Six common volunteer leadership pitfalls

Being a better leader

Leaders play a crucial role in ensuring volunteers are engaged, motivated, and empowered to make a difference. As someone deeply involved in the social impact sector, I've had the privilege of talking and working with leaders of volunteers from around the globe. Through my experiences and interactions, I've identified six common volunteer leadership pitfalls that you might want to be aware of.

1. Sticking with the status quo

If you have ever heard yourself say something like, “That’s just how we do it here” or, “We tried that once and it didn’t work,” you may be falling into this pit. Another sign is if you find that fewer and fewer people seem to want to volunteer for roles in your organization. Rather than blame external factors, look closely at how your application process is structured or what you expect from volunteers.

The world of volunteering is changing, and your program needs to be able to change and adapt with it. Challenge your status quo. If you require a criminal record check from all your volunteers, for example, when only some are in roles that require it, you may be driving people away unnecessarily. Accept that what has always worked in the past may not work so well anymore.

2. Under communicating

Probably the key aspect of good leadership is communication. We often worry, though, that we are over communicating and “spamming” our volunteers. Actually, that rarely happens. I’ve seen and heard of far more volunteers leaving because they weren’t kept informed of new events or changes to the program than I have ever heard of leaving because they received too many emails.

And remember, communication is a two-way street. Welcoming volunteers' ideas and feedback is just as important as sending them information. More on that below.

3. Over supervising

Also called micromanaging. Leaders who hover over volunteers, worried that they might make mistakes, can create an environment of stress and distrust. Volunteers, like most people, are motivated by a sense of autonomy and purpose. Micromanaging takes away their sense of ownership and contribution.

Trust your volunteers to complete tasks independently. If you find you can’t trust them to do a task properly, look to your training. If your training is good, all you should need to do is provide guidance and support when needed. Give them the freedom to use their skills and creativity. Yes, they will make mistakes. But unless it’s a very critical role, it won’t make a noticeable difference in the work, and they will learn more from their mistakes than from your “help”.

4. Overloading volunteers

Most of us have that one amazing volunteer who does anything we ask and does it well. It’s probably the most common of the volunteer leadership pitfalls to start leaning on that volunteer more and more. While volunteers are passionate about the cause, be mindful of their time and energy limitations. The last thing you want is to have your star volunteer burn out. It's essential to strike a balance between what needs to be done and what one volunteer should realistically do.

Ensure that everyone’s workload is manageable, and volunteers have the opportunity to maintain a healthy work-life-volunteer balance. If you have too much work for the number of volunteers you have, you may need to prioritize. And recruit.

5. Underestimating the power of feedback

As mentioned earlier, feedback is a key part of communication. It’s a valuable tool for program improvement and growth. Leaders who don't actively seek feedback from their volunteers miss out on essential insights that can improve both the volunteer experience and the overall impact of the program.

Create a culture of feedback by regularly asking for input from volunteers. Use this feedback to make informed decisions and implement positive changes that benefit both volunteers and the organization.

6. Neglecting self-care

It’s not just about caring for the volunteers. You need to care for yourself, too. Leaders often carry a heavy burden of responsibility, and it's easy to neglect self-care. Burnout is a real risk for leaders of volunteers who devote themselves to their cause without taking time for themselves.

Self-care is not selfish. It’s essential for maintaining your own well-being and, by extension, the well-being of your volunteers and the program. Remember that airplane safety instruction about putting your own oxygen mask on first? Prioritize self-care strategies that help you recharge and stay resilient.

Have you fallen into any of these volunteer leadership pitfalls?

If you have, know that you’re not alone. Being an effective leader of volunteers, however, requires a combination of skills—creativity, clear two-way communication, appropriate supervision and a commitment to self as well as others.

By avoiding the above pitfalls, you can create a more positive and productive volunteer experience, ultimately advancing your mission. If you need help, let me know.

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

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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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