Monday, July 6, 2009

You’re fired! Thank you!

Many companies truly want to be a part of and help their surrounding communities. They encourage team members to volunteer and expect their executives to participate in leadership roles.

This all seems like the right thing to do, and I can share another reason for this involvement. As the past president of the Long Beach Management Association, a leadership networking and community service organization, I had to have the dreaded discussion with a fellow board member that was not quite achieving all the roles of the position. Having never led a volunteer organization before, I approached the conversation like it was work.

It was not work and as soon as I provided the opportunity, the individual said they were quite busy and would love to pass this on to someone else. I moved from not getting all I hoped to getting nothing. It struck me like a 2x4. Leading a volunteer effort is way more delicate than leading organizations where people are paid.

So, the next time you are looking to develop one of your up-and-coming leadership hot shots that has a little edge, assign them to lead a volunteer organization. In fact, if you have never done this, sign up yourself! It is a great leadership development undertaking.

Have you had a challenge leading a volunteer effort? Are the leadership skills required different?

Vote Leadership is a Verb as best leadership blog of 2009.


Pam Wasserman said...

This article leaves me with another powerful idea. If we approach the difficult leadership tasks before us when called upon with a paid employee or partner in the same spirit as we do with a volunteer, imagine the quality of that interaction's result.

Jim Janco said...

John, IME, that's dead on and excellent points. I've enjoyed extensive leadership roles in many volunteer organizations. It's great business leadership training, because we learn that leadership is much more than being 'right' or 'in charge'. Being 'right' isn't all it's cracked up to be when it costs you good people due to poor delivery. Focusing simply on being 'right' means you'll lose valuable talent in the process.

The skill is how to lead, even in the face of member failure and elicit the most positive response to a situation that is possible. This approach causes us to STOP and take a minute (thank you Mr.'s Blanchard and Johnson) to remember - We're dealing not with a task, but with PEOPLE!

It's about finding out how to bring out and get the best from people. Not soft, mushy, spineless management, but People Oriented Leadership.

Every successful leader I know has brought that approach into their organization.

Paula Davis said...

I can totally underdstand your point of view on this, money (being paid) is often the primary motivator. Even when we have an initial positive response to our non profit endeavors it will quickly wane unless we make great efforts to feed the fire.

oluwasanmi adesola said...

oops this reminds me of christ's sermon saying "when you are slapped on the right cheek, turn the left and allow another whhooping slap!" but be sure ready to wear your pants inside out when your kids ask you for a ride to disney land . big shoooooo!

Raul Jose Mesquita Parada said...

All, in little words in terms of volunteers jobs more than a leadership ist is important to have a deep commitment with the main focxus of the proposed job. We need to add our mind with our soul.


ASB said...

John, leadership in a non-profit environment is very interesting and encourages the use of a more well-rounded approach to managing people and situations, because many of the levers that exist with employees are not available or effective with to a volunteer workforce.

Thanks again for this post. We'd be all much better off if more leaders took the time to recognize this and rose to the challenge.

Maximizing Business Results Through Effective IT Leadership

Barbara Giamanco said...

Hi John,

I've chaired volunteer boards and run volunteer committees - the worlds of volunteer and corporate are both similar and different.


In the volunteer world, people are not earning a paycheck and most of the time are there because they have a passion for the cause. It is important to remember that they are doing FREE work on their own time. People can walk away pretty easily when they are not earning dollars to be there, especially if they feel undermined, put down or bullied. I've been subject too a few "out of control ego's" where it was all about them. They had something to prove and this was their chance to be the boss.

The good news is that when we"volunteer" it means we don't have to be there. We can walk away. People running these volunteer positions need to understand that. It's been my experience that far too many of them don't. If you are leading a volunteer team you need to work even harder to support people and give them appreciation for what they do. You don't take more than you give. Should be obvious...not always unfortunately.


It's similar in that just because a person is earning a paycheck doesn't mean that they will be motivated to follow your leadership and deliver exceptional performance. They may think more carefully about walking away, because money is on the line but they can certainly walk away mentally:), which is an even tougher problem to overcome.

BTW - I agree that if you want to build leadership capability do consider a volunteer position. But do your homework - interview board members - make sure you believe in the cause - make sure you understand what you are getting yourself into or you might find yourself burned out and disillusioned.

Paul Bowtle said...

We have been using community involvement as a means to develop skills for several years, but I don't think any corporate has really achieved the leverage that is potentially available in terms of engagement and sustainable win-win relationships with community partners as a result of the often transactional nature of the activities supported

Brian Blinn said...

Interesting John,
I HAVE taken that step to lead a volunteer effort and it is QUITE an undertaking! But also a VERY rewarding experience. I started the Reds Summer Wiffleball Classic in Cincinnati....50+ teams our first year. Hoping to double that in year two! Also hoping to more than double the contributions made from last year ($12k) Check it out:

Great post! Thanks

Amer Raja said...

Indeed leading where there is no or less monetary incentive is much more challenging. It becomes more difficult when corruption at political and bureaucratic level in the society is very high. I have experience in founding a non-profit intellectual association- Lahore School of Social Sciences- in Pakistan but it was no success. At that time, I was 24; now when I look back after 13 years and with all the first hand experience gathered, leading whilst sticking to values is a great on-going learning experience as well as fraught with short term set backs.

Stephen Lytle said...


