Dear Leader of Volunteers: You Are Not Alone


If you’re anything like me, at some point in time while working with your volunteers, you’ve encountered a situation that made you ponder whether you had entered into the Twilight Zone, or perhaps slipped mysteriously into one of those alternate realities that so often frequented Star Trek episodes. Either during recruitment or interviewing, during a service opportunity, or perhaps in the midst of a coaching moment, one of those precious volunteers did or said something that made you doubt reality. I mean, I know we covered dress code during orientation, so did that volunteer really show up in that outfit to mentor junior high boys? Or did that volunteer actually share that story with a set of high school girls after we just had a training on boundaries?? It’s often in those moments when I wonder if there is anyone else in the world who can understand exactly what I am feeling. Well I’ve got great news for you! There are hundreds of people who understand what you are feeling!

Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore working with my volunteers. They bring an energy to our agency that we simply cannot replicate with our paid staff and I wouldn’t trade the experiences that I have had with them for anything in the world. I currently direct an AmeriCorps State program and work with national service volunteers providing mentoring to youth grades K-12. While most AmeriCorps programs have the luxury of having other programs in the same city or near enough to collaborate, I am the only direct service program within 100 miles of my city. Quite often I face challenges and feel isolated in my efforts to handle them. I reach out to my leadership team for guidance, but they don’t always know how to help either. I often find myself waiting on the next conference just hoping that there will be a session that can help me out or give me some new insight. Well recently I got my wish and because of that experience, embarked on a new journey of discovery into the world of volunteer leadership and engagement.

Here are a few things I found along the way,

Connect. There are leaders all over your community leading volunteers just like you. Their program may not match your program and their mission might not be like yours, but you have at least one thing in common with each other. Your volunteers. In today’s world of constant connection, if you’re alone, it’s because you have chosen to be alone. I recently heard someone (and if it was you, please feel free to take credit!) say “not making an active decision about something is also a choice.” Don’t make indecision and lack of action your choice. Find other leaders in your town, link to thought leaders on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or your social media outlet of choice, when you’re at those conferences or events, reach out and shake someone’s hand and introduce yourself (trust me, I feel your pain and it sends me into cold sweats too). If you don’t know where to start, contact me and I’ll be happy to help you out, because just a few short weeks ago I sat right where you are now! If you have questions and don’t have answers, or you have a problem that is making your brain sweat, reach out and ask someone! You’ll be glad you did!

Never stop learning. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered, it’s that in order to be your best as a leader, you can’t ever stop pushing yourself and learning more. If you want your program to be better, your volunteer experience to be richer, and your impact to be deeper, it’s up to you to make it happen. Anyone feel like Atlas all of a sudden, holding up the weight of the world? No pressure right?! Relax. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will an excellent volunteer program. The important thing to remember is that you can never stop learning and developing yourself, because you don’t have the option. This quality is the hallmark of being a great leader. As you learn more, the answers come more easily and your confidence grows. With more information and greater confidence, you get creative and take chances on new ideas. Your program becomes better and you become more credible among your peers. If you’re going to be a leader and a great volunteer manager, you have to be a learner so that you can invest in others. End of Story. No room for argument or negotiation. You don’t know everything, you can’t grow without new information, and you cannot give what you aren’t getting for yourself. Your volunteers need you to be your best for them.

Resources. In your quest to be an amazing leader of volunteers and hone your skills, you have to have material! There are a million resources out there to help you in your pursuit to be the best volunteer leader you can be. Susan Ellis at Energize, Inc. has an online bookstore, start at the top and work your way down! I encourage you to subscribe to blogs and newsletters to keep up to date on the latest news in our field. I recently had the absolute privilege to connect in person with some of the premier thought leaders in our profession, and I have been marked for life. READ THEIR MATERIAL! Here are a few places to start: Susan Ellis (@susanjellis, @energizeinc, energizeinc.com), Rob Jackson (@RobJConsulting, robjacksonconsulting.com), Meridian Swift (@MeridianSwift, volunteerplaintalk.com), Elisa Kosarin (@THNonprofit, twentyhats.com), Barry Altland (@HHHEngagement, barryaltland.com), Liza Dyer, CVA (@lizaface, @VMsnark, lizajdyer.com), and last but not least, the ever eloquent, Jerome Tennille, CVA (@JDTennille, jerometennille.com). If you can’t find something inspirational with these folks, you simply aren’t looking very hard.

It’s an exciting time in the world of volunteer management. Our leaders (both seasoned and new) are spearheading change and there is a momentum that is about to push our profession to the next level. I am absolutely thrilled to see what comes next and trust me when I say you don’t want to miss out!