Leading Volunteers: A Model That May Make a Difference

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leadership modelNow, more than ever, volunteer administrators are called upon to strengthen their approaches to leading volunteers and others.  The ability to inspire and influence — whether it be volunteers, community partners, executive management, or co-workers — is at the very core of the job and critical to its success.

Much of the information and training available for volunteer coordinators, however, focuses on developing management skills than strengthening leadership competencies. Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence about what makes a good leader and, research shows that leadership across the private, public, and nonprofit sectors doesn’t differ that much.

Great Leadership Makes a Difference

In their influential book, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, James Kouzes & Barry Posner offer a well-researched model for five practices and ten commitments of exemplary leadership. They found that leaders who exhibited these traits were able to bring about notable changes in their organizations.

They found that leadership wasn’t just a nice, feel-good concept. Leadership excellence actually made a difference. Below are some of the concrete ways better leadership made an impact across a wide variety of contexts.  They are striking in that they are also often-cited challenges for volunteer managers.

  • Created higher-performing teams
  • Fostered loyalty and greater commitment
  • Increased fundraising results and gift levels
  • Increased retention and reduced and turnover
  • Positively influenced recruitment

Leading Volunteers: An Evidence-based Model in Practice

Below are Kouzes and Posner’s five practices and ten commitments that are associated with better results. I’ve also suggested some ways they might be adapted for practical use when leading volunteers.

  1. Model the Way
    • Clarify values by finding your voice & affirming shared values
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Develop a Philosophy of Volunteer Engagement that describes how and why volunteers are involved and share it with management and staff.
    • Set the example by aligning actions with shared values
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Walk the talk by working alongside volunteers from time to time, to better understand their experiences and needs.
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision
    • Envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Imagine and describe to others ways volunteers can lead versus follow at your organization.
    • Enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Brainstorm with volunteers new and exciting ways they might be interested in contributing to the organization’s mission.
  3. Challenge the Process
    • Search for opportunities by seizing the initiative and looking outward for innovative ways to improve
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Seek out cross-disciplinary and cross-sector collaborations (with business, academia, etc.) to unearth new discoveries and approaches.
    • Experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from experience
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Work with volunteers to develop small, self-reflective “growth pilot projects” where new ideas can be tested and improved.
  4. Enable Others to Act
    • Foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Actively assist volunteers in developing deep-rooted relationships by infusing trust- and teambuilding activities in meetings and trainings.
    • Strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Develop a leadership pathway and training that volunteers can use to develop their leadership skills and assume greater responsibility.
  5. Encourage the Heart
    • Recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: On a regular basis, recognize individual volunteers for personal improvements and successes, both in partnership with the organization and outside it.
    • Celebrate the values and victories by creating a spirit of community
      • Action Item for Volunteer Coordinators: Document the “living history” of volunteer achievements at your organization through photographs and stories that are shared and archived.

What Do You Think?

Does Kouzes and Posner’s model make sense for nonprofit and civic leaders? Which leadership skills are missing for volunteer administrators that should be added?  Are there other leadership models that work well in our context? Share your thoughts and comments below.

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