I agree. Although I am still Junior in terms of moving up in an organization I have consistently built my Leadership skills by being involved in programs both in and outside of work. We have a committee at work devoted to promoting our core values which include stewardship and community involvement. Each group memeber works on different projects throughout the year and it gives a higher sense of accounatbility to their development.

I personally have started my own non-profit similar to yours benefiting impoverished children by hosting networking events for young professionals. Likewise, I am president of my Alumni Association. The skills I have gotten from these are incredible to my personal and professional progress.

Additionally, the benefits of these outside of work commitments can be extraordinary in building your own network and also finding mentors to help you develop as well.

Great post John.

Larry Miller said...

People do and always have worked for people ( leaders) ..NOT Companies !

Common sense , ain't so common !

* Will Rogers *

Yet still !! Companies keep preaching the company mantra of for the "company" , for the "company" , for the "company" , !!! ..........................

Steven Bowman said...

Perhaps the greatest lesson learned in becoming an Eagle Scout, is you have to complete a complex project with other Scout volunteers who AGREE to work on your project. Their roles have to have some meat on the bone, by the way.

The primary lesson is're not the BOSS but a Leader. It doesn't take long to figure out the volunteers have to grant you the can't demand it. Authority flows up from the ranks.

I feel this may be the lesson non-profit leadership bestows, John.

Pedro Paiva said...

I don't find all of the above so different from virtual team management, which is in fact much more leadership than management ;-)


Cheryl Howard said...

There is a tremendous difference between the volunteer who is serving to make a reputation and the volunteer who is serving just to give. The first one constantly wants to be reassured, stroked, commended and publicly appreciated. The second wants to contribute to the overall success. The first one resents any feedback, suggestions and changes not vetted through them first. The second incorporates feedback and discusses your concerns until you're both satisfied with the result.

Chris Parker said...

Creating a Servant Leadership culture versus a group of volunteers really has made a world of difference for us at our church. We set the bar high and people who come through our doors are amazed with the dedication of our servant leaders (and results). People are hungry to make a difference in the lives of others and we give them the opportunity to do so. The setting of a high bar is key.

We create a culture of Excellence and Honor both rare in many organizations. The "small" invisible roles are honored as are the visible roles. No one area of serving is lesser or greater than another as it takes them all to create the culture.

You can tell the newbies from the veterans as the volunteer mindset is transformed to a servant leadership mindset.

I've been an active dedicated servant leader at our church for 7.5 years and have brough many of the Leadership principles I've learned into the workplace and vice versa. 8 years ago I only had a volunteer mindset today I have the opportunity to develop leaders in the church, in the marketplace and in the non-profit world. The servant leader mindset is the one consistent factor. It all starts with THINKING.

Dev Das Gupta said...

In recent years, volunteering for any organization has become a fundamental shift in view (as Chanykya - father of strategy, 2300 years ago said..) your where public and your private life are one and the same. What you do in volunteering your self acts as a portal of who you are at work. Seems like the eastern and western philosophies are melting into one as we become aware of "for whom, for what, and the meaning" (karma, artha, karya) of the work/life we lead. Sadly, this is lost in the land where this view had been first recorded 23 centuries ago.

Kathy Bridwell said...

I've lead a volunteer group of supply management professionals in presenting an annual educational 3-day conference for the last 4 years; the skills required are different from work, with the motivating factors and approaches with volunteers a quite different experience, if you want to achieve success and cooperation.

Kathy Bridwell, C.P.M., CPPO, Chair of Southwest Supply Management Conference

Muriel de Toledo said...

I perfectly understand what you mean and yes I agree, leading volounteers is quite challenging.
Their motivation, not being a pay cheque, is often the feeling of being "needed" by the community; take that feeling away and you are losing your volounteer... in a snap!
I totally agree with you, leading a volounteer organization is a unique way to develop your leadership capacity.
I cannot say the leadership skills are different because, to some extent, a leader in any business situation may have to use a certain level of sensibility facing employees who will not cooperate as required.
I do not believe that 'firing' an 'inadequate' employee is a good long term solution; it may backfire giving remaining employees wrong messages about their role and security in the company, damaging office relationships and ultimately lowering their productivity.
I have seen the results of such a situation in one of my assignements and the damages in one department where reflected severely throughout the company's performance.
It is far more worthwile, in my opinion, to work out differences, within limits of common sense, allowing the employees to feel important in their role within the organization and give them proper support and training in order to help them perform at their best capacity.
Although this obviously requires more effort, patience and time (and doesn't always work with everyone), it definetly builds group recognition, trust and ultimately fidelity towards management.

Michael Hortiatis said...

As the past President of AIM (Association for the Improvement of Montgomery, near Princeton NJ), we focused on the end objective, Our volunteers provided their time and effort and our "team" which included "business" executives provided guidelines/action plans to achieve our objectives. Interestingly, the approach taken was a blend of social, collaborative, and business. It worked. We provided value to the community and our Township Leadership. For example, by researching and quantifying the effect of proposed development plans for the township we were able to initiate changes to those plans to maintain our rural environment and life style.
As with our work environment, we have to adjust our management style for a win/win result for the company, the employees and community. Managing volunteers is like managing within a matrix organization. As David says, you have to earn their trust - you cannot demand it.


Harlan Wax said...

You want real fun - be an officer of a Home Owners Association then you are volunteering and your neighbors are your customers and culprits ;-D

Deva bakthan said...

