The Relationship Between Leadership and Volunteer Engagement

CHICAGO - What makes engaged volunteers suddenly quit volunteering?

The most common reason given by volunteers who leave is “I’m too busy with other things”. Dig a little further and you’ll uncover the true reason that good volunteers leave. If they are honest, you’ll find that they are frustrated in their volunteer roles because unprofessional and untrained leadership devalues the experience of volunteering.

I recently left my volunteer leadership committee role in an organization with national reach. The reason I left? The work of the volunteers was neither valued nor appreciated by the leadership team. The project work that we had completed was overlooked and ignored. The leadership team had consistent communication difficulties that created barriers, rather than open channels. I decided to walk away rather than continue to deal with the dysfunctional process and support the mission in another way.

Volunteers commit to organizations because they believe in the mission and want to be a part of a movement larger than themselves. When leaders don’t respect the work of volunteers, it devalues the entire organization, not just the reputations of the current leaders. Volunteers leave and tell people about their bad experiences with the organization. The mission and volunteer experience is degraded for everyone because leaders either can’t or won’t lead.

How can leaders learn to lead volunteers more effectively for the benefit of the organization? How can we teach leaders to respect the time and talent of volunteers, who should not be considered disposable and easily replaceable? Consider a few points that can help leaders understand their responsibilities when managing volunteers and volunteer projects:

  • Don’t waste a volunteer’s time with useless or unproductive meetings. Volunteers have jobs and responsibilities that extend beyond your organization. If you are asking a volunteer to be available for a meeting, make sure that meetings are substantive and productive. Follow an agenda. Start and end meetings on time. These are simple rules to show your team that you value their time and commitment to your organization.

  • Prioritize communication with your volunteers. It’s your job as a leader to keep others regularly informed about the work of the organization. Volunteers should also be informed about how their work and contributions move the organization forward. It is crucial to promptly return emails and phone calls to volunteers. The absence of feedback from you can stall or stop a project. Communication from you, the leader, is the key to volunteer engagement.

  • Always expect professional behavior from both yourself and the volunteers. As a non-profit leader, you are representing the organization, as well as yourself. You must create a positive working environment for your volunteers that promotes professionalism, productivity, teamwork and camaraderie. Don’t play favorites or accept different standards of behavior from those you like (or dislike). It’s up to you, the leader, to create the environment and model professional behavior for your team. They are all watching you.

  • Empower your volunteers to succeed. Volunteers who aren’t confident in their abilities to impact your nonprofit likely won’t look forward to returning to volunteer a second time, much less long-term. To ensure that volunteers remain focused, assess your organization’s current volunteer empowerment strategy. To keep volunteers engaged, it’s important that you, as the leader, help them understand that the projects they’re taking on are meaningful and ultimately impact the mission.

  • Seek leadership training opportunities for yourself to gain and refine leadership skills. Not everyone is a natural born leader. Most of us need help learning how to lead projects and people. If you feel frustrated as a leader of volunteers, ask senior leaders if there are opportunities for you to learn better and more effective leadership skills. If you feel unqualified to lead a team, ask for help and accept a secondary leadership role until you can gain the skills needed to successfully lead.

The number 1 reason that volunteers leave organizations is because of poor leadership. When leaders focus on volunteer engagement, it means that you will do what you can to make the volunteer experience a positive one. When an organization cares enough to appoint strong and experienced leaders to manage its projects, it shows the volunteers that you and the organization care about them as individuals.





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