leading volunteers

Leading Volunteers Is Easier When You Adopt These Practical Techniques

Contrary to popular belief of those outside of the field, leading volunteers not easy work! And especially now, leaders of volunteers are called upon to strengthen their volunteer leadership skills. The ability to inspire and influence is critical to a volunteer coordinator’s success on the job. Whether they work with volunteers, community partners, executive management, or colleagues, a coordinator must develop skills that inspire action.

The typical information and training’s you will find for volunteer coordinators focuses on developing management skills. What volunteer leaders truly need are actionable steps they can take to strengthen leadership competencies. Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence about what makes a good leader and, research shows that leadership across the private, public, and nonprofit sectors doesn’t differ that much.

Today, I am sharing 3 leadership models you can easily incorporate into your work as a leader of volunteers.

When you do, your organization will reap the benefits of highly engaged and motivated volunteers!

Inspirational Leadership: Leading Volunteers to Inspire Commitment

In their influential book, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, James Kouzes & Barry Posner offer a well-researched model for five practices and ten commitments of exemplary leadership. Findings show leaders who exhibited these traits were able to bring about notable changes in their organizations through inspirational leadership.

They found that leadership wasn’t just a nice, feel-good concept. Leadership, when exercised with value-driven commitment, actually makes a positive difference. Below are some of the concrete ways better leadership made an impact across a wide variety of contexts.  Most noteworthy, they are also often-cited challenges volunteer managers work hard to overcome.

  • Created higher-performing teams
  • Fostered loyalty and greater commitment
  • Increased fundraising results and gift levels
  • Increased retention and reduced and turnover

Volunteer Leadership: An Evidence-based Model in Practice

Below are Kouzes and Posner’s five practices and ten commitments that promise improved performance and more impactful results. Consequently, this model is highly in the nonprofit realm, and I’ve suggested some ways they might be adapted for practical use in leading volunteers.

  1. Model the Way
    • Clarify values by finding your voice & affirming shared values
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Develop a Philosophy of Volunteer Engagement that describes how and why volunteers are involved and share it with management and staff.
    • Set the example by aligning actions with shared values
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Walk the talk by working alongside volunteers from time to time, to better understand their experiences and needs.
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision
    • Envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Imagine and describe to other ways volunteers can lead versus follow at your organization.
    • Enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Involve volunteers in their future with the organization, and brainstorm with them new and exciting ways they can volunteer.
  3. Challenge the Process
    • Search for opportunities by seizing the initiative and looking outward for innovative ways to improve
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Seek out cross-disciplinary and cross-sector collaborations (with business, academia, etc.) to unearth new discoveries and approaches.
    • Experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from experience
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Test new ideas and work towards improvement by guiding volunteers through developing small, self-reflective “growth pilot projects”.
  4. Enable Others to Act
    • Foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Actively assist volunteers in developing deep-rooted relationships by infusing trust- and teambuilding activities in meetings and trainings.
    • Strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Develop a leadership pathway and training that volunteers can use to develop their leadership skills and assume greater responsibility.
  5. Encourage the Heart
    • Recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: On a regular basis, recognize individual volunteers for personal improvements and successes, both in partnership with the organization and outside it.
    • Celebrate the values and victories by creating a spirit of community
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Share and archive photographs and stories that document the “living history” of volunteer achievements at your organization.

Shared Leadership: Build Inclusive, More Effective Organizations

shared volunteer leadershipWith shared leadership the distribution of responsibility and decision-making across an organization is expanded.  The idea is certainly appealing.  If we are more inclusive in our decision-making, will we be more effective organizations?  Can we do more with what we already have?  And, if so, what’s holding us back?

As nonprofits are stretched to the limit in lean times, the responsibility to lead, for some, may have already shifted out of sheer necessity.  The community need for services is increasing, and budgets and staffing levels are not always adequate.  In a recent study, 62% of organizations with budgets of $1-million or less relied on their current staff members to support new programs last year versus hiring more people. So, something has got to give.

To further inspire change, the command-and-control supervisory style is losing its effectiveness.  Anyone who has tried that approach with volunteers lately knows what I’m talking about.  More and more, volunteers are expressing the need for autonomy and authority over how they get their work done; “envelope stuffing,” or performing general office duties on-demand, just doesn’t hold the appeal it once did. 

Can We Do More with More?

