From Manager to Leader: How to Transform the Way You Coordinate Volunteers

From Manager to Leader: How to Transform the Way You Coordinate Volunteers

Guest post by Clay Boggess

We’ve all had those jobs where bosses are managers, rather than leaders. The difference in our effectiveness and happiness on the job is remarkable. Leadership inspires continued effort and growth, maximizing the potential of each employee, while management breeds stagnation and complacency, or worse.

This same dichotomy is present in volunteer management as well. Volunteer managers may find themselves frustrated by attrition, disengagement or even a lack of opportunities to get volunteers involved. Volunteer leaders, however, keep their finger on the pulse of their teams and convert frustration into energy. Leaders motivate teams through tough times while keeping their organization’s mission front-and-center.

Managers and leaders will invariably encounter the same situations, but the differences in mindset and behaviors are what distinguish them from each other. Learn how you can strive to be a volunteer leader (even if your title says something else!).

Volunteer Leaders are Inspired

When resources are low and costs are high, it is the energy inspired by leadership that elevates a volunteer project to something that makes a cultural and financial difference in a community.

Professional fundraiser Simone Joyaux, Advanced Certified Fundraising Executive (ACFRE), outlines a number of important leadership qualities in her book, ”Strategic Fund Development”. One of the “top functions” of a leader is to motivate others. Joyaux urges leaders in any setting to “Encourage commitment, not just compliance, by engaging the collective beliefs of people in your organization and its mission.”

As the adage goes, you can’t give what you don’t have. Whether you’re a grassroots volunteer organizer or a seasoned professional volunteer manager, your peers will look to you to set the tone, manage expectations, and provide the inspiration for days, weeks, or months of hard work. That means your personal engagement with your organization’s mission is a priceless component in engaging your volunteers.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals, whose scope of work often intersects with volunteer leadership, offers six value propositions for fundraising leaders — many of which translate seamlessly into the volunteer context. Two of these — being the “conscience of mission” and “catalyst of impact” — are key to providing the inspiration your team needs to thrive.

Simply put, you not only need to be aware of the mission, vision, values, and goals of your volunteer program and organization, but you also must use that sense of purpose to ignite a team of other volunteers by casting a vision of what will happen if you successfully meet your goals.

Seek out inspiration for yourself so that you can readily share with and empower others. Make it a goal to meet with key community stakeholders regularly to assess what volunteer-related needs they encounter. Ask them what they want their neighborhood to look like in five years. Then, share these visions with your team and other volunteers. When the going gets tough, your peers will look to the vision you cast and the stories of impact you consistently share to keep them going.

Volunteer Leaders Stay Connected to Community

Which brings me to my next point. Volunteer organizations often serve large geographies, and as a result, have to recruit and engage volunteers from dramatically different communities in order to meet the demands of their organization or project.

Volunteer managers will approach their job by using only the resources provided to them. Volunteer leaders will paint a picture of connectivity between volunteers, their networks, and the community at large. Effective leaders will transform by example, leveraging their own network that extends beyond the neighborhood or organization. If you’re invested in the mission and committed to being an inspired leader, utilizing your personal connections will naturally follow as you pave the way as an ambassador of your volunteer efforts.

Much as development professionals use their personal networks in cultivating committed donors through fundraising, volunteer leaders can use their networks to help build lists for volunteer projects and recruitment. These can include personal connections at work, church, or other community groups, as well as local businesses and restaurants of which you’re a patron. Even your social media followers can be valuable connections to catapult your volunteerism efforts to the next level of success.

Good volunteers leaders know that connections beyond those directly resulting in volunteers, donations. or service opportunities can be valuable assets in their own right. Make it a practice to consider all connections and how someone’s network might be able to indirectly support your project or organization’s goals. The best volunteer practices involve creatively using resources — such as in-kind donations — as incentives to create and enhance engagement in the form of recognition and demonstrations of gratitude for exceedingly impressive commitment.

Volunteer Leaders Communicate

The model of communication in western society hasn’t changed very much over the past century. The fundamentals of the communication process are virtually immutable, and hold true in nearly all environments, from medicine to business to — you guessed it — volunteer leadership.

Leaders across the for-profit and nonprofit world are probably familiar with the “Shannon and Weaver Model of Communication” that emerged in the 1940s. The best leaders, especially those working with volunteers, should keep this model top of mind and pay close attention to one key piece: noise.

Noise comes in the form of homework, meals, work, caregiving, and wrangling busy schedules. It can also come in the form of unexpected personal stress, health issues, and even unexpected car trouble. From the day-to-day to the unexpected, you and your team will face distractions (or noise) from every direction, making it easy to lose sight of the mission and goals of your volunteer engagement campaign.

Nevertheless, as a leader, and even as a support volunteer, the responsibility rests with you to contend with the noise and continuously provide clear, focused, and meaningful communication to your team. Volunteer programs need leaders who are committed to communicating to overcome these obstacles so that the good work they do is executed in a timely, effective, and organized fashion.

Katie Douthwaite Wolf is an author for top business and professional development hubs like Forbes, BusinessWeek, and The Muse. Her management career helped her develop a keen understanding of what intentional communication that generates results looks like. Her tips on communicating confidently, clearly, and with execution and expectations are key components of getting your message across in a quick meeting or through an email.

If you want to go from managing a volunteer group to leading them, consider these tips that will help your communication slice through the noise and stick with your team:

  • Have a mission moment: give your team the inspiration they need with a thirty-second anecdote about a problem your organization’s volunteer efforts has solved in the past or will solve this year.
  • Give praise: inspiration isn’t just about vision; it’s about lauding your team in the present. Call out best practices and provide validation as a leader.
  • Communicate milestones: let your team know when you’ve reached 25%, 50%, and, especially, 100% completion on a project. Updates like these help volunteers gauge effectiveness and urgency.
  • Give clear directives: don’t leave them questioning what to do next. Like Wolf said, people look to their leader for answers, not more questions. If more neighborhoods need canvassing or brochures need distributing, ask for volunteers to step up.
  • Keep a timeline: Working in a time-bound situation will help your team maintain energy if they know a deadline is approaching. As the project manager, your job is to keep the tasks on track and prioritize what work needs to get done.

Communication for effective leadership can be just as much a science as an art. Don’t be afraid to draw out a message map to ensure you cover all key points. If you’re utilizing written communication, use the tips above as headers to help organize information. Keep it short, but say what needs to be said.

And while all these tips about the information you put out are valuable, the most important aspect of being a communicative and effective leader is your willingness to receive feedback. Take another look at that communication model; the messages your team sends back are key to continued and open dialogue. Listening helps you solve problems in a way that strengthens your team and allows you to get more done for your community. If someone has a question or concern, hear them out, and make sure they feel heard.

It goes without saying that volunteer leaders aren’t made in a day; it takes intentional practice and commitment to develop these habits and implement them on your team. The results, however, are worth the work and investment. Take time to find ways to elevate your management to leadership, and you and your community will reap great rewards.


Author Bio: Clay Boggess has been designing fundraising programs for elementary, middle, and high school groups throughout the U.S. since 1999. He works with administrators, teachers, as well as outside support entities such as Parent Teacher Associations (PTA’s). Clay is a Senior Consultant at Big Fundraising Ideas.

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