Leadership Barometer 102 Leading Volunteer Groups

Most of my writing on the topic of leadership is centered on organizations (for profit and not for profit) where people are paid to work. The leadership dynamics often focus on the power implied in the hierarchy. When one person has economic influence over other people, it sets up some challenging dynamics.

There is another category of leadership that deals with people who volunteer to invest their time because they believe in a cause.  In every community there are numerous examples of this from the Boy and Girl Scouts to Rotary and a host of other volunteer or service groups.

My wife and I both have been leading volunteer organizations for years. She is involved with a large international group, while I am leading a local effort. We find that there are a number of different concepts to think about when leading a group of volunteers. Here are some of the obvious differences between volunteer groups and commercial or business groups.                                        



Volunteer Group

Commercial Group

People donate their time, talent, and treasure for a cause that is meaningful to them

People are paid to work and hope to advance to higher pay

Members often have other higher priority commitments: job, family, etc.

Employees often have a full time job and balance family life

Tenure lasts only as long as the interest is there and it fits the schedule

Tenure is often over a period of many years or a career

People perform well because they are highly motivated by the cause and the relationships/friendships they develop in the group

People perform well in order to advance to earn more money

Organizations are often made up of several teams or committees

Organizations often exist in a military style hierarchy

Organization is fluid and morphs to meet current needs

Organizations are more fixed and slower to change



Solidify Purpose, Mission, and Vision

In a volunteer organization, people are not paid to do this work, so keeping them fully engaged in the Purpose of the organization is essential.  Leaders must continually remind people why we do what we do. The purpose statement leads directly to the Mission statement, which gives a succinct statement of what we do. The Vision statement tells us where we are going and why it will be a better world when we get there.

Agree on a set of Values

Values give us a firm grip on how we behave in any situation. It is vital that the leader always model the values, especially when it in inconvenient or expensive to do it. This behavior allows trust to grow. Trust is just as important in volunteer organizations as it is in commercial organization.

Agree on a Set of Expected Behaviors

This aspect is critical for volunteer organizations because people (including the leader) need to follow the rules they have agreed to.  A lot of times groups skip over the documentation of behaviors. This is a big mistake, because it weakens the ability for all members to hold each other accountable. When behaviors get out of hand, volunteers sometimes leave rather than deal with it constructively.

In a commercial entity, the positional power of the leaders as a result of having control of the purse strings usually helps keep people doing the right things.

A volunteer organization rewards people in non-monetary ways, such as fellowship, pursuit of a cause, the joy of helping others, etc. People need to feel appreciated and should experience some fun with the activities. When people start feeling overworked, it is time to bring in more help so volunteers don’t burn out.

Create Strategies, Tactics and Goals

Strategies describe the main pathway from the current situation to the vision. We must do these things to reach our destination together. The tactics tell us who is going to do what by when in order to accomplish the strategies. The goals are how we measure progress on the journey. The best goals are called “SMART Goals (for Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time- Bound). Volunteers need to be involved in setting the goals of the group.

Constantly Monitor the Succession Plan  

The pace of personnel moves in a volunteer organization can be more fluid than for a commercial venture. Reason: people can join and leave at very little personal cost and with very little warning.  It is critical to have good bench strength and be flexible to adapt quickly to changing conditions.  

I found out this aspect the hard way.  I am chair of the Board of Directors of an organization that reinforces ethical behaviors with an award program.  I had a successor all lined up to take over my position a couple years ago. Abruptly, she had to move out of the area due to her husband’s health, so I went back to the drawing board. The next year I had a wonderful replacement lined up and trained, but she was just offered a dream job in another state and will not be able to succeed me. So, once again I have to look for a successor.

You also need to be constantly recruiting people to replace the ones that end up leaving. I found that being involved in many different local organizations was the best way to meet good people who are looking for an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do.  Often these people are gainfully employed with a commercial organization and are volunteering for your organization as a side interest.  That double allegiance really adds to the potential for volatility.

It is much more challenging to get national and international volunteers and incorporate them into the operation of the organization. The era of interactive virtual events that draw interested people from around the world makes it easier to connect. Also, proper utilization of social media can build interest in the organization and draw in both volunteers and donors.

When leading a volunteer organization, the cardinal rule it to expect the unexpected and remain flexible.  If you have put in place the elements outlined in this article, you will be more successful. 



The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.


Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.



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