Leading Volunteers

Leadership of Volunteers

leadershipSeveral weeks ago we participated in a weekend retreat sponsored by our local Rotary District. The session is entitled RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership Awards) and was attended by over ninety high school juniors from across southeastern North Carolina. These students were selected by their high school counselors not only as outstanding students, but leaders in their schools. During several sessions on leadership, we explained the processes that we had implied in the business and military environment, but these presentations seem to fall short of their expectations. These students were the leaders of student organizations and Clubs and were trying to understand why their members were not following their wishes.

The issues that are faced by these young people are the same as those by any leader of a volunteer organization. Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, Youth Sports Groups, Scouts, and Parent Teacher Associations all have the same issues. It often becomes that a small group of those involved do the majority of the work. They may develop goals, plans, assign responsibilities, and follow up with reporting, but there is often discouraging results. What ideas can we pass on to these young leaders before they become too discouraged?


Simon Sinek tells us to Start with Why, so let’s ask why these people have joined the club or organization. High schools students may join a club because it looks good on their resume for college. They might join to meet good looking girls (or cute boys). People might join a service organization to develop a business network or because they are generally interested in servicing others. They may join the Scouts because as a child they loved scouting activities or just because their children are excited about scouting activates.

Understanding the motivation of members is critical to leadership. Providing social activities for high school students may strengthen their involvement. Providing opportunities to do hands-on projects can be a better motivator than just raising funds. Understanding the WHY of people in the group is the key to motivation. It may not be that obvious and not be the same as the leaders.

Don’t Ask for Volunteers

There comes a time in any club or service organization when you need to ask for volunteers to help with a project or activity. Sometimes we just ask people to step forward or we send around a sign-up sheet. This often produces discouraging results.

It is critical that the leader emphasize the importance of participation and the satisfaction one receives by being part of the effort. Sell every aspect of being involved. Our club hands out dictionaries to every third grader in the school. In handing each child a book, there comes the realization that it may be the only one they own. There also comes the sincere thanks in the eyes of the child receiving the gift. Emotionally communicating to those you wish to participate is critical to your leadership.

It also should be recognized that there will be those who would prefer to sit on the side lines and pass on the opportunity. They work under the assumption that someone else will do it and there is no need for them to be involved. Don’t let them sit back. Personally ask them to join the activity. Tell them you need them. Let them know that their involvement will help make the project successful and they are needed. Assume that anyone who joins a volunteer organization wants to help but may be a little shy in getting involved.

Provide the Reward of Recognitionrecognition

In a volunteer organization, you cannot give out monetary rewards. You can give out trophies and plaques, but at some point that becomes less meaningful. You can thank people both personally and publicly. We often take that simple thank you for granted but it is a powerful but invisible tool. Take pictures of those involved in the activity. Post on the wall, your website or send them to the newspaper with a press release. All this provides you with increased interest the next time you need participation.

You Can’t Fire a Volunteer

One of my most frustrating situations as a volunteer leader was having someone in a position that they were unable to perform. I had found a club member who by his occupation and resume would be a great treasurer. Within the first few months of his term in office, I realized that they did not have the skills to do the job. Reports were not getting completed on time and there was great uncertainty with using the simple accounting software. Financial reports never made sense and the board of directors was getting upset. We had several counselling sessions and I was on the verge of performing the role myself. (By the way, taking over a role by a leader is more common that you might think in this type of situation.) In the end, we were lucky to find an assistant treasurer who, in essence took over the responsibilities. The treasurer eventually took this opportunity to move on to other activities. In the business world, a quick termination would have been the appropriate action.

Remember This

In a volunteer organization you cannot please all of the people all of the time. Don’t expect to get everyone as involved as you would like them to be. Use every skill you have to motivate them, but some will not join in. Measure your success by increasing the number who do.

Another Lesson

Leaders are not born, they are made. They are made not by taking classes in school. They develop their skills through observation and practice. I was once told by a Rotary leader that our Clubs were a place where members could develop these skills, and the best part is that no one would not get fired. Use you experience as a volunteer leader to develop your skills.