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Volunteers are incredible. In my world, they are my world. As a pastor with no paid staff, I draw exclusively on these amazing people. And it’s an entirely different dynamic to having employees. If you’re a leader at any level in a church or volunteer organisation, you know what I’m talking about. So how does one excel in the fine art of leading volunteers? I put together some thoughts to help you (and myself!) get better at it  …

  • Respect the fact that volunteers serve out of the goodness of their hearts. Never, ever take this fact for granted. Appreciate them, verbally, and often.
  • Reward them. Give them a small gift or thank you note every once in a while. Throw a party once a year (or more often). They are giving so much to your project, so it’s nice when you give back to them too.
  • Respect their time and help them manage it wisely. Sit down with them and help them draw up their own private weekly schedule. If you can make sure they’re getting a good amount of free time in during their week, your volunteers will be happier and serve with more energy.
  • Ask about their day job (or studies or school work). It shows that you are aware of and appreciate the fact that they have something else that takes up most of their waking hours. It also shows that you care about them as a person, not just as a helping hand.
  • Cast a compelling vision. Give them a reason to sacrifice their free time. Remember, this isn’t about you, or them. It’s about something much bigger, that will effect people and generations you haven’t even met yet.
  • Regularly. Vision leaks, so as the leader you have to keep casting vision. If vision is the bigger picture, it quickly gets painted over with the minutiae of tasks and action steps. You need to get out and your brush and re-paint that vision, and keep painting it!
  • Create community. Half of the reason people volunteer on projects is to hang out and have fun with like-minded people. If your volunteers can make friends while they serve, their far more likely to enjoy their work, to work with more commitment, and to carry on volunteering.
  • Keep them accountable. This isn’t about being a meanie: accountability doesn’t tear people down, it helps them up to a higher level. Holding volunteers accountable lets them know that you care about excellence, and it helps them become better and reach higher.
  • Communicate expectations clearly. Be as clear as you can about what your expectations are. It helps both them and you be more productive and less anxious.
  • And in advance. It isn’t fair when you correct a volunteer, after the fact, for not fulfilling expectations they didn’t know about. Yet as leaders we tend to do this. So be fair: communicate clearly, beforehand.
  • Plan ahead. Create your shift schedules in advance (I’m talking weeks in advance, not days), so that people can organise their private schedules accordingly and negotiate changing their volunteers shifts in advance.
  • And stick to it. Want to make a volunteer see red? Make a last-minute schedule change. Re-organising your entire private and/or work life around a capricious leader is not fun. As a leader, this is a sure-fire way to lose volunteers. That said, sometimes last-minute changes are inevitable, so if it does happen, communicate it graciously and be prepared to take some heat for it.

If you can create an environment where volunteers love to serve, you’re doing something very special. It’s certainly more challenging than having employees, but it’s a thousand times more rewarding … if you as the leader can get it right.

What tips do you have to share from your own experience – either as a volunteer or as a leader of volunteers? Did I leave something out? Let me know!

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