October 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 5 // Tools of the Trade // 5TOT2

Previous Article Issue Contents

Leadership For Volunteers: The Way It Is and The Way It Could Be

The failure of volunteer organizations is commonly attributed to a lack of leadership for the organization. The failure problem may be more closely related to unrealistic assumptions rather than the lack of leadership. Identifying common assumptions about organizational goals, volunteer roles, information flow, and feedback is crucial. Addressing those assumptions by learning the arts of active listening, mentoring, public dialogue, and evaluation and reflection is critical to the success of an organization.

Richard Cummins
Visiting Assistant Professor
Bush School of Government and Public Service and
Department of Agricultural Education
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas
Internet address: r-cummins@tamu.edu

For some time, questions have been asked about why some volunteer organizations are more successful than others. By and large, the problem is not with the leadership of the organization. Many talented volunteers bring substantial leadership experience from either the private or the public sector. The problem may be more closely related to unrealistic assumptions regarding the implementation of leadership for organizations.

Through personal experience, four common assumptions regarding leadership for volunteers have emerged. These benchmarks were more a result of armchair observations and hard knocks than the result of research. Research indicates these heuristics, however commonly accepted when working with volunteers, may cause more problems than they cure.

Volunteers are attracted to organizations for a variety of reasons. Generally, the motivations for aligning with others in a voluntary effort can be classified either as intrinsic, that is, doing something for the sake of the activity, or extrinsic, or doing something for an expected payoff. Whichever the case, the volunteer expects to do something. The following generally accepted assumptions may be a source of problems for volunteers willing to work.

Assumption One: Everyone knows what the organization stands for and represents. Volunteers select organizations because of the vision and mission of the organization. In order to fulfill an organization's mission, goals must be clearly articulated to the volunteers. Clearly, volunteers want to do something to help reach the goals and vision of the organization. With the increasing mobility of volunteers, the makeup of an organization will change rapidly and the assumption that everyone knows the mission of the organization is risky. The only way to assure common goals is to frequently share those goals.

Assumption Two: Everyone knows their role. In the work world, employees are usually provided a listing of expectations for their job, such as work standards, appropriate time schedules, authorization capabilities, oversight responsibilities, and reporting protocol. Volunteers have different motivations for voluntary work than paid employees; however, specific guidelines are required in order to have a smooth functioning organization. Role clarification cannot be over-emphasized in volunteer organizations.

Assumption Three: Everyone knows where to get needed information. Volunteers need to know and understand how different parts of a project fit together. Newsletters may give general comments and updates about a project but are usually inadequate regarding specifics about project progress. In addition to the informal lines of communication that develop, a specific reporting mechanism should be established and implemented. Many problems can be avoided when the information flow is unimpeded.

Assumption Four: Everyone gets feedback. It has been said that in Vietnam, the U.S. military did not fight a nine-year war; but rather because of frequent troop changes with no feedback or institutional memory, the U.S. military fought the first year of a war nine times in succession. Volunteers cycle through organizations in much the same way and new recruits are often unaware of previous efforts. Providing feedback to volunteers is critical at all levels of the organization. Special attention is required in order to share previous experiences with current members.

Becoming aware of assumptions and the effects those assumptions have is important in any endeavor. In order to address organizational assumptions, leaders for volunteers should be aware of four arts for sustained involvement. Learning and practicing these arts can contribute to success for volunteers and their chosen organizations.

Art One: Active Listening. Encourage others to talk and search for meaning. Be aware of values of volunteers and strive to meld organizational values and individuals' values. Encourage volunteers to talk about the organization and what they expect from the volunteering experience.

Art Two: Mentoring. Supportively guide others in learning and sharing not only how, but why specific roles are important. Strive to match available skills with volunteers' and organizational needs. Help others solve problems that are holding the organization back.

Art Three: Public Dialogue. Encourage public talk on matters that concern us all. Facilitate interaction to help volunteers gain understanding and appreciation for all segments of a project. Emphasize the free-flow of information.

Art Four: Evaluation and Reflection. Assess and incorporate the lessons we learn through action. Public decision making encourages those expected to implement plans to have ownership of those plans. Encourage new volunteers to make suggestions and avoid suggesting a lockstep method for the organization.

Providing leadership for volunteers can be exhilarating, frustrating, exciting, tedious, rewarding and demanding, all at the same time. Learning how to assess what is and assessing what could be is an important function of leadership for volunteers. Investing time to learn and practice the four arts for sustained involvement can yield substantial results.