Enhance your influence as a leader of volunteers

Enhance your influence

The position of volunteer engagement specialist, or whatever your particular title is, is often seen as a lower-level position, without a lot of influence.

Executives in the organization often forget it’s a vital leadership position, with all the challenges and responsibilities that entails.

If you want to enhance your influence in your organization, you need to be seen as a leader. Here’s how:

Be a team player—The best leaders also make great followers. They work for the success of the organization as a whole. That means they are willing to use their skills and resources to help other projects. Don’t neglect your own duties or burn yourself out, but if another department in your organization is behind on a project and you have a volunteer with skills that may help, offer to transfer him or her until the other department catches up. Being seen as someone with the interests of the entire organization at heart will win you friends and enhance your influence.

Be an advocate—For the volunteers, of course, but also for the volunteer administration profession itself. Treat your position as the career it is, with professional accreditations and international associations. The more seriously you take the role, the greater respect others will have for it. Tell the executive you are studying for your CVA (certified in volunteer administration) or you’re joining the IAVE (International Association for Volunteer Effort). Assuming you are, of course. Let them know your position is seen internationally as a professional leadership role. Expect the respect and consideration that should come with such a position.

Share your ideas—Speak up in meetings when you have ideas for both the volunteer program and other aspects of the organization. Make suggestions for improving things. Be careful not to step on anyone’s toes or talk about things that you don’t know anything about. But if you have an idea, share it. Don’t be upset if someone shoots it down. They may have access to information you don’t. It’s the whole matter of speaking truth or wisdom to power. It takes courage but it’s necessary if you want to enhance your influence with senior management.

Ask intelligent questions—If you’re still uncomfortable with proposing an idea, phrase it like a question such as “Would it work better if we did something like X?” Questions like that can often start a discussion that can lead to effective solutions. This works outside of meetings, as well as questions of other staff, especially if there are connection points between your position and theirs. By learning more about what they do, and their challenges and triumphs, you can come up with better ways of working together. I’ve often seen it happen that a couple of people have found that they were dealing with similar challenges, and by presenting their solution to the executive as a team, they had better outcomes than by trying to change things individually.

Teach—The best way to be seen as an expert in your field is to teach others about it. Ask to do a training course for staff about the volunteer program, how it helps the organization and how it can help them specifically. See if you can give regular presentations to the board about aspects of the volunteer program, results of changes you’ve implemented or impacts the volunteers have made. If you can teach about your role, others will see you as a leader.

You don’t need to have a fancy title or a corner office to be seen as a leader in your organization. You become a leader when you start acting like one and by being a team player, advocating for the profession, sharing your ideas, asking questions, teaching and most of all, by seeing yourself as the leader you are.

That’s how you enhance your influence.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Language used when talking about volunteers is important

Language of volunteering

How aware are you of issues around the language of volunteering?

I had some interesting questions posed to me this week: “How does language act as a barrier or a catalyst for volunteering? For example, should we, as leaders of volunteers, talk about “using” our volunteers? Or does that objectify them and treat them as just things, like paperclips, to be used? What other words might be better?"

After I was asked these questions, I went back over months of my past blogs looking to see if I had ever said “use” in that context. I have to admit that I had. Not often, but it was there.

Another problematic word I found was speaking of “your” volunteers, a word that denotes ownership. Using it about people is scary. Or is it? I also commonly say things like “your sister” or “my son”. How else would I say that? “The male child of my body”? There are no easy answers.

But do the words actually matter? Our society, at least in Western countries, has become far more aware of the negative connotations of words.

On LinkedIn the other day, I saw a post about the importance of “human skills”, and someone made a comment that they were glad to see that the person posting didn’t say “soft skills”. The word “soft” was considered by them to be weak, as opposed to the stronger “hard skills”.

I had never thought of it that way but I can see how it might be viewed as such. The important thing is that other people do see it that way. So, I try to avoid that phrase now.

Are specific words actually barriers or catalysts? That decision is really above my pay grade. It’s something some university program should do a study on.

That said, in my opinion, if there are even a few people who see this as an issue then we, as leaders, should to be cognizant of it and make every effort to avoid words that could be seen as denigrating or objectifying.

Let’s face it, it wasn’t that long ago the “N” word was considered just a word, and why would anyone be upset about it? Our world is changing and we need to change with it.

