Managing Volunteers

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Some of us have a lot of experience managing people and some of us have less, but it’s probably true that very few of us have had a lot of experience managing volunteers. We might think that management is management regardless of the setting, but managing volunteers has unique challenges.

In place of a paycheck, volunteers are working with us because they care about our mission. They are taking time away from family and career obligations to do work that might not have its own intrinsic rewards. After all, not everyone enjoys writing 100 postcards or calling strangers to ask them questions about their opinions.

Volunteer skills and motivation may vary and your leadership approach should vary too. Members of your team will need different levels of support and direction. You may need to work with each of them for a while to see how capable and dedicated they are before deciding how best to deploy their skills and talents.

  1. Directing: Some people may want to be explicitly told what to do and how to do it. For those folks, be sure to communicate clearly exactly what you want, how to do it and the date it is due. You may have to explain the methods carefully and support them along the way with extra instructions or encouragement.
  2. Assessment and Adaptation: For those who are very skilled and capable but may not be as motivated, you will want to spend the time to determine what makes the work fun and interesting for them. Some prefer to work alone; others may be motivated by group interaction; a few may need 1:1 attention from you to keep them interested. And there are a lot of people who are motivated just by staying in the know, so frequent updates on strategy and progress may be all the incentive they need.
  3. Delegating: Volunteers who are highly skilled and motivated only need to know what results you are looking for and they get it done. A hands-off approach is fine, but be sure to touch base regularly to be sure they are doing well and have all of the resources they need.
  4. Communicating: For all of the members of your volunteer team, frequent communication is the most important tool. Forwarding relevant communication from Swing Left and other progressive organizations, checking in by phone or email occasionally and having some group meetings by Zoom or a similar conferencing tool, will help people stay connected and keep them feeling part of the larger group.
  5. Appreciating: Don’t forget to thank people early and often. It’s often the best motivator there is. And if you can make the appreciation specific to what they have done (e.g. thanks for all the effort you put into assembling those postcard packets!), it is even better!

Lisa Zankman is an executive coach and the former head of HR at a major Boston area hospital. She lives in Jamaica Plain.

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