Thursday, December 9, 2010

Leadership in Volunteer Management

“One of the signs of a great leader is the ability to describe, in detail, the unique talents of each of their people – what drives each one, how each one thinks, how each one builds relationships. I deliberately look for something to like about each of my people. Not spending most of the time talking about peoples few areas of non-talent and how to eradicate them. No matter how well intended, relationships preoccupied with weaknesses never end well” – Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman.

The above quote really resonated with me in terms of looking at leadership styles that sit well in Volunteer Management. I am sure that we all have our own unique type of styles but I question if some sit better with managing volunteers.

Let’s break the above quote down and analyze how we might apply the theory.

How do you describe, in detail, the unique talents of each of your people what drives each one, how each one thinks, how each one builds relationships?

Do we currently do this and if so how? If not how do we begin to achieve this? Is there a narrative on their achievements? The question I often ask is whether or not organisations management and staff know about the talents and achievements of their volunteers. Are we educating up enough? I don’t believe it is enough for Volunteer Management just to know this about their own teams. When was the last time you did a presentation to staff or management on the unique talents of your people? When have you last taken this narrative to your community and utilized it as both a recognition and recruitment tool? I believe we should also be talking more on what motivates our people to volunteer. The reasons for this are many and some include our ability to match volunteers to the right task, our planning for the future and again creating a narrative on the culture of volunteering at our organizations. Furthermore I often argue that Volunteer management becomes aware of emerging trends before peak bodies do through surveys especially if we are networking effectively with other leaders of volunteers. This is one of the reasons I continually get frustrated at the exclusion of Volunteer Management at the table when it comes to discussions on the future of volunteerism. Volunteers are relationship builders, within their own teams, with staff, with clients and the general community. Do we focus on this aspect when selling our program, or looking for extra resources for our programs? Do we miss some key selling points like this?

Do we deliberately look for something to like about each of our people? Not spending most of the time talking about peoples few areas of non-talent and how to eradicate them?

How can this apply to volunteers some may ask? Don’t we like all of our volunteers? Very often we don’t exist in a Utopian Volunteering world. We may be challenged by some volunteers at times. I often see workshops on “How to deal with difficult volunteers”. I still hear in Volunteer Management circles “Can you sack a volunteer”? The above quote points us in another direction. It goes to how we deal with these situations. It reminds us how we can be truly professional in our dealings with volunteers. When I first commenced in Volunteer Management I was startled by how some groups that got together spent a lot of time “bagging” some of their volunteer team. And while I understand the need for letting off steam in confidential and safe spaces I do believe how we talk about our people says a lot about our professionalism. I’ve cringed at some of the titles of workshops on the topic of dealing with difficult volunteers and while our issues and challenges must be addressed we must find a more positive narrative in doing so. Deliberately looking for something to like in someone you have difficulty with can apply anywhere in our lives, whether it be through various relationships, with staff, management or colleagues. It is another way of demonstrating leadership. It can loosen steadfast and hard views on people and shine a little light where there might be perceived darkness.

Buckingham’s and Coffman’s quote can guide us to lead in certain situations rather than manage. What do you think?


  1. This is a great post DJ. Thank you. This resonates with me as well. It is so easy to focus on the negatives rather than look at the skills and talents that make volunteers unique. Everyone has something that they can contribute. It is the role of the astute volunteer manager to chanel these unique abilities into a role which utilizes them.

  2. Thanks Wendy. We need more focus on Positive leadership within our sector.



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