Yes , now the term used is

Corporate Social Responsibility

while working for GE Money ....I involved myself with GE volunteers , by helping street children in Don Bosco Home to Read and Write English and other school related lessons & subjects . Involved in Local Community activities, actively championed their cause eg Education of Street Children , Tsunami Relief Activities etc.

Our GE Volunteers Team were the winners of Educational Impact Award 2006 from Mr.Jeffery Immelt, CEO GE.

Now i am with V-Care .

well, there i saw my role as identifying needs in the infrastructure of the V-Care non profit community and seeking ways to fill those gaps - either by providing services to other Organisation or partnering with a not-for-profit organisation like Red Cross with a mission to reach the poor in that area. Co-ordinating the projects and making sure it is completed on schedule.

We are looking for some seniors interested in volunteer activity within United States. or to act as a member of the Board and to over see the activities in the future.

please reply .......

David Vernon said...

Leading volunteers has the additional factor that volunteers cannot be compelled. I have more leadership experience in volunteer work (Boy Scouts, service fraternity, religious interest groups, etc.) than in commercial work. Both have issues with schedules, resources, roles and responsibilities, communication and coordination, planning and execution. Commercial work is paid for - you can fire people who do not perform up to the needed level. In volunteer work, you have to make do with those who have volunteered. Since many hands make light work, the more volunteers the better, and one can little afford to offend anyone while attempting to make their effort more useful in achieving the organization goal. Moreover, volunteer organizations never have enough money, whereas some commercial projects have more than enough. The net effect is that leading a volunteer effort is all responsibility with almost no power. It is a great challenge to achieve anything through the efforts of volunteers alone. Being a paid PM running a company project is easy by comparison.

Richard Serby said...

As president of an HOA I agree entirely. Get elected to the homeowners board and walk out of the room and you may be elected president.

Alberto Cortez said...

In volunteer organizations, the Leader does by example and enthusiasm, convincig others with His attitude.

Eddie Canales said...

After my son suffered a spinal cord injury, I volunteered to start an organization to help young high school athletes who have suffered a life changing spinal cord injury while playing football.
This has been a huge undertaking. We have had many obstacles; one being that coaches really did not want to talk about this injury.
After years of traveling attending coaching clinics and trainers conferences, coaches are getting the message.
The American Football Coaches Association now endorses us, and now some of the larger spinal cord injury organizations are referring injured athletes to Gridiron Heroes.

Our goal now is to get more of the football community and those who profit from football involved in our cause.

Like anything worth while it takes being persistent and developing a passion for your cause.

Gridiron Heroes part of
Jessica Biel's "Make the Difference Network"
View Wishes and see how you can help! Go to

Hope you can more people to get involved to help others.

Siamak Mirnezami said...

At work leadership and commitment to are often out of obligation and fear. Rarely out of respect and desire. To achieve the latter, one has to lead from the front and convince. The former is by decree. Too often folks in leadership positions (read command) were never trained for the job. Most give "team work" lip service but too often it simply means do as I say. The alternative is a rude awakening. The simplest litmus test is to ask oneself, which approach would I appreciate ?. Being told or being asked and convinced ?

Michael Beason said...

In volunteer work, unlike corporate America, we ask volunteers to state what they're committed to and then we hold them accountable for doing it. People come to these organizations to help and a willingness to be held accountable is the minimum expectation.

In corporate America, we tell the person what they are committed to and then hold them accountable whether they are or not.

John's right - we don't really begin to learn about leading from corporations anymore than we learn parenting from abusive parents. What we have to face is the reality that without commitment there is only compliance. You can get their bodies but you can't get their minds.

We have a crisis of leadership in America because we mostly don't believe this.

“We are going to win, and the industrial West is going to lose: There’s nothing much you can do about it because the reasons for your failure are within yourselves.” --Konosuke Matsushita

Eric Schreiber said...

Thank you for the great post and interesting discussion.
I enjoyed reading it because I can relate to it very well.

As part of my own career development, I was shown that one of the roadblocks to my own escalation of the corporate ladder is not identifying who will take my position when I move on. I was coached to identify and develop my successor as part of my own progression. As part of or corporate leadership we are asked to participate in our partnering charity and I had so find someone to join our efforts is a I do. Although there are several other aspects to my own development plan, I found "good corporate citizenship" development within members of my group to be one of the most challenging tasks. I first tried to lead by example and hope that everything will fall in place as in the textbooks but it did not work as planned. Then I tried to recruit those who expressed interest in career progression but the interest quickly dwindles when the efforts extend beyond work hours. Lastly, I have tried to negotiate... do this for that, but I can see that the model is not sustainable.

I agree that it is a challenge to lead a volunteer effort. I have not found the best prescription or method to do so and I agree that it is an excellent awakening to anyone hoping to develop their leadership skills.

Thank you again for the good discussion.

Kelly Chezum said...

John, I agree volunteer leadership is great professional development as well as good community policy for firms. My vantage is from two roles -- one as the past president of a local health care board and the other as a professional staff liaison to a university board.

While the incentives structure is different, I believe the best practices of the corporate world make nonprofit volunteers and the organization they want to support more effective and give the individuals involved rewarding experiences in exchange for donating their time and goodwill. A good volunteer job description/ statement of responsibilities, an orientation program to the board/organization, and clear measurable goals for the volunteer to contribute towards the project/mission are key to long-term success.

