10 Low Cost Ways to Develop Volunteer Leaders

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If mastery, autonomy and purpose are keys to motivation, there is no better way to motivate volunteers than through leadership programs that allow volunteers to experience all three. But, how can you inspire volunteers to lead and support them when you have no time and little money?   

Leadership vs. Management

Leadership is defined as the ability to organize things within a group to move past the status quo. Leadership is not the same as management — even great management — and organizations need different kinds of leaders at different stages of their development. The good news is that, although it may be true that some of us are born to lead, many of us can learn the essential skills to lead the organization, the self, and others.  And, if volunteers are provided the proper support and training, they can develop the confidence, courage, and capacity to lead.

Leadership Development on a Shoestring


While the thought of developing in-house training for volunteer leaders may feel overwhelming, there are plenty of other alternatives. Here are a few ways to develop leaders that don’t require a large budget and do allow volunteers to develop their leadership skills incrementally, making them more likely to accept a needed leadership role when it arises or initiate one where they see a need.

  1. Give Volunteers the Opportunity to Form Their Own Teams — Ask them to tackle special projects they identify and run on behalf of the organization instead of matching volunteers with your traditional assignments.
  2. Provide the Infrastructure — If volunteer leaders have opted to take on a challenging project (e.g., recruitment of other volunteers), make sure you provide some of the tools they need to get started such as a project road map, project charter, or project plan template. These guidelines will provide them just enough guidance to develop a plan but not so much that it stifles creativity.
  3. Offer “Developmental Assignments” — Identify specific areas of interest for individual volunteers that have a leadership component. Assign volunteers a special assignment that allows them to research and learn while doing. Accept that the project may take a little longer than anticipated and plan for it.
  4. Partner with Employee Volunteer Programs — Develop a leadership development program, in partnership with a local company, to train volunteer teams (of employee and non-employee volunteers) to spearhead challenging special projects at your organization while, at the same time, growing their skills to lead.
  5. Partner with Government Agencies and Local Corporations — Organizations and Human Resources Departments often offer courses on leadership. Look for ways to collaborate and offer these free, or at reduced cost, to volunteer leaders.
  6. Invite Volunteer Leaders to Staff Development Activities — In-service trainings and local conferences related to leadership development or nonprofit program management are interesting environments for volunteers to learn your business from the inside out.
  7. Create a Leadership Learning Circle — Set up an online group or community where volunteer leaders can ask questions and share ideas. Regularly “seed” the chat with inspiring resources, such as TED talks (www.ted.com/talks) and Harvard Business Review blog posts (http://blogs.hbr.org/), and topics related to leadership. 
  8. Share What Works — Ask volunteer leaders to collect best practices that are innovative, sustainable, able to be replicated, and have truly made a difference. If you start by looking for volunteers who have a certain “knack” for something, you will discover that they are likely using a procedure or tactic that works that they may, or may not, recognize as a best practice. 
  9. Match Volunteer Leaders With a Coach — Although volunteer teams may like to work independently, they also need ready access to a coach with whom they can have a mutually respectful, trusting and honest relationship. The job of the coach is not to provide easy answers; rather it is to offer suggestions and access to resources, as well as to pose strategic questions that promote critical thinking and reflection.
  10. Appoint a Leadership Team — Don’t have enough time to do any of the above?  Form a team of volunteers with some existing leadership skills to develop a volunteer leadership program.  Look for people with past supervisory and team management experience who are interested in lending their expertise to help build your program capacity.

What are ways you have supported volunteer leaders at your program or organization?  And, how have they worked for you?  Share your ideas by clicking on the comments link below.

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