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Leading volunteers

“If we don’t find enough volunteers, we’re going to have to close. It will be a hardship for our community. I’m angry that we can’t find the resources we need.”

“It always feels like there’s a crunch to find volunteers, but they come through at the last-minute. I wish I didn’t have to worry about finding volunteers.”

Often non-profit organizations look to the corporate world for models of organization development and strategy. Yet non-profits are fundamentally different. While they have passion and vision, and deliver excellent service, the resources required differ from the business world. These resources may include charitable donations, grants, corporate sponsorships, and sometimes business revenues.

Non-profits rely on volunteers. Leading a team of volunteers is inherently different from leading paid employees. Volunteers commit their time, energy, money, and other resources because they want to make a difference, belong to a group with a common goal, and have pride in being a contributing member. Volunteers commit on their own terms. Leaders are the glue, attracting others to join and directing activities.

I have written a longer article about a 2-year study by Deloitte that looks at the characteristics of volunteers and suggests a list of questions that non-profit leaders can use to develop a strategy for leading and attracting volunteers. For more in-depth reading, I recommend Jim Collins’ monograph Good to Great for the Social Sectors and Baghai and Quigley’s As One: Individual Action and Collective Power.

There are encouraging statistics for those seeking to attract volunteers – from the overwhelming numbers of college students applying to Teach for America to the spontaneously organizing groups on the Internet such as the Linux users group, who jointly develop an operating system, and Wikipedia contributors. People envision helping their communities, learning new skills, and making a difference.

A community organizer is someone who uncovers [volunteers’] self-interest. They give [volunteers] an opportunity to work in their own self-interest and address problems in the community that they could not address by themselves.
Jane Addams

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