More importantly, we need to be the leaders of that change. Those of us in the sector care about how people feel. What the dictionary says a word means is less important than how people feel when they hear it. Especially when people hear it in relation to themselves.

So, can words constitute a barrier to someone volunteering? Assume the answer is yes.

Until Oxford or Harvard does some sort of double-blind sociological study on the language of volunteering, err on the side of kindness. Find words like “involve” rather than “use”, “engage” rather than “manage”.

If you’re unsure about how a word might be viewed, ask someone. Have a person – preferably someone with a different world view than yours – review your writing and tell you what they think.

English is an amazing, diverse language with multiple synonyms for just about every word. Some of them might not jump to mind right away but they are there. If you have problems, check out a thesaurus.

If you’re worried people might not understand a synonym you choose, don’t be. In my years in leadership and in public speaking, I’ve learned everyone has two vocabularies. One contains the words we use regularly, the other contains those we understand but rarely, if ever, use.

The second vocabulary is vastly larger than the first. Everyone has a thousand or more words they understand completely, but would never think to use in a sentence. We hear them on TV or read them in articles. Newscasts are full of them. People understand more than you might think. Or you could simply restructure your sentences so there isn’t a need for the word. Instead of saying “what do you use your volunteers for?” try “how do you involve your volunteers?”

Trust your own writing abilities. It may take a while to get comfortable with different sentence structures but soon it’ll come naturally.

So, let’s get back to the original question. If an organization said in a volunteer posting that it “uses its volunteers to do X”, would people not apply simply because of that?

Frankly, I don’t know. Personally, I just try to avoid using any words that might be questionable.

As long as you stay aware of the changing landscape in the language of volunteering, and you remain considerate of everyone’s feelings, you’ll be fine.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Sometimes it's necessary to 'fire' volunteers

'Firing' volunteers

Is "firing" a volunteer OK? The short answer is, absolutely.

Not only can you fire a volunteer, in many cases you must. I know, lots of people say you ought to be thankful for whatever someone is willing to give, but in reality, a poor volunteer can be a disaster for your organization. It really is true that one bad apple can spoil the barrel.

And bad apples come in a number of varieties:

“Granny Smith”

Regardless of age or sex, there are some volunteers who are stuck in the past. These are the ones who say things like: “But we’ve always done it this way!” They resist change, no matter how much it will help the organization. They can be passive-aggressive and may spread gossip to undermine attempts to update things.

“Pink Lady”

These volunteers (and they’re not just female) are in it for themselves. They volunteer, not to help the organization or its clients but to make themselves look good or to get close to people they want to know. That isn’t the problem. What is a problem is when they refuse to do some of the harder tasks or only show up when they think they’ll be noticed by someone important. They do the minimum amount of work and that work is often done poorly.


Certain volunteers seem to feel the organization belongs to them. Rules are for other people. If they have a problem, they often go over the head of the volunteer coordinator to the executive director—or even directly to the board. These “problems” tend to be things that interfere with how they want to do things. Their constant complaining and rule-breaking causes resentment and conflict.

“Plain Old Rotten”

The vocal bigots who use racial, sexist or homophobic slurs (or “jokes”). The thieves who try to get at your petty cash or other volunteers’ purses. The predators who stalk people they see as victims. They’re dangerous. Get rid of them fast.

All of these volunteer varieties may need to be fired.

The “Rotten” ones are easy.

Not only are they a danger to individuals but the fact that they are with you can destroy your organization’s reputation. Don’t give them second chances. The moment you have proof, take away any keys, etc, they may have and tell them you can’t accept their services any longer. Escort them off the premises, inform the rest of the staff and change any passwords.

With “Granny Smiths” you may be able to win them over.

Try different things to get them on your side. Include them in a decision-making committee, be willing to bend on small things to get the major change accepted, etc. If nothing works, take the volunteer aside and tell them that, if they can’t support the changes, you will have to stop giving them shifts. Show your appreciation for what they’ve done in the past but make it clear the wellbeing of the organization comes first. They need to either adapt or leave. If nothing changes, or if their old habits creep back after a couple of weeks, give them one reminder, then end the relationship.

Do you have a “Pink Lady”?