The president/chair of a nonprofit board is a leader of leaders: most volunteers are already the quarterbacks back in their own offices and professional career teams so the experience is different for them as well. Giving volunteers realistic individual assignments that match their strengths, personalities, time commitments and personal goals for being involved early on in a volunteer's tenture will build engagement and contribute towards the broader group's goals. Finally, celebrate wins and publicly appreciate a job well done.

Thanks, John for your regular posts to this site. Kelly

Xerxes Zeno Herrington said...

Being a leader in the Boy Scouts has been challenging from day one. The boys are just super but those parents...................
Volunteer work is certainly challenging and demands a different set of skills for sure. I agree, if possible young managers should take these on early in their careers as it helps to develop those skills.
About 6 years ago I was interviewing for a position and the only topic of discussion throughout was management of the troop I was the Scoutmaster of at the time. Leadership, management, organization of events, and training development.......... A very thorough interview..........

Erik Pedersen said...

I agree with both comments and insights about volunteer groups. And I think this is an excellent training ground for corporate life. Leading volunteer groups has taught me the importance of building consensus and also being realistic about what can be accomplished. It seems as though the key skills in leading a volunteer organization are listening to others and accepting the role they can play and not necessarily what I believe is needed. Thanks for the topic.

Brad Hummel said...

Worst year of my life was as HOA president.

God love the little old ladies that would call me in the middle of night after 13 straight days of rain to complain about how tall the grass was getting in the common areas.

Shannon Flint said...

I have led a volunteer organization and agree you have to be realistic about expectations one can (should expect) of a volunteer. Also the volunteer has to WANT to participate and feel they are not alone in this venture that folks r available and can help as needed. Lastly it does help to have some area's where folks can be paid if it is a particularly intense, boring and tough job as those will be the ones that no one wants to do!!!

Lastly Volunteers should be treated like gold and THANKED for their work people in business don't thank others and it is a bad habit the US has gotten into. True many things are your job to do at work BUT you know when someone has really been trying and a few words of encouragement are all that is needed, volunteer or not . . .

Santiago Pino Reyes said...

Yes... it might be frustrating as Mr. Bishop says. I also had a bad experience having a non-paid role and trying to lead people that was not interested at all in doing a good job.
You start wondering how that people work in real life... Do they have a non-demanding boss?... Do they just sit there and wait for lunch time?

Even worst is having your pairs in the organization going to meetings just to hear what others have done and make easy critics on everything (perhaps they think that's their role?)...

I'm afraid I was the one who said "Thank you" when they accepted my resignation a year ago.

Anyway... I think I miss it... I shall request to work again in this organization... and keep reading this post. Thank you.

David McKee said...


Leading volunteers is more difficult because it requires even more so, that quintessential element of a good leader that usually goes unnoticed, and is rarely discussed in any books or courses on leadership development:

The ability to create, and sustain Enthusiasm.

If your volunteers are not enthusiastic about what they are doing - then you will have a rough time, but create enthusiasm in them, and you had better get out of their way (another quality of a good leader) because they will carry the day and see it through. As a leader, if you do nothing else but keep that enthusiasm going, and then like a captain of a sailing ship, trim the rudder - that is, keep your volunteers pointed in the right direction, you will get the job done in ways that will blow your mind.

The ship analogy is apropos because your volunteers, or those whom you are leading are the engine of the ship, as a leader you need to stay at the helm. If you are not there, you can not continue to create the enthusiasm or steer the vessel, and your ship will quickly come to a stop in the "doldrums".

I discovered this principle by accident when I was in high school - our class always lost the yearly "homecoming float" competition because the group that usually made the float was more concerned about partying. I decided we were going to win if I had to build it myself, so I created a plan that included launching model rockets from the float - then I talked to the "movers and shakers" of our class and got them enthusiastic (pyrotechnics and teenagers, always a good combination!) they then spread this enthusiasm to the rest of the class. Long story short we won that year.

Enthusiasm for the vision - that is perhaps the most important quality in any endeavor, paid or volunteer, and a good leader needs to know how to create and sustain it.

David T. McKee

Lisa Newell said...

I fully agree with the different skillset involved in volunteer leadership. As a very active member of a major organization completely run by volunteers, it's almost shocking at the the way some folks feel they can abuse their volunteers, not recognizing these people have real paying jobs and are offering their time as goodwill. I recall one "leader" advising me he was offering me a chance to "prove" myself to him and was shocked when I advised I was completely disinterested in that and good luck in the future. He then couldn't understand why I was unwilling to step forward to help him in as he had "issues" and his team started to dwindle and disintegrate.

Conversely, I can think of a predecessor of this individual who was superior, recognized and highlighted the value of the team, and developed true dedication of his volunteer organization ultimately carrying over into that "paying job" world when business actions and relationships are needed.

The real personalities and leadership skills come out in volunteer organizations. If one is unable to successfully lead a volunteer organization, that void will also show up elsewhere.

Jim O'Brien said...

John, very insightful. As I think back on my leadership career in non profit and for profit, I can really relate to what you're saying here. The recommendation to encourage the up and coming to engage in non profit leadership is really a simple and elegant idea. Thanks.

Lisa Newell said...

I fully agree with the different skillset involved in volunteer leadership. As a very active member of a major organization completely run by volunteers, it's almost shocking at the the way some folks feel they can abuse their volunteers, not recognizing these people have real paying jobs and are offering their time as goodwill. I recall one volunteer board of directors "leader" advising me he was offering me a chance to "prove" myself to him and was shocked when I advised I didn't have a need for that and good luck in the future. He then couldn't understand why his team was unwilling to step forward to help him as he began to have "issues" and his organization started to dwindle and disintegrate.

