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Four Secrets to Working Effectively with Volunteer Leaders

Joy DesMarais-Lanz  | Published on 8/1/2019

I work closely with our association clients’ boards of directors and other highly engaged and skilled volunteer leaders. In working with these volunteers, I’ve learned a few secrets that help us to be successful, together, in any staff-volunteer leader project.

Start with Why

In his book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (2011), Simon Sinek says people are inspired by a sense of purpose and this should come before communicating the “how” and the “what.”  By reaffirming the purpose of the group or project, you remind volunteer leaders what brought them into the fold, initially. Utilize the “why” conversation to invite a recommitment to the purpose and tie it to the project you are seeking them to lead. If you’re asking them to chair a task force or committee, describe why the task force matters to the larger purpose. Also, don’t forget to share why their leadership matters or could impact the larger purpose. Honor their skills in the context of the greater “why” and you’ll invite a deeper level of commitment and engagement.

Define staff roles and responsibilities

While a good job description for the volunteer leader can be the baseline, take it one step further and outline the same for the staff involved.  It’s important for you, as the staff person, to clarify how much time are you expected to commit each week or month to this group or project and to whom you are accountable, too.  Comparing and contrasting both of these documents will help you both define “who does what?”

Set “Rules of Engagement”

“Rules of engagement” are also known as boundaries and expectations. In her book, Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Life, Love, Parent, and Lead (2017), Brené Brown defines boundariesas “simply our lists of what’s okay and not okay.” 

First, start with the project.  What are the deadlines?  How often will the group be expected to meet and in what formats (e.g. in person, conference call)?  It’s also helpful to outline what is not within the scope of the project. For example, if the organization already has a budget determined, let the volunteer leader know that and the rules for accessing those resources. If fundraising is the responsibility of another committee, clarify and communicate that.

Once you’ve set them for the project, then set the expectations for working together. How will you communicate with one another and, how often?  Are you open to giving and receiving feedback?

Be the “Guide on the Side,” and Stay There

Unless you need to take an active role for a specific reason, step back and let the volunteer leader lead. Stay on the sidelines, offering advice and consult in regular, private check-ins. Know that there will be mistakes. There will be things that you would do differently. That’s okay. Unless something goes horribly awry, you should not step in.  Be conscientiously positive and support the volunteer leader’s actions and decisions.