How To Manage Volunteers–A Resource for TOs and Community Leaders

volunteer

For three years I worked at a small church in Farmville, North Carolina (yes that’s a real place). We only had two salaried employees, myself and the senior pastor. In a church of 80 members, two people were not enough to do everything necessary to properly run all of our programs. We had to rely on our volunteers.

I’ve been consulting with some local TOs and FGC community members, and this seems to be a recurring challenge. How do you run a professional event when 90% of your staff are working for free? How do you build a business on the backs of volunteers? Today I want to spend some time talking about what I’ve learned from my time leading volunteer teams, and how it can apply to running FGC events. First, I want to look at two of the biggest problems leaders, and then how organizers can properly build and utilize their volunteer pool.

No Pay, No Faith

Some leaders have a hard time relying on volunteers. They feel like they can’t trust them, or hold them to the same standard as a paid employee. As a result, they push away people who want to help, or have a hard time finding tasks that they are willing to give away to a volunteer.

If you find yourself doing this, remember why you got into this line of work in the first place. Likely, you were passionate about your community and wanted to see it grow. When people come to you wanting to volunteer, they are in that same boat. They are looking for a way to help the community they love, but lack the talent or vision to start a project of their own.

You have high standards. You want anyone representing your organization to provide the same level of excellence as you. However, you also have lots of tasks to accomplish, and need to keep growing. At a certain point you’ll have to accept that not everyone is willing to work as hard as you are, or give the same attention to detail.

That said, there are ways to choose the right volunteers, and to manage them in a way that inspires excellence in them. As youth pastor I had a leadership team comprised of middle- and elementary-school students. We were able to run major church events and do so more efficiently than any other team in the church. I expected excellence from a bunch of kids, never paid them anything, and they delivered every time. Here’s how it works.

  1. Only take volunteers that want to help. Don’t try to guilt people into doing work, use the people that naturally want to be involved.
  2. Use them where they want to be used. Let them work on the projects that get them excited. Learn about what they feel passionate about, and show them how that passion can help you accomplish whatever task you need done.
  3. Celebrate small wins. The fact that a volunteer did anything should be cause for celebration. Say thank you constantly, even if they didn’t quite live up to your standards. If they do something genuinely great, overwhelm them with praise. When it comes to volunteers, a kind word or a high five goes a long way.
  4. Have clear expectations. Before someone agrees to a task, make sure they understand specifically what you want accomplished. When they agree to do it, they should also be agreeing to do it the way you asked. This will make it easier to gently hold them accountable. That said, remember that they are ultimately doing the work because they want to, and need to have some freedom in order to get passionate about their work.

Ultimately, remember that you only have 2 hands and 24 hours in a given day. There is a hard limit on how much you can accomplish. If you can inspire a degree of quality from your volunteers, you can grow exponentially. There are people who will do excellent work for little more than a hug and a cookie. Inspire them, lead them, encourage them, and they will reward your efforts in kind.

Sweet, Free Labor!

This is a trap I’ve fallen into in the past. I’ve had amazing volunteers who were willing to do extra work, stay late, and take on any task. I came to rely on these people so much that I actually started giving them work that I could have done myself. Always lead by example. Remember that you are lucky to have anyone willing to volunteer for your project. Do not use your volunteers to avoid work you don’t like. Use them to multiply how much total work can be done.

Actually Ask For Help

I’m amazed at the number of times I’ve seen people lamenting their lack of help, but they’ve never actually asked. People want to be actively involved in a community. If they’re passionate, they really do want to work hard to improve their community. Unfortunately, most people just don’t know how they can help. They don’t have the necessary skills to see where they can be useful. If you want volunteers, you have to make people aware of the specific areas in which you need help.

When recruiting volunteers, be extra specific. “We need two people to come half an hour early and help test setups.” “I need one person to go hang up 10 flyers at the local college.” When there are clear parameters around a task, it is much easier for someone to say “hey, I could do that!”

Empower and Inspire

Even the laziest idiot will do excellent work for a cause they believe in. Often the people who seem least useful to you are the ones who have simply never had someone expect greatness from them. It sounds super hokey, but it’s been proven true to me time and again. When you give someone direction, purpose, and responsibility, they will usually rise to the occasion. They may stumble at first, but if you are a true, compassionate leader, they will work harder the next time in order to make you proud.

If you’re interested, we can talk another time about the concept of Servant Leadership. Essentially, the idea is that a leader’s role is to provide for their followers and serve their needs. By doing so they actually inspire and empower those followers to work far beyond their perceived potential. Invest emotionally in your volunteers. Be a support structure in their lives even when they disappoint you. Obviously don’t keep using a toxic worker that isn’t worthy of trust, but give people a chance to surprise you.

Have Clear, Written Systems

People want to follow directions. They don’t want to be micromanaged, but they want clear instructions, and systems to follow. Any time you are using volunteers, provide them with a clear structure to their task. If someone is helping hang flyers, have a clear, written list of the places those flyers need to be hung. If someone is in charge of registration, have a clear, written policy for registration with documented procedure. If someone is volunteering to do commentary, provide them with a procedure for when to do ad reads, what level of professionalism you want, and any other pertinent info.

Policies and procedures are not micromanagement. They simply provide structure. People have freedom to move within a structure, but they have very clear boundaries that keep them safe and successful. When you provide someone with a clear set of written instructions, you can then empower them by leaving them alone to work. They’ll still have all your instructions, but they will feel more like they accomplished something on their own because they didn’t have to keep asking you questions, and you didn’t have to hover behind them to make sure they didn’t mess up.

Find a Way to Use Everyone

You’ll know you are running an amazing organization when you have too many volunteers. There should come a time where you are literally out of jobs, and still have people asking how they can help. Maybe you’re not at that place, but all your staff positions are full and you can’t think of ways to have people help any more. This is when it’s time for promotions!

Take your best volunteers and give them leadership roles. Put them in charge of a set of volunteers. Make someone head of registration, someone else head of cleaning, make someone the captain of all the pool captains. This is when your job becomes the most awesome! Now, you get to manage your team leads. You check in regularly with each team, give them all clear goals and measurables, and then you let them go to work. They can set up rotations of volunteers, and everyone in your leadership circle takes a step back from doing the actual tasks themselves. This frees up more jobs for new volunteers, but the work is still being overseen by the people who did it correctly in the first place. It is now your job to educate and train those great volunteers on how to become leaders.

To me, this is the most rewarding work possible. You’ve effectively multiplied yourself. Your growth potential is enormous. More importantly, you have given someone a life skill that will help them in every aspect of their life going forward. You haven’t had to pay anyone a cent, but you’ve inspired and rewarded them by giving them purpose, allowing them to achieve real, tangible results from their work, and genuinely changed their lives for the better.

If you are organizing events, you are not actually in the business of event planning, hosting, or gaming. You are in the people business. Your commodity is life experience, both for the players and your volunteers. Invest in your people, and watch all the other stuff you think is your real business suddenly take care of itself.
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