Call them aside, tell them what you’ve seen and let them know it’s unacceptable. Stay objective. Only comment on performance, not on personality. Be prepared for resistance. They see a value to themselves in their position with you and will likely defend themselves vigorously. Stay firm. This is where sticking to factual comments about their performance can help you. Emphasize a volunteer needs to do all the tasks assigned to that role, no matter how distasteful, and you require them to show up for all their shifts. Some may just quit at this point. If they don’t, give them a couple of weeks to prove they will change. If they won’t, ask them to leave.

“Empire” volunteers can destroy a volunteer program amazingly quickly.

Don’t wait before moving on this one! Remind them of the rules. Explain why those rules are in place and why everyone needs to follow them. Let them know that if they continue as they were, that you will no longer allow them to volunteer. Advise your executive director and/or board what you have said, as the volunteer will likely try to have them overturn your decision. In this case, because they are well aware that they are ignoring the rules, fire them the very next time it happens. They don’t need second chances.

In all cases, protect yourself. Keep records of what they did (or didn’t do) and of your conversations with the volunteer.

Firing a volunteer can be hard, but it can also be essential to keeping your volunteer program strong. Poor volunteers will cause disruptions in services, disputes among team members and even harm to clients.

It may not be easy, but you can do it.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Ways to deal with problematic volunteers

Challenging volunteers

Ann really wanted the position. She did whatever it took to get it, but once she had it, things started to fall apart.

Other things took priority for her. She started missing shifts, work wasn’t done to standard – or wasn’t done at all.

I spoke with Ann about it a few times but didn’t see any improvement, so finally I “fired” her (yes, you can fire a volunteer and I’ll talk about that later).

But was there something better I could have done?

Probably. In the time since then, I’ve thought of a few ways I could have kept Ann as a volunteer, but still ensured the work was completed well and on time. In case you’re dealing with a challenging volunteer, here are a few tips.

Talk with them

Yes, I did do this with Ann and it didn’t work, but a majority of times it will. Find out if something has changed in their life situation. Are they feeling overwhelmed or unsure of themselves in the position? Do they think that more training, or having a mentor will help?

Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe they’re not finding the position much of a challenge and they’re bored. Can you “promote” them, or have them mentor someone else?

Re-match them

It might be that the position just isn’t what they thought it would be. Is there another position that would suit them better?

To know this, of course, you need to have a good understanding of what they’re looking for in a volunteer position. So, ask them. And if they say “I just want to help,” dig deeper.

Keep a file of the likes, dislikes, skills and interests of all the agency’s volunteers. That way you can match them with roles that keep them engaged and active. It takes a bit of effort to gather all this information, but it is worth it in terms of the quality of work, and your retention rates.

Be flexible

This is especially important if you have younger volunteers, like Ann, whose lives are constantly in flux.

Build certain of your roles with flexibility in mind. Tasks that can be done at various times of the day or week. Tasks that allow the volunteer autonomy in how they are accomplished. Allow longer or shorter shifts, or in person or online attendance.

The more options you embrace, the more people will be able to fit helping you into their schedules.

Look in the mirror

Let’s face it, sometimes it’s not the volunteer. It’s us. We all have unconscious biases. Is it possible that you are letting one of them influence you?

Are the volunteers being shown appreciation often enough? (My rule is to thank every volunteer, every shift.)

Are you uncomfortable delegating responsibility, leading volunteers to feel you lack trust in them?

There are many things that we might be doing that could be causing or worsening the situation, without us even being aware of it. It’s always worth stepping back and taking an objective look at yourself and your procedures.

If nothing else works, you actually may need to fire them

There are some troublesome volunteers that you just don’t want in your organization. People who will damage your organization’s reputation, drive away other volunteers, or worse. In that case, you do need to get rid of them. It’s not easy, but sometimes it needs to be done.

Mostly, though, there are things we can do and still keep the volunteer.

If, when I talked with Ann, I had used some of these tips, she might still be volunteering. If I had focused more on her needs and less on the problem, or if I had been more flexible around how the tasks were done. Or if I had just found a more suitable position for her in the organization, I might not have had to fire her.

I could have taken a lose-lose-lose situation (her, myself and the organization), and turned it into a win-win-win.

So next time you are faced with a troublesome volunteer, take my advice and try a few other things before you decide to fire them.

In next week’s article, I will discuss what to do if you do have to fire a volunteer. I’ll identify some of the “bad apples,” and give you ways to handle them effectively.

(Special thanks to Lori Gran for suggesting today’s topic.)

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Volunteer Matters articles

About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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