Conversely, I can think of a predecessor of this individual who was superior, recognized and highlighted the value of the team, and developed true dedication of his volunteer organization ultimately carrying over into that "paying job" world when business actions and relationships are needed.

The real personalities and leadership skills come out in volunteer organizations. If one is unable to successfully lead a volunteer organization, that void will also show up elsewhere.

Anna DeBattiste said...

I serve on the board of directors for a volunteer search and rescue team, and I think yes, the leadership focus required is different. You have to create an incredible sense of excitement and motivation toward the goals of the team, and it must be enough to replace typical discussions around accountability. One of the ways that I contribute is by trying to get as much press coverage as I can for the group. Of course, it helps that what we're doing is saving lives. I would imagine that for some groups with less tangible or less dramatic goals, it is even more of a challenge to create that sense of excitement.

Scott Hartz said...


In a volunteer org I have found that I need to carefully mach the members to what their passion is for the organization. Each person brings a unique skill and a unique passion and sometimes the skill and the passion don't match.

That doesn't diminish the passion .. but they want to fill the passion not necessarily the skill. If the passion isn't fulfilled .. the member looses interest and is lost ...

This is MUCH different than corp leadership as is today ... But Corps should take heed of this approach as it may make for a better retention and possibly much better innovation...

Pat Shay said...

Hi John-
I also have been involved leading volunteer efforts and, as a leader, you do need a different management approach.
I have found that people will give you their best efforts if you let them know that you truly appreciate them. A sincere thank you and some recognition go a long way, especially if the recognition is made publically.

Tracy Sianta said...

What an excellent perspective. Something to keep in mind as one develops their personal tool box. Leading is quite different from simply telling people what to do. It is really trying to convince folks to do what they do best. Thanks for sharing this thought!

Lucas Smith said...

I totally relate to the expiriences. I find leading and managing people at work to be much easier then managing non work volenteer (or other) groups. I always found group projects in school (highschool through grad school ) to be some of the most frustraiting as their should be the motivation to perform, but someone always seems to understand that teachers only care about the end project, and not who worked on it.

Some of the things that i have found to work best are:
1) Focus on positive re-inforcement, and offer suggestions for how to improve(not "critisism").
2) Maintain realistic expectations. Volenteers want to help, not have their life taken from them. Are you going to still make a positive impact even if one aspect of the organization isn't perfect? Look to the end goal and don't get stuck on stuff inbetween.
3) Maintain a positive attitude, especially when other volenteers are frustrated at someone not pulling their "weight"
4) Dialoge with volenteers on their work load, and your appreciation of their effort (see item 1). Especially if you have a particularly good volenteer, let them know to let you know if they need a break. This gives them hope from the "never ending" task, and often alows them to do more, knowing that you understand that may have to change.

Larry Miller said...

Baselining - with the 10 Rules for being human :

When thinking of leading and following it is of some value to not loose sight
of the human being as a life is the process of continous learning and experiencing SOC ( Situation(s) - Option(s){choices} & Consequences in an ever non stop loiving of life within its moments. As on a tomb stone
We each have a start date and time ... a dash .... and end date .
We are while alive in the "dash" ... The dash is or opportunity to be .

You will receive a body. You may like it or hate it, but it's yours to keep for the entire period.

You will learn lessons. You are enrolled in a full-time informal school called, "life."

There are no mistakes, only lessons. Growth is a process of trial, error, and experimentation. The "failed" experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiments that ultimately "work."

Lessons are repeated until they are learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can go on to the next lesson.

Learning lessons does not end. There's no part of life that doesn't contain its lessons. If you're alive, that means there are still lessons to be learned.

"There" is no better a place than "here." When your "there" has become a "here", you will simply obtain another "there" that will again look better than "here."

Other people are merely mirrors of you. You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects to you something you love or hate about yourself.

What you make of your life is up to you. You have all the tools and resources you need. What you do with them is up to you. The choice is yours.
Your answers lie within you. The answers to life's questions lie within you. All you need to do is look, listen, and trust.

You will forget all this.

Chris Willis said...

Greetings, John!

Another dynamic in the volunteer world is that it takes people outside of their accustomed work roles, which can create an interesting new dynamic. Someone who's a busy CEO or manager at the office may have a difficult time transitioning to "partner" or even "worker" in their volunteer role. As you pointed out, with that tension already at play, it sometimes doesn't take much for a volunteer leader to inadvertnetly to push an overtaxed person over the edge - and out the door.

It's important to remind volunteers often of the mission they are working together to accomplish, and to recognize and thank them for the personal sacrifices (some large, some small) that they are making to move everyone toward important end goal(s). When volunteers can see beyond their own personal needs and feelings and focus on the good they are accomplishing, they may free themselves to grow and succeed within the organization.

One thing you can take from the corporate playbook: sometimes you end up with a good voluneer in the wrong role. Trying to push that round peg into an (unpaid) square hole just leads to frustration for everyone involved. It takes a whole village of volunteers to run a large effort, and there are roles for everyone. When a volunteer isn't working out, assess the needs and talents of the invididual and see if there might not be a role for them that would be a better fit with their availability and skill set. If so, work WITH the individual (not behind their back) to see if that might be an agreeable move, and enlist them to help with the transition.

Justin Rowenhorst said...

