by Kristin Fontaine
Over the past 30 years I have worked with a variety of organizations as a paid employee, volunteer, or church member. I was never the primary leader, but have been a board or vestry member, secretary or assistant, or a trainer within the organization.
One of my own skills is organizing information so I frequently wound up working directly with the primary leader of the organization on reports, manuals, and databases. This has let me see the way small organizations function over the long term.
One issue I have observed in several of the organizations I worked with was how important it was that the main leader be they a director, a supervisor, a president, or a priest communicate well with their staff and find ways to say ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’.
This was especially important in organizations where there might be one paid staff person to 50-100 volunteers in both secular and religious non-profit groups.
Harnessing the skills and enthusiasm of a group of volunteers can be tricky. In my experience, there are some things leaders of such organizations can do to engage that enthusiasm.
Don’t kill enthusiasm by waiting months to respond to a suggestion or to an offer to help solve problem. If you know you are a slow decision maker, ask the person making the offer when they need a decision by and then get back to them no later than that date. Don’t feel you need to be rushed into a yes or no in the same hour an idea is proposed to you. But don’t kill it off by your failure to respond. I have seen 3 different organizations wither and die as volunteer interest dried up due to a lack of good communication from the group’s leader.
Saying ‘yes’ can be scary, especially if, like me, you are a control freak. However, there is no way a single leader or even a small team can keep up on or be everything to an organization like a church or a secular non-profit. If your first instinct is to say ‘no’ to requests, ideas or suggestions then you will cut yourself off from the energy and enthusiasm of your volunteers. They are approaching you because they see a need and want to help. Honor that impulse by reining in the automatic no. Find a way to say at least a provisional ‘yes’.
Find a balance between training volunteers to be effective in their roles and killing initiative by micro-managing. This is a bit like having a child and training them to clean or do laundry. When the task is new, there is value in showing the child how you do the task to get good results. There comes a point where as long as the results are close to what you desire how they get that way is best left to the person doing the work. There are many right ways to get a job done– be open to saying yes to a way that is different or unexpected but gets the job done.
Be respectful of the skills and expertise of members. Many volunteers bring very specific skills to an organization. With those skills comes the knowledge of what they need to do be effective and how much time they need to do a good job. If someone with niche skills offers to help solve a problem with those skills make sure they have the time and resources to do a good job. The only pay they are getting is joy in a job well done for an organization that they support. Don’t kill that joy by being exasperating to work with.
There are steps a board of directors or vestry can take to support the leader in doing these things.
One is to have a clear idea of what the organization’s main focus is; and, given that focus, what roles volunteers can fill and what roles require paid staff. Not every job in an organization can be covered by volunteer labor.
Another step is to define some volunteer roles so that it is easy to say yes to offers of help. In churches, things like altar guild, flowers, lay ministers, cleaning crew, bulletin production, and newsletters are common tasks that volunteers do. In this modern age other roles might be: social media, webmaster, and computer/tech support. Identifying potential roles and the training or guidelines needed for those roles can allow a volunteer to step into a job without having to reinvent the wheel.
There has been a cultural shift that has changed the nature of volunteering. Vestries and Boards of Directors need to ensure that they the are not working from outdated assumptions about how much time people can volunteer with organizations when they identify roles for volunteers.
Lastly, a board or vestry, needs to be willing to both support the primary leader and hold them accountable for engaging volunteers. No one person can keep an organization going on their own for long. If a volunteer board leaves the primary leader to do all of the work, that leader will either burn out or develop bad habits– neither of which is good for the long term heath of the organization.
The organizations that I worked with that lasted the longest had a responsive leader, a supportive, engaged board, clearly defined roles, and training for volunteers.
Planning ahead and being able to say “Yes, and we will train you!” is one one the most effective ways to welcome the enthusiastic volunteer and help them find a way in to your organization.
If you don’t find a way to say “Yes” to an offer of help. The potential volunteer likely won’t offer a second time and, if they feel their contribution is not welcomed, will go and find a place where they are welcomed.
A volunteer’s only reward is joy of service. An effective leader can deepen that joy and awaken further excitement by appreciating what a volunteer has to offer.
In volunteer organizations, you don’t always get the help you want, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the help that is being offered.
Say “yes” and find joy.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting