Friday, June 11, 2010

From Volunteer Management to Leadership: Part 1

Volunteer management is a very busy role. We know this. I hear this all the time. And I experience it firsthand. Do we get so busy though that we renege on the leadership aspect? Is your role an operational function albeit one that indeed may be performed well. Are we managers or are we leaders? Volunteer Management is many things. Does leadership enter the equation? If good management can be learnt can leadership? Or are people born leaders?

A couple of things prompted this blog entry. One is a fantastic program/course I am currently doing on leadership. Of which I hope to write plenty about when I finish. The other is some things I have heard from colleagues in the field.

I have enough anecdotal evidence to convince me that some people come to a sudden stop in their volunteer management journey, pause and begin to ask some pertinent and dare I say existential questions. I know that I have myself. And I consider myself fortunate enough that others have shared similar moments. And it is these – “where do I go from here?” “Where are the advanced and innovative concepts on management in my field now?” “Who is talking about leadership in my field?”

Let me share a tale: 3 colleagues, who shall remain nameless, from different parts of Australia who I feel, were great leaders as well as managers and thinkers: gone from the field within the last 2 years. I should say – lost to the field.

We bemoan the fact (or ignore) sometimes the high turnover in volunteer management. We err in not seeking data on why people have left. As such – an exit survey for our profession is sorely lacking.

Apart from those who have left I hear from some a frustration at the lack of focus on leadership. The lack of dialogue on same. I fear we may be losing some people who feel their leadership potential may be stifled in our industry.

We don’t talk about it which is a shame because I have no doubt that there are numerous leaders out there in volunteer management globally. Some will jump up and down and disagree with what I am saying. Ok – show me where we are defining leadership? Show me where we are nurturing great leadership of the future. Show me where we are engaging great leaders from other sectors to inspire leaders in our own. Which I think is necessary – this cross sector pollination that for some reason we don’t prefer to engage in?

Show me the leadership forums we are on. Tell me about the leadership breakfasts you attend with other leaders?

Show me the panels of leaders at leadership symposiums featuring a volunteer manager? I am not saying all of the above doesn’t exist. I just haven’t seen much of it in my sphere of experience. I would be delighted to learn of this and publicize this.

John C Maxwell had a very interesting take on leadership when he stated “ Leadership is influence – “nothing more, nothing less”. Do we influence? Who do we influence? Do we need to influence to be good leaders?

If we were to ask what ten traits make a good volunteer manager and then what ten traits make a good volunteer leader would we get different answers?

To be continued…


  1. DJ, I was just speaking yesterday about the fact that we need to move from management to leadership of volunteers. Once again, you are right on the money.

  2. Thanks Rob! I'd love to hear your take sometime on the move from management to leadership of volunteers and what that may entail! :-)

  3. Dave Conroy posted a response to this article on

    I sought his permission to reprint his reply here as I think it adds greatly to the discussion. Thanks Dave!

    "This is a timely article. A successful volunteer manager is always a successful leader too. They may not operate at the top of the tree within their organisation, but leadership isn't about where someone sits on an organisational chart.

    You can be pretty sure that those organisations suffering dissatisfaction and high turn-over rates amongst their volunteers do not prioritise leadership in volunteer management, or seek to employ those with leadership qualities as volunteer managers.

    Capacitybuilders, through its skills development bursaries for volunteer managers, recognised that if volunteer management is to gain the status and resources it requires than we need a good number of existing volunteer managers to take their skills, experience and leadership qualities to the next level, whether than be within their current or another organisation, as a volunteer manager or within another role.

    We need volunteer managers to influence decisions around resourcing and we need also people who know volunteer management to seek to occupy positions where they can actually take the necessary decisions. No point pretending otherwise, or just waiting for something to happen.

    This is where the new campaign to value volunteer management, driven by VE and partners, is so important. Volunteer Managers can choose to get behind this campaign; but they need to choose now, not least because the resources may not be there again to do the necessary and because volunteer management is probably higher on the agenda than it ever has been.

    It's been interesting to see the huge demand for our level 4 and 5 skills development bursaries, targeted very much at the volunteering 'leader'. Clearly, the individual ambition is there but the energy and drive of these people needs to be harnessed together to achieve maximum value from funding.

    It's a huge opportunity. What a shame if those benefiting from these bursaries simply returned to their own organisation silo without appreciating the difference they could make to the wider volunteer management profession.

    To this end, we'll be signposting everyone, whether they receive a bursary or not, to the VE and AVM web sites so at least they have the opportunity to read through any materials there and take steps to collaborate with others for the benefit of all volunteer managers."

  4. Music to my ears. In my article on How Volunteer Managers Sabotage, this was one of my contentions. It is one of the five behaviours that undermine a manager of volunteer's success.

    In the training I do on the same subject, I challenge people to see themselves as leaders. I also have a session on being a leader and another one on Volunteer Management Beyond Survival in which i challenge people that they need to see their role as more than just processing volunteer application forms.

    Martin J Cowling

  5. Thanks Martin. Given your experience if we were to ask what ten traits make a good volunteer manager and then what ten traits make a good volunteer leader would we get different answers?

  6. I am an innocent. I thought management was all about leadership anyway. Getting the best out of volunteers, nurturing talents, developing skills, making their experience rewarding and satisfying - I thought that was my mission, as well as working towards achieving my organisation's goals. Not so different, I thought, from what managers do in other sectors.

    A long time ago I ventured to express out loud that my leadership style was to 'lead from behind'. From the back of the room, very promptly, came the reply "But that's pushing!" I have learned since not to apologise for such a label. Because volunteers have shown me over and over their capacity to deliver, even if they did not know it at the time.

    Of course there are differences between the management of paid staff and volunteers, but I would like to think the quality of leadership
    is a common interest. At least, the focus on leadership gets us away from a concentration on HR responsibilities, as if these were the be-all-and-end-all of managing volunteers.


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