Spotlight on Volunteer Leaders

by Anne Schink

Is the term ‘volunteer leader’ a contradiction in terms? Is your view of volunteers someone who ‘just does what needs to be done?’ Or is a leader a board member? For the group of participants in a recent training for managers of volunteers on the subject of identifying and supporting volunteer leaders, neither of these profiles was true.

With more and more managers of volunteers conducting special events or volunteer projects that require more than the typical screening and matching process used for an individual, many managers of volunteers find themselves needing help from volunteers that require them to be project leaders, or team leaders, or committee leaders for a one-time event or a long-term commitment. Managers of volunteers can’t do it all themselves. And they need to be able to cultivate leaders they can trust to take responsibility for projects and tasks without a lot of supervision by the manager of volunteers.

Everyone attending the workshop realized that this required a different sort of person, a different sort of position description, and an explicit understanding of the relationship between the volunteer leader and the person providing direct oversight of the project or the event.

As the conversation advanced, one of the issues that surfaced was the distinction between volunteers and staff. We so often think of the relationship of manager to volunteers as similar to that of supervisor to worker. In situations where volunteers become leaders, they often direct the work of staff. That can cause some confusion for everyone unless the parameters of the working relationship are worked out in a frank, honest, and open conversation well in advance of the event, activity, or beginning of a relationship.

At the end of the workshop, each participant shared what they would do when they got back to the office. The first thing they mentioned was updating position descriptions to include options for taking on a leadership role in existing projects. They also planned to consider creating more ways to engage volunteer leaders. They recognized that with proper planning, volunteers can alleviate many aspects of the job of a manager of volunteers for events. Several noted that they would look at existing programs to identify potential leadership roles. Others realized they needed to conduct a skills inventory among existing volunteers to find out what people can do and like to do, even if it’s not what they’re doing now.

And finally, many acknowledged that they finally understand the importance of making more time to network with others, both within their own organization and within the community so that they could spot potential volunteer leaders who might not currently be associated with their organization or their program. A wide network of friends and colleagues provides a platform for cheerleading about the important work you and your organization do in the community. Enthusiasm and a spirit of fun attract followers. Even to your program!

Anne B. Schink, a From the Field featured blogger, is a volunteer management consultant and the author of the Nonprofit Readiness Toolkit.

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