I completely agree with everything above. I too have learned first hand of the differerences between managing volunteers and managing employees as an assistant director for a water ski show team. For years it has been the case where members show up to ski but hide when maintenance or other tasks need done.

I'm sure some simple guidelines and repercussions would work but other leadership isn't too big on basic performance management and imposing consequences (since the organization is supposed to be "volunteer" and not performance-driven). I know even volunteer organizations need to be performance-driven in some aspect but I've tried numerous methods to convince senior leadership and I still get resistance. I've also been advocating a member engagement survey to increase commitment, loyalty, etc. but there are hesitations here as well. Any suggestions on how to increase volunteering and/or member engagement in a situation like this, or how to get buy-in for basic HR programs in a volunteer organization?

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this entry! As I have tried to explain my management style to perspective employers, I have never thought of using the analogy of treating my direct reports as volunteers, but it sure did hit home as a fit for me when I read your message.

Also, seeing that you are in supply chain, and are obviously a good leader, since you thought to write this article, it makes me wish I had been succesful in getting into your organization while I was in IBM (I was laid off in April). I will be watching even more closely for any open positions in your organization now for sure!

Thanks again........MW

Larry Miller said...

Y Combinator is an American seed-stage startup funding firm, started in 2005 by Paul Graham, Robert Morris, Trevor Blackwell, and Jessica Livingston. Y Combinator provides seed money, advice, and connections at two 3-month programs per year. From its inception to 2008, one program was held in each of the US cities of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Mountain View, California

As of January 2008, Y Combinator had funded 80 startups, the best known of which are reddit, Loopt, and The number of startups funded in each cycle has been gradually increasing. The first cycle in summer 2005 had eight startups. In the summer 2007 cycle, there were 19.

Anonymous said...

Dear John,
The secret is to inspire, and keep then inspired,
reach inside, then things start to happen.

Best success,

Todd Kovi said...

This is a great observation and even better advice. I participate on the Board of Directors for a non-profit, membership owned organization. The Board position is not paid, and we are elected by the membership. It has provided me the ability to broaden my experience, participate in a worthwhile activity, and challenged my leadership skills. It is entirely different than a paid position and the dynamics among the Board members reveal the range of unique personalities. Everyone is motivated differently which presents a challenge to acheive common goals/objectives for the organization.

This position has helped strengthen my leadership skills and help me develop the ability to look at problems from various perspectives that I would not have considered in the past.

Without a doubt there is a serving of 'humble pie' awaiting those who are brave enough to venture into these waters!

Tim Moore said...

Interesting dialogue John and Kathy. I too have led a 'volunteer army' for a (National) Supply Chain, not for profit organization. First for their Membership Committee, and second for their National Education Committee. In both cases, I have worked with some SOLID and dedicated volunteers. However, it has at times been problematic, and yes, whilst it IS different from 'work' or a regular job, one should approach it in a similar fashion, and with an ample amount of due diligence. This includes, regular and meaningful meetings where minutes (and attendance) is kept. But also, volunteer job descriptions - outlining duties, responsibilities, expectations of attendance, performance, and outcomes are all given. (A helpful 'tip' in this regard, is making part of their duty, the positive recommendation - and perhaps recruitment onto the Committee, of their replacement, should they either not be able to peform their tasks to the fullest OR for when their 'term' comes to an end.)

When things 'fall short' and you're not getting the performance and/or the time committment required, then you're justified in reviewing things with the volunteer (seperately and in private), giving the volunteer time, and one more opportunity to correct things. If they can't, or are unable to, then it's up to you, and the Committee Chair - who is also a volunteer, and to whom your underperforming individual reports to, to get together and discuss things with you. If this doesn't work, then don't be afraid to fire (yes, I said "fire") the volunteer. It needs to be done in order for the 'problem' not to spread to others within the group, and for the group as a whole to get things done. There's nothing worst than one or two doing the majority of work, and the others letting things 'slide.'

The Chairperson would simply meet with them, let them know that perhaps things appear to have changed, and that the volunteer isn't unable, for whatever reason to make the time or effort required for the group to achieve success. Give the underperforming volunteer the opportunity to either correct the problem or rebut it, and get things back on track. In my experience and in most cases; there is a realization and agreement, that 'yes, things have fallen down' and the volunteer either either improves dramatically, or submits their resignation from the group.

I would also suggest that it is UNadviseable for the volunteer to simply 'nominate' or 'pass it on' to someone else that they know, to complete the task or become part of the group. Take it under advisement, but also realize that without your own due diligence and selection effort, you may be repeating the same problem, for the same results.

Good luck !

Tim Moore

Clayton Berry said...

I would submit a great way for any person to get involved in volunteer work and leadership is to join your local Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees). It is usually age restricted (25-40yrs) and depending on location, nearest local chapter may be small or too far away. Still, it's "Leadership Development Through Community Service", and you just can't beat it. If you have interested staff (or kids, friends, co-workers), suggest this to them.

The comments above are correct both ways - volunteer workers are different to manage, but the projects should be treated like a business. On the flip side to some of the "delicate" comments above, I've had the greater experience of being far more productive and successful with a group of dedicated, motivated volunteers, doing things the right way, even with "red tape", than often in a "real" business setting, filled with insecurities, politics and just poor demeanor.

If you want more info on my local chapter, visit

And if you're more of an animal person, visit and find a local shelter, SPCA or Rescue in need of help.

Thanks, and happy volunteering!

