Nature of Volunteers

Working with volunteers means understanding their nature. If you don't grasp that, if you act as though such an organization is the same as a forprofit company, then your tenure as an effective leader is going to be short. This is because, in the team relationship, the members have the upper hand. If you don't grasp the dynamics and act accordingly, you'll be leading a group of one.

They Have Their Reasons

As mentioned earlier, all volunteers have a set of reasons they donate their time to organizations. There is a mix of altruistic, selfish, and even slightly neurotic impulses that can come into play. Whatever the set, however, if you are going to be a leader, what you do must cohabit with the interests of each member. If people don't find a way to satisfy at least the bulk of the reasons they have for volunteering, they will drift off and you'll be without anyone to lead.

If you are trying to lead a group to accomplishment in a volunteer organization, a big mistake is to push people too hard. They are looking to be part of something, not take orders and feel like they often do at work.

Demand Respect

One quality that people who work for corporations share is that they often find themselves pushed about. Corporate management is often locked into the command and control model — directing every aspect of what employees do. The employees are often stuck because they need to make a living and don't necessarily have other immediate options. Even if they decide to walk away from a company, the change takes time; this is true except under the most extreme circumstances, in which they decide that a continued association is intolerable. If people only continue to work under oppressive conditions because of economic necessity, what happens if the practical need evaporates?

Have Options

Volunteers always have a world of options; they don't have to spend time helping an organization. There are other groups, other causes, and completely different ways of spending time. You can't compel a volunteer, except for those performing court-ordered community service. At any time the volunteer can stand up and announce, “I'm outta here!” If you're going to keep volunteers and get them to willingly do what you need, you'll have to put reasons, respect, and options together and coax them.

An organization is actually in competition with other activities, demands, and opportunities in the lives of the volunteers. If you are a leader in a volunteer organization, you must hold your volunteers' attention and make them feel their contribution to the organization is more valuable than their other opportunities.

When it comes to volunteers, a leader should expect to use many of the same tools, only a bit differently than usually. Vision and motivation are important, but you have to place even greater emphasis on how they connect to the person. An employee is stuck doing something and so is willing to make the effort to gain a more fulfilling and pleasing environment. However, volunteers aren't stuck, and they don't have the same degree of incentive to make the connections themselves. Mentoring is important, not only to help volunteers perform better but to establish a direct connection with them and aid in making them part of the organization's fabric.

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