Over the past ten years, I’ve had the honor and the privilege of helping thousands of volunteer coordinators build their skills and capacity. As a consultant and trainer focused on volunteer administration, one of my key roles is to challenge others to advance their approaches using best practices. But, which should I recommend?
The challenge is that best practices in volunteer management are hard to come by – they are either not shared widely or empirical evidence simply does not exist to prove the efficacy of one management method over another. Some of today’s leading researchers now question some of the most commonly held assumptions about how we approach volunteer engagement.
The Role of Psychology
That said, we do know what works in other fields and can borrow from adjacent disciplines to inform our work. For me, the most compelling are those that relate to human psychology, neuroscience, and motivational theory. Because the brain drives everything the body will do, it makes sense to work with human nature not against it.
Volunteer coordinators rely heavily on their ability to influence others, but don’