Clayton Berry
Raleigh, NC

Debra S. Dreyer said...

I served on a Board for a non-profit organization and you are right - it is a different business animal. I, too, learned the hard way how to communicate effectively. I know what to do now... thankfully.

Thanks for sharing. I love reading stories like this. Makes me feel 'normal'.

Bogdan Deaky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alex Kersha said...

I would argue that the leadership skills required in a volunteer organization are no different than in the corporate world. What IS different are the things you use to motivate and incent your people. In the corporate world it's relatively easy; money, paid time off, money, summer hours, and did I mention ... money?

In the volunteer world, you have but one thing to rely on to motivate your people: their love and devotion to the cause. It is paramount for a volunteer leader to show by example their own continued motivation and deep interest in whatever cause or goals have been set for the team. Once the team gets wind of any faltering interest, the organization falls apart.

Volunteers are by their very nature extroverts who want to get involved. Keep your people in the game. Keep them in as many "hands on" projects as possible and for the full life cycle of the project so that they can enjoy the fruits of their labor. Volunteers gain satisfaction and renewed interest and motivation from knowing that they are making a difference.

Another great post John, thank you.

Alex Kersha

Jeff Cooper said...

HOA is a thankless job, but someone has to do it. After my three year "tour of duty" on HOA, including President, I had a whole new appreciation for theiir pain.

Unfortunately, it's usually the same few who consistently volunteer their time.

I'm now very appreciative and supportive of their efforts.

Ms. Lynn said...

Hello John!

I found your post intriguing. Human motivation stems from great leadership, which is not differentiated by situations of employment, volunteer organizations, non-profit, etc... If you have been a parent--the same applies. The fear of termination/not paying an employee is typically the least motivating factor for most. As such, using this strategy in a non-paid environment (volunteer group, parent relationship) will not give you a different result.

Great and true leaders are excellent humans. They are fabulous communicators. They manage expectations and outcomes effortlessly. They know how to inspire others. They do "the right thing(s)." They know how to see the strengths of the individual group members and structure accordingly.

I fear your volunteer experience has been a result of the "Corporate American" brainwashing. That is a sad commentary on our World.

Kamal K. Gaur said...

John has rightly pointed out the difference in leadership style needed when working in a volunteer organization. I have some what similar experience while working for HOA. Hoping to delegate is nearly impossible. You are required to lead and demonstrate with a little moral support from a few members. You are needed every where and all the time.

It's a real challenge to work in such an environment, but provides a good opportunity to learn a set of new concepts. Worth giving a try...

Anonymous said...

One can't agree more on last lines. Yes, its ' really difficult to be in a leadership role in a volunteer organization. Very Very High motivational and persuasive skills are required.


David Armstrong said...

For many years, I was the elected president of a 501(c)3 non-profit. Totally volunteer.

On several occasions we put on major sporting events that required months of planning and culminated in a week long competitions involving hundreds of people from around the country. The events required thousands of volunteer hours and dozens of tasks/activities that required planning and execution.

Some of characteristics related to volunteers that I learned about and dealt with included:
* Most volunteers were there because of their passion for the sport, but they also had their own individual motivations for helping.
* Volunteers were very independent and could opt in or opt out at any time.
* Some volunteers did not have the skill sets/personality to handle the tasks THEY wanted to do.
* Many members who had valuable/necessary skill sets did not want to volunteer due to work/time constrains.

Leadership actions that I took/developed to effectively work in this framwork included:
* Consistently shared the vision, benefits and expectations for the event as related to the goals of the organization.
* Consistently recognized and thanked the volunteers for their support and efforts.
* Insured that I learned the motivations of each individual and focused assignments and recognition to support those motivations.
* Used tact, diplomacy and empathy to reassign individuals to tasks for which they were best suited, could succeed and feel valued.
* Cajoled, arm-twisted and begged when necessary to get bystanders with necessary skill sets to volunteer.
* Coached, trained and handheld when necessary for activities and tasks that were new to people.
* Recognized and gave credit for our success to the volunteers.

I don't think the leadership skills required were any different from those required for leading non-volunteer efforts, but they certainly were elevated and much more focused. I believe that the lessons I learned leading these competitions enhanced by overall skills and made me a better leader in the for-profit sector and I took these lessons learned along with me.

Igor Kovalev said...


I can give you another example: I used to be part of volunteer IT network (FidoNet R50) in Russia, before internet came here. The network was based on volunteers, but it rquired certain "hubs", who will go extra step and provide more service than the usual member ("node"). It was some years ago and now I can say, that 90% of hubs in this voluntary network become IT Managers of various level.

It's not only a good thing for the leaders with some "edge", it's also a great sand box for the starters, as the ticket to raise in prominance in such voluntary setups is much cheaper, than in real enterprise. But it gives you volumes of management expirience since nobody "have to" do something - it's much more critical to be able to pursue people and lead by example.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your posting your thoughts on leadership and volunteering.

Having a leadership role in a corporation is different from partaking a role in volunteer work. In volunteer work, there is the absence of tiers, everyone has equal weights. If we have a genuine interest in what we are volunteering for, we would blend in.

Rod Satre said...

In professional life as general manager, I get to set goals for employees and counsel poor performers as well as coach the good performers.

In voluntary orgainzations the key is to Lead NOT Manage the volunteers. I've been president or director of multiple community organizations and the fun part is to set the stage for "Empowerment" of the volunteers so that their mission matches the mission of the organiztion. It's organic and modifies the outcome with the skills and interests of the organization and the key contributors.

