Leading Volunteers and Earning Discretionary Effort

By Tom Davidson

How to lead volunteers and others because they don’t have to be there and they don’t plan to stay.

Partially retired and looking for meaningful volunteer work, my wife called a local animal shelter to offer her services, but what happened next is a lesson for anyone who cares about, depends upon, and leads volunteers.

Ellen was no ordinary volunteer. A dog trainer, dog-rescue volunteer and medical professional, she was welcomed to the facility and shown the many services, which were exciting and interesting to her, not to mention a great fit for her skills.

But on her first day, she was assigned to do the laundry – very unpleasant laundry. Used to getting her hands dirty and known for doing things others ignore, she was still a little surprised by the contrast between what she thought she’d be doing and what she was actually being asked to do. Nevertheless, she got on with the job; because she knew that all employees and volunteers, have to do the needed grunt work in order to do the fun work, too.

The Tragedy of the Common Approach
The following week she was given laundry duty again and again the week after that and the week after that. Even for someone always willing to get her hands dirty, this volunteer assignment was nothing like she expected. So after six weeks, she stopped going back, and no one ever called to find out why. The organization never knew what a valuable volunteer they lost, and apparently no one cared.

People are much more willing to do the hard work of the organization when it fits their interests and circumstances and when there is something rewarding in it for them. The trick for volunteer leaders is discovering the intrinsic rewards for each person and helping them achieve some of those while they do the work of the organization.

If one story isn’t enough to convince you, then ask yourself these questions from your own experience:

  • When have you given far more effort than you were asked to give?
  • When have you given more time than you probably should have?
  • When have you stepped forward to lead when no one expected you to?

For most people, these occasions were times when the work involved doing something that was uniquely interesting, fun or important – to them. Therefore, understanding what’s important to volunteers is the first priority of volunteer leaders.

Lessons of Experience
To find out what else we should know and do as volunteer leaders, I urned to two experts in our own community.

Vicki Leigh is the Director of the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) Volunteer Network at the American Forest Foundation. She has over 20 years of experience in volunteer engagement and natural resources and is currently responsible for growing the ATFS volunteer network capacity, strengthening its infrastructure and increasing impact.

Lori Rasor is Manager/Editor, Society of American Forester’s (SAF) Northwest Office and Western Forester and works on the Northwest Member Services team for the SAF National Office. After working seasonally for Oregon State Parks, she has been employed by the World Forestry Center since 1985. The Forestry Center contracts her services to SAF, where her duties include budgeting, strategic planning, conference planning and assisting SAF units and members.

The following is a summary of Lori’s and Vicki’s answers to a few key questions, a kind of checklist to help us attract, engage and retain volunteers even better.

What are the keys to mobilizing volunteers?

  • Establish a Vision. Describe what success looks like. If it matches volunteers’ interests, then this will automatically trigger a range of actions that will help make that vision a reality.
  • Set the Tone. Lead by example, being positive, optimistic, excited, creative, diligent and encouraging. Whatever you want others to be, be yourself.
  • Identify Goals. Tangible objectives and milestones focus effort and help volunteers see and feel progress, which is motivational on its own.
  • Ask for Help. Recruit volunteers for roles and tasks by asking them politely and without pressure or desperation. It’s surprising what people will do when asked.
  • Match Interests. Give volunteers the right jobs and tasks to suit their current circumstances and interest level.
  • Be Specific. Describe roles and responsibilities as precisely as possible and outline every task, including deadlines, so it is less frustrating and easier to execute.
  • Spread the Work.Don’t burn out the same volunteers. Always be recruiting new volunteers with easy entry assignments and episodic requests. People are more likely to take on small, discrete jobs than lead a function or a committee.
  • Provide Resources. Give volunteers the tools, information and resources they need to do their jobs.
  • Communicate Relentlessly. Keep people well informed in a timely way about progress, changes, resources, challenges and successes. Except when spammed, people rarely complain about too much information, but they we leave you if there is too little.
  • Make it Fun. While the work is often serious, the process can always be made more enjoyable with social time, activities and good-natured humor.
  • Give Thanks. Offer sincere and meaningful praise and appreciation for volunteer’s efforts at every level, and customize the method of recognition to fit the individual.
  • Be Flexible. While there are key principles, there is no one-size-fits-all method to getting the work done. Every situation is different, so tailor your support and solutions to the circumstances and the individuals involved.
  • Protect Time. Time is the most valuable resource anyone can give, so respect your volunteers’ time by being prepared and efficient.

