Lessons In Not Sucking: Working With Volunteers

November 20, 2007 by

This is part seven in a series on Lessons In Not Sucking. Today we discuss working with volunteers. Love ’em or hate ’em, volunteers are here to stay. And here’s to hoping they make your day, not take your day.

1. Match strengths, not availability.
Just because someone says they’re available to help out doesn’t mean that will actually result in someone helping you out. So what if they know how to use Photoshop, do they know how to use it in a way that results in stuff you are expecting? Always look to match the strengths of a volunteer, not the availability of a volunteer.

2. Remember reciprocity.
Volunteers are volunteering because they get something in return. It may sound selfish, but it’s just the way we’re wired. Whether it be satisfaction, a free meal, kudos, recognition, promotion or just plain smiles, the concept of reciprocity is alive and well. Don’t forget this because when you know what the volunteer is looking for, you can better help them to obtain it.

3. Realistic expectations.
Be realistic when it comes to the expectations you have for volunteers. Expect too little and you’ll never cause them to rise to the challenge. Expect too much and they’ll feel like they failed you. Communicate up front what you’re expecting and give them opportunity to respond.

4. Spend more time on the front end.
The more you spend up front talking through the project or outcomes, the better the volunteer will feel enfranchised and enabled. The more we sow up front, the more we reap on the other side.

5. Educate. Enfranchise. Empower.
Educate the volunteer on everything you can about your project or outcomes. Graft them into the team that is a part of making this happen with them. Give them the tools they need to accomplish your expectations.

6. Seek out the troublemakers.
I like the volunteers that don’t always play by the rules. The ones who test the limits. The ones who color outside the lines. The ones who talk back a little bit. The ones who require a little extra faith on your part to let go.

7. Hire a strength, manage a weakness.
In my hiring philosophy for employees, I hire people for their strengths knowing I’ll have to manage around their weaknesses. For example, the insane project manager who is not so great with people. I’m hiring her project management skills. I’ve got to work with and around her people skills. The same goes for volunteers. Recruit their strengths and work around their weaknesses.

8. It’s OK to fire them.
Isn’t it funny how we often have a harder time firing volunteers than we do paid staff? It’s OK to let volunteers go, to transition them, to move them out.

9. Be thankful (gifts, cards, etc.)
You can never thank volunteers enough. From celebration dinners to gifts and cards, go overboard in your appreciation.

Post By:

Brad Abare

Brad Abare is the founder of the Center for Church Communication. He consults with companies and organizations, helping them figure out why in the world they exist, why anyone should care and what to do about it.
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10 Responses to “Lessons In Not Sucking: Working With Volunteers”

  • Dave Bourgeois
    November 20, 2007

    I think we need to be careful about the use of volunteers. In my research on ministry web sites, the use of volunteers has many times led to problems. But is it the use of volunteers or the way they are managed? I wrote more about this on my blog at http://lessonsfrombabel.wordpress.com/2007/04/09/use-volunteers/.

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    • jenny
      October 5, 2011

      Hi I will love to join those of u who are help other.

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  • Greg
    November 20, 2007

    Number 2 is dead on. Volunteers not only want to be appreciated but they are there more often than not for a reason other than the cause. Whether it be community service hours to graduate or to help a friend or whatever, the group needs to reinforce the reason for being out on a beautiful Saturday cleaning up downtown. Repeat volunteers are essential to any non-profit organization, but I believe that it is our duty as a non-profit to make sure they come back and are appreciated! Thanks for the post!

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  • sean salter
    November 20, 2007

    I think you can write a whole blog, or even book on number 2 and 9.
    Its my observation that when a church is lacking in volunteers the church needs to look in the mirror. Quilting people to serve reaps some not so pretty results. People will become disenfranchised, bitter, and resentful. They might even leave your church. People are searching and dying for love, affection, appreciation, and acceptance.
    Appreciating volunteers is key! This blog speaks truth. People serve because they want to feel valued, they want to feel needed, they want to feel appreciated. They want to be celebrated and told good job faithful son. They crave it like a pregnant woman crave pickles and ice cream! So give it to them!Take them out to lunch. Instead of taking credit from the pulpit for the amazing and funny video they slaved over for 14 hours by saying “here is a little video we worked on hope you enjoy it” give credit and thanks publicly by saying “here is a video John slaved over last minute for us, we think he did a great job, we hope you enjoy it, I know I do” then ask the congregation to thank him for the blessing he has given your church. Honestly there are so many ways to show appreciation you could write a book. The fact is its human nature to take things and people for granted, so fight that nature and love on people the way Christ.
    Well done Brad, you say what I want to say, but you can say it in such a straight forward way where I ramble haha. Blessings on you, I LOVE the wisdom you bring to us when you get a chance to write!

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  • Daniel Murphy
    November 20, 2007

    As far as number 8 goes: sometimes volunteers don’t need to be retired… they need to be retreaded. (Sorry for the cheesy saying). I’ve had volunteers that gave me ulcers until we found a job for them that fit their skill. But once we did I they became an integral part of the team.
    But sometimes a volunteer’s niche is to work in the nursery or stuff the bulletins. And even then I don’t think of it as ‘firing’ them, I like to think of it as ‘freeing up their future’.

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  • Alex Fear
    November 21, 2007

    Volunteers are volunteering because they get something in return.
    Dead on. Of course, as Christians we have the notion of ‘serving Jesus’ and rewards ‘in heaven’, but the reality is that if volunteers are treated as lower, unqualified, work-horses then they will eventually leave.
    Volunteers may even be more hardworking than staffers simply because they are not just ‘doing their job’.

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  • Karen Kogler
    November 21, 2007

    All of your points on working with volunteers are excellent. They all stress the importance of relationships. We as church staff have the responsibility of aiming to get all the parts of the body (1 Cor 12; Romans 12) working in the position for which they were created. Not an easy task, but there’s nothing more rewarding when God helps us get someone in the right place!

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  • Mark Howell
    November 21, 2007

    Like the list! One thing I’d add is that many churches have trouble making sure that their hundred-fold people are in the right seats on the bus. That may be related to your #1. This is mostly a senior pastor issue. Determining the critical growth path and throwing your best people at it is essential. Compromise on this issue leads to what Andy Stanley calls sideways energy.

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  • Patrick Sievert
    November 23, 2007

    Number 8 is a tough one. How do you fire a volunteer without losing their volunteered services altogether?
    I think you just have to try to relocate them, and if they aren’t open to it, then you just have to touch the touchy subject of asking them not to volunteer anymore.

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  • Jeremy Anderson
    February 26, 2008

    Thanks for the insight. I’m beginning a couple of web projects for two churches I’m involved with and I struggle with how to manage volunteers who may passionately want to be involved, but really aren’t that great at what they do (Josh, if you find this, I don’t mean you :-).

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