Cultivating Inspired Work

Management of Volunteers in Nonprofits
by Stephen Peterson
Heart of Illinois United Way

Volunteers want to work with people who are competent, committed, organized, and most of all, effective.

Apart from college interns looking to build work resumes, most adults who approach a for-profit company offering to work for free are likely to be met with confused, slightly guarded looks. In the nonprofit world, these generous supporters are critical to the organization’s success.

If you took a poll of local nonprofits and community groups, you would be hard-pressed to find a charitable organization that does not see the unequivocal importance of their committed volunteers. From the board of directors, to committee members, to the faithful volunteers who arrive (sometimes daily) to assist with just about any required task, volunteers are at the core of what makes nonprofits function efficiently.

But how does one recruit, guide and effectively engage people who are not on the organizational payroll? In other words, what characteristics should nonprofit managers cultivate in order to inspire and manage others, especially volunteers who are not invested in the traditional way?

In any organization, leadership and management set the tone. The same is true in the nonprofit world when interacting with volunteers. Several key attributes of nonprofit managers help ensure committed volunteers stay aligned with the organization’s efforts and commitment to the mission. The following is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it will help nonprofit staff recognize their strengths when recruiting and working with volunteers.

Passion. The more enthusiasm one has for the mission of the organization and the work being accomplished, the more inspired others—including your volunteer base—will be. Passion is contagious. Unfortunately, so is the converse. While everyone gets frustrated from time to time, being enthusiastic about the work being accomplished is vital. Give specific praise to volunteers who go above and beyond and demonstrate the same enthusiasm. A realistic approach and evaluation of volunteer efforts is always necessary, but demonstrating passion and optimism will inspire those around you to achieve more and do greater things.

Trust. Building trust takes time. Nonprofit leaders must always act in a way that builds trust among volunteers and key supporters. Sustainability of nonprofits begins and ends with relationships, as well as the overall credibility of the organization. It is important to not burn bridges. We all deal with challenging individuals from time to time, but if disagreements are exchanged in a respectful way, these relationships can and likely will remain in place. Building trust ultimately comes down to being a good role model and holding others to the same standards. Volunteers will knowingly align to support causes and efforts if they trust the work of leadership within the organization.

Sense of fun. Nonprofits take their work and their missions seriously. They have to—in many cases, nonprofits are focused on potentially life-altering scenarios for individuals and families. With that said, it is important that leaders who partner with volunteers recognize when it is appropriate to instill fun and not take themselves too seriously. Volunteers want to have fun while “doing good,” and being able to recognize the appropriate time for energizing antics and events is key. A sense of fun permeates the group, and if a leader is willing to risk making a fool of himself or herself for a little laughter, it can go a long way in boosting the morale of staff and the organization’s volunteers.

Communication. Good communication engages others and is necessary to clarify expectations and drive performance. This is a staple in all organizations. By communicating effectively to volunteers and key supporters, nonprofits can engage volunteers at a higher level and further energize the team to accomplish greater things. Nonprofit leaders must be clear in their communications, especially any action items or key takeaways from meeting agendas.

Consistency. Volunteers take comfort in the consistency and predictability of leaders. Being consistent does not necessarily mean you need to be a robot and react the same way in every situation, but your behavior should be reliable. Consistency further builds trust among both staff and volunteers.

Flexibility. At first glance, consistency and flexibility seem somewhat contradictory, and as important as being consistent is, one must also leave room for leeway. This does not mean complete disregard for processes and plans; it just means not micromanaging. Volunteers want to contribute in an influential way, and many times their skill sets and expertise allow for better decisions to be made. As a nonprofit leader, you do not want to allow decisions that go against the organizational mission, but with a little flexibility, you can further empower your volunteer base even if the end result does not exactly line up with what you had envisioned.

Volunteers want to work with people who are competent, committed, organized, and most of all, effective. As a manager or leader of volunteers, you set the tone. This does not mean you must be a superhero, but it does mean the more attention you pay to improving your own personal and professional development as a leader, the better your group or team will be. Volunteers want to be valued and respected, and good leaders develop those around them. Balance is key, but great nonprofit leaders recognize the diverse skill sets of volunteers, and allow individuals to exceed expectations without over-managing. iBi

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