the big picture, and they feel a sense of group accomplishment. While you’re doing those check ins, thank your volunteers by name for what they’ve accomplished.

How often you meet with your volunteers depends on the sort of work you’re doing together. You may check in on a weekly basis when working on a short term project. When leading a large project, you may check in on a monthly basis until the last month or two of the project’s completion, when it’s a good idea to check in more often with key volunteers.

I’ve been leading people for close to 40 years. About 25 years ago, while still serving as an officer in the Canadian military, I started leading other volunteers. I’ve led volunteers with the Girl Guides of Canada, with the Business and Professional Women (BPW) Trenton & District Club and with the Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA). Since January 2018, I’ve been the HRPA Eastern Ontario (#HRPAEastern) Conference Planning Committee Chair. The Committee includes up to 30 people, most of whom are volunteers. A few paid HRPA staff help out. The inaugural #HRPAEastern Conference held in September 2018 drew 150 participants, the September 2019 conference drew 250 participants. The next #HRPAEastern conference was postponed to 2021. I’m confident that it will be even bigger and more successful.

If you aspire to hone your leadership skills, I recommend that you step up at work or in a volunteer capacity, to lead others. The best way to get better at leading, is to practice. If you want a real challenge – volunteer to lead volunteers!

I would love to learn from your stories about leading volunteers and/or volunteering to lead.