One of my late friends [Michael S.] used to say that "those that do, have the final say in what gets done."

Rod Satre

Dan de la Cruz said...

John, great post. I have been avoiding leading although I am an active member in a few non-profit organization. I find myself fearing being spread too thin and couldn't give the attention that they deserve, just like the people before you. But I really appreciate this post as it emphasizes the importance of giving back as a character builder for a leader and help improve the communities that one is involved in.

Bogdan Deaky said...

Hi John,
Yes, been there. Actually one of our most important projects was started with a team of volunteers (including myself) out of pure passion.
I'd say that, since a leader does not have the financial compensation tool at hand, it all falls back to higher (but it would be great to call them "normal") means of motivation: an innovative project, team cohesion, making the volunteers feel that they have an important position (not hard, since they usually do), rewarding them with personal glory by mentioning their participation in public, turn the work into fun etc.
I also noticed that volunteers tend to come from the professionals group and are open-minded and original people.

Clear example: The product I am talking about is a 3D car configurator (3DCar(TM)) - probably the very first interactive one. Regarding the team: besides project management, I did most of the software development part (though my PhD is being done in mechanical engineering), Cristian, who did the 3D model/texturing, did previously work on projects for Disney, Comedy Central, well-known romanian TV comercials etc. and Cornel, the designer has also lots of experience in several design areas. The others who helped out also have a great background in their areas. Thank you guys!

And yes, I definitely consider that leading a project developed by volunteers requires more 'real leadership" skills.

Bogdan Deaky
General Manager
Bluemind Software - Experience the Software Revolution

Kirsten Parks said...

I agree with Pedro's comments. Volunteering and virtual teaming are similar in that you are relying on individuals who may not be directly aligned with you, or your organization. To get results you must lead with inspiration and passion as well as utilize the skills of the team members.

Volunteering for a non-profit is generally done because someone believes in the cause supported, but the length at which they support, in my view, has to do with the efforts and how they are lead, not managed.

Peter Bender said...

Hi John,

Leading volunteers definitely sorts the wannabe's from the good leaders. I started a ministry which ran for four years and involved most of my church at one time or another. Many joined because of me, many tied into the evangelical side and others joined because everyone else was there.
Getting them to stay and develop a high performing core team was harder. Like yourself, this was my first time.
At the end of the day I learned that most volunteers join for their own reasons but just like at work they like to know that they are contributing to something that makes a difference.
A lot of my time was spent directly communicating and often thanking others. These were the core values I also bred into my key delegatees.
Prayer also works wonders.

Take care and God bless,


Daniel Elder said...

In my experience I've found that a leadership role in a volunteer organization is a hypersenative version of leadership in corporate America (which might be why executives are encouraged to volunteer).

While leading in corporate America gives you the benefit of additional tools, like the power of the purse, your recommendations for subordinate promotions, the ability to award plum assignments, the annual review, and other "hard" tools, getting the most out of volunteers in a non-profit organization is all about using and mastering far more subtle tools.

Since volunteering by definition lacks the motivation of pay, the key is to motivate the volunteer using other means while simultaneously meeting the organization's needs. After pay, volunteers need for reward may be satisfaction of helping in an area they have passion for, social interaction or recreation, public recognition, accomplishing a task necessary for a career step, broadening their social or professional base of contacts, etc.

The organization also has needs for tasks to be accomplished, funds to be raised, publicity to be generated, projects to be overseen, etc.

The key is matching the (possibly unstated) needs of each volunteer to the needs of the organization. When that happens, things work well.

Simply stated, you can get the most out of volunteers if you'll meet their needs while helping the organization meet its needs.

Bruce Spurgeon said...

Lots of great comments. I especially like Scott's comments on passion. That is the key to understanding in either business or volunteer groups. If a volunteer has no passion for the "cause" then there are vastly fewer ways to motivate them than at work. So you can build on their passion, try to create some or find a "better" volunteer.

Thanks for the discussion John

Scott Hartz said...

Bruce Thanks for the "at-a-boy" ..and mind jogger .... I did forget to add the MOST important part. Appreciation.

Everyone who serves as a volunteer needs a pat on the back .. Some of this is tricky as some crave public recognition ... However I myself take the "Herb Brooks" approach that a simple handshake and a soft spoken Thank You drive me ...

I spent ten years with a volunteer Org supporting an educational institution, the last four as Prez and Past Prez. We did some good things on changing the direction ... NO One from the Org's hired management believed in recognition ... Needless to say I'm not that "Passionate" for the time being.... Simple Thank You's go a LOOOONG way ...

Beverly Parr said...

I have been the leader of several all-volunteer teams / groups and it has been my experience that leading volunteers is much like herding cats. They will do that they want at the speed they choose. Deadlines are not nearly as important as the social aspect. BUT if you can "inspire" them, then all you have to do is to stand back and watch things happen.

Leaders of volunteers need to find that spark of inspiration that will set off a bonfire in the hearts of the all-volunteer team. The focus cannot be on the task that is or is not moving forward, it has to be on finding the inspiration that will grease the wheels of progress.


Scooterrocks said...


Volunteering provides a great avenue which are reflected in the comments to this posting.

A prior posting discussed "How not to act old", in spite of violating one of the ideas, volunteering to me is being a well rounded person. As a father I am ensuring My little ones get involved early. Being leaders and champions of this subject will help keep our communities vibrant.


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