Apparently, given the right circumstances, we can.  The Strengthening Organizations to Mobilize California, a capacity-building initiative to support leadership learning, found that “the organizations found that they could do more with less (funds) by doing more with more (leadership).”  They also found that most organizations defaulted to a hierarchical structure not because people are power-hungry, but because they simply didn’t have an alternative model to work from.  So, what’s needed?

Three Necessary Organizational Characteristics for Leading Volunteers

The study noted three common characteristics of nonprofits that were able to make shared leadership a reality.

1) Ability adapts leadership style to the situation — In other words, use a top-down approach when it’s warranted (i.e., firing someone) and a shared leadership approach when it makes more sense (i.e., developing a strategic plan).

2) Staff willingness to take ownership —  They must agree to take on greater responsibility and accountability for the increase in influence (and this can’t be mandated).

3) Culture of trust — Staff and volunteers must feel able to take risks without negative consequences, as they flex their leadership muscles.

Four Critical Organizational Pre-requisites

The researchers also identified four necessary ingredients that make a transition to shared leadership more likely.

1) A champion for change at the senior leadership level

2) An investment in time upfront (with a reduction in efficiency at the outset)

3) Management fundamentals already in place

4) Explicit Leadership responsibilities in job descriptions

It’s clear that, for the organizations studied at least, shared leadership would not have come about simply because people wished for it or saw a need.  To make it possible, each organization had to have some crucial characteristics in their DNA at the outset.  And, they had to be willing to get the pre-requisites in place that would contribute to their success.

Optimism Leadership: Overcoming Challenges and Leading Volunteers with Grace

Years ago, I created an  animated video about the fictional volunteer interview gone awry.  Several people commented on the bittersweet nature of the content — “‘Tis sad, but true.  The volunteer-organization communication divide is alive and well.” were some of the more common sentiments I heard. 

The video also touched a nerve with a few people who remain frustrated with the state of affairs.  They asked for some advice on how to engage with optimism leadership in a challenging environment.  Here are a few things that work for me.

Six Tips to Re-boot or Engage in Optimism Leadership

1) Own It — A few years ago, a dear friend gifted me a subscription to the Daily Motivator, an email of daily affirmations that are sometimes corny, but often wise.  The most valuable lesson, and a theme that is infused throughout almost every essay is that there is only one person who can change your frame of mind — you.  The most important step for me was understanding this core principle — It really helps me stay focused on what I can actually control (i.e. my own actions) versus wasting energy on things and people that I can’t.  This focus requires constant tending, but it’s worth it.

2) Protect It — If you find your own slice of inner peace, protect your sanctuary!  This is particularly challenging for people in the helping professions, like us.  We take pride in being compassionate and caring, however, taking on other people’s problems can also sap us of energy and optimism.  Be sure you set clear boundaries and communicate what kind of behavior and attitudes are acceptable in your air space.  Although you can’t control other people, you can certainly control how much of your attention you spend on them.  And sometimes, as my good friend and one of the most motivating people alive, Robert Mitchell, once advised me “Tobi, sometimes you just have to give them the ‘gift of goodbye’.”

3) Expand Your Field of VisionI try to regularly read business books, blogs, articles, etc. that are not necessarily geared toward nonprofits.  They often offer new solutions and fresh insights to the problems I’m helping my clients with — for example, check out Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath.  A client and I tweaked some of the strategies in the book to pro-actively address potential resistance to a new performance enhancement initiative.  And, Voila!  It worked! 

4) Get a Does of Vitamin “I” — I stands for “Ideas.”  When I’m uninspired with myself or the world, I stream quick 15-minute Ted videos (www.ted.com/talks) on my laptop to see what the smartest and most creative people in the world are thinking.  They may not relate directly to what I’m doing, but the ideas are fascinating and usually the speakers are upbeat and have a great way of engaging with their audiences.   

5) Give Your Brain a Break — Humor is a great way to distract your brain from all of the stress and worry that’s bringing you down.  So, take time to watch and read things (and hang out with people) that make you giggle.  The Energize Inc website has a humor section to get you started.  Also, here’s a list of top humor websites you can check out.

6) Cultivate Patience — Although I really do wish there was an App that would magically adjust my attitude (and with all the funk in the air lately, I could sure use it!), it hasn’t arrived yet.  So, I try to take the long view, if I can, although this isn’t my strong point. There actually ARE a bunch of Optimism iPhone Apps that claim to help you build happiness — Who knew!? — but no silver bullets there.)

Your Thoughts on Leading Volunteers

Which volunteer leadership skills are missing that you would add to this list? Furthermore, are there other leadership models that work well in our context? Share your thoughts and comments below.