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Leading Volunteers

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: Leading Volunteers

Are you a part of a volunteer organization? Lots of us are. You might be a member of a Church, some sort of professional organization, or even your local outdoor club.

I am involved with several. I am the Treasurer of APLN, the President of a small private school my wife and I helped start a few years ago, an adult leader with The Boy Scouts of America, and an active member of my Church. It seems that all these groups have one thing in common; they need more people to help. Said another way, it seems that the same few people are doing almost all the work. Sound familiar?

Being a leader in many of the organizations I support, I have begun to see a pattern. When we feel like we are doing more than our share of the work, we tend to get upset with the people who aren’t. We are so passionate about what we are doing it is beyond us why everyone else is not driven to that same level of performance.

I’m not making excuses for anyone but people are just spread too thin. Between our jobs, our families, getting the kids to their various activities, and trying to find some time to relax; there is just not enough time in the day to be consistently involved. As leaders, this is our reality. So then, what can we do to increase the number of people willing to chip in and do their part? What could make the work of our group so important that people would make time in their busy schedules to volunteer?

I’ve become pretty convinced that telling our volunteers to step up or leave won’t work. Most of them will probably just leave. Likewise, mandating some set number of hours they have to work probably won’t do it either. Those folks will probably leave too. We want people that are passionate about our organizations. We want the people that want to do their part. Do we really need a bunch of guilty people dragging around out of some perceived sense of obligation? I don’t think so.

I suggest that we begin by letting go of our negative feelings and start taking responsibility. You just can’t lead effectively running around hacked off at your membership. Chances are you missed some things along the way that could have helped people get more involved. Let’s take a few minutes, figure out what those things are, and let’s get busy doing them. No more whining, got it?

So here goes Mike’s list of nine things you better be doing if you want to effectively lead a group of volunteers.

1. Have a Compelling Vision
Let’s create a vision that really gets people excited, inspires them, and shows them what is possible. A well crafted vision communicates where we are trying to go, what mountain we are trying to climb. Involve your volunteers in creating the vision. Give them some say in what you’ll do as an organization to make the vision a reality.

2. Provide Opportunities to get Involved
Opportunities must be right there and readily available. We must make it simple and clear what needs to be done and what they can do to help. People don’t always want to figure those things out for themselves, they want to be led. They want to know what to do and how their contribution supports the overall mission of the group.

3. Give People Simple Guidance
Folks only need a few rules to help them along the way. Guide rails if you will to instill the internal confidence that they are headed down the right path. They need to know they are doing the right things and that your organization will stand behind their efforts.

4. Get Out of the Way
Nothing kills initiative like being told how to do something. Once you have given your team their objectives, leave it up to them how the work gets done. You’ll have to accept that some work won’t be done exactly like you would have done it. As long as it furthers the goal, let it go.

5. Follow-Up
This communicates to the team that their contribution is important. Review deliverables and help your team to adjust if something does not get done. Agree on the impact of the missed objective and what each of you will do to help recover.

6. Accountability for Results
You have given your volunteers important work. They have accepted their mission and taken your guidance to heart. Outside of moral, ethical, or legal issues; you are holding the team accountable for what was delivered, never how they got there. Holding people accountable for results taps into their creativity and energizes their passion. Now we are really getting somewhere!

7. Make It Okay to Make Mistakes
People will feel more comfortable taking initiative because it is safe. They won’t feel like they have to be perfect in order to contribute. People taking initiative is key in a healthy volunteer organization.

8. Give Praise.
People want encouragement, they need it, they thrive on it. Many people never ever hear they are doing a good job. If your organization is the one that tells them, just think what a powerful motivator that could become. As leaders, it is easy to take our volunteers for granted because we are working so hard ourselves. They need it, so make it happen.

9. Have Fun
People don’t want to work with a bunch of grumps. Enough said.

At the end of the day, we all want empowered, motivated, and self-directed volunteers that are working toward our common goals. If that doesn’t sound like the people in your organization, take responsibility. Look first at how you are leading your organization and if you are doing everything you can to create opportunity and empower your team.

We get so caught up in the work of our organizations, we often don’t take time to really lead them. Giving people a means to serve and the guidance to serve well is a powerful contribution. It is probably the most powerful contribution you can make to the long term health of your organization.

If you have something to add, please leave a comment. Feel free to disagree with the nine items I chose. These just seemed to me to be the most essential. I look forward to your feedback.

Good luck, lead well.

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Comments (3)

  1. Anonymous

    Mike, these are great suggestions, guides to leading a group of volunteers. I actually evaluated myself as a leader of the LIFE Teen Core Team according to the 9 guides and am reminded that I need to constantly implement these into my ministry…
    Gloria Whidby
    LIFE Teen Coordinator

  2. Anonymous


    You have stated very simple what should be second nature but isn’t or isn’t followed.

  3. johnsrud


    A well-articulated set of leadership principles! This applies just as well to software development as it does to volunteer organizations. After all, we are all in the end volunteers – nobody is forcing us to work where we do, or to work with passion. Too often management is confused with real leadership.

    Item 6 might be titled a little differently. The word “accountability” also troubles me, as it connotes negative rather than positive reinforcement – would “Be Results-Oriented” be equivalent?


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