What are some common mistakes we make when leading volunteers?

  1. Warm-body Mentality. Filling an organization chart or project team with just anyone is many times worse than having a void or vacancy. Just as in the paid workplace, we need to assess what projects we need done, determine the skills required to get project done well, and then carefully recruit individuals that have those specific skills.
  2. Thinking that Volunteers are Free. Volunteers and volunteer leaders pay a high price in terms of their time and opportunity costs, so their tasks and projects should be as well-planned and supported as any paid job.
  3. Micromanaging. If meaningful goals, tasks and timelines are clear and compelling and if good choices were made to fill the roles, then micromanagement and demanding leadership will alienate, not motivate.
  4. Crisis Management. A volunteer might have originated the phrase, “Bad planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” So give people plenty of lead-time, and make the endpoint clear.
  5. Underestimating the Role. Volunteers are sometimes thought of as a means to an end, but volunteers need to be treated as our primary customers who are also the connection to other customers, stakeholders, funders and the wider community.
  6. Insufficient Recognition. In most cases, when milestones are met and the work is complete, we hurry back to catch up on our day jobs without finishing our job as volunteer leaders. Celebrate and say thank you frequently, specifically and in personally tailored ways.

What are the most effective ways to reward and recognize volunteers?

  • Name Recognition. List volunteers in the chapter newsletter or other publications and describe their volunteer efforts for others to see.
  • Peer Recognition. Recognize volunteers at meetings and other such venues with words and symbols such as the following: awarding service pins; having certain groups of members stand; welcoming new and transferring members; calling attention to new jobs, promotions, family milestones; highlighting accomplishments outside of SAF; giving plaques for outgoing leaders; and providing certificates for all sorts of jobs well done.
  • Award Recognition. Nominate volunteers for local, state or regional awards, or create awards that have meaning and promote good will.
  • Gift Recognition. Use small gifts as tokens of appreciation (i.e., gift cards, registration fees to meetings or covering expenses to a conference).
  • Personal Recognition. Write personal thank you notes, and personalize gifts based on the volunteers’ hobbies and tastes. Thank volunteers often and sincerely. Take care in knowing which volunteers like or dislike public recognition and act accordingly.
  • Support-system Recognition. Similar to personal recognition, this refers to thanking the people who made the volunteers’ time possible (i.e., their family, their employer, or their colleagues who shouldered more work while they were volunteering).

Making the Laundry Meaningful
In contrast to the opening story, I went back to my Scouting roots a few years ago and had a very different volunteer experience. Having been an Eagle Scout, Camp Counselor, Scoutmaster, and District Volunteer for the Boy Scouts of America over many years, I approached my local Council office to see what I might do next. Not having a specific role in mind, I was introduced to the Scout Executive in charge.

After brief introductions and background, here some of the questions he asked, long before discussing any specific roles:

  • What brings you back to Scouting?
  • What would you like to get out of your next volunteer job?
  • What would be personally rewarding for you?
  • What might you like to learn from your next assignment?
  • What would a fun job look like?
  • What have you liked and disliked about past volunteer jobs in Scouts?
  • How might this help your business?

He could have directed me to any number of vacancies that were screaming to be filled, but instead he was immediately looking for my interests, my preferences, and my motivators. He knew that this would take time but not nearly as much time as losing an unhappy volunteer or getting little out of him or her while in the role. As a result, he found the perfect match for me in Scouting’s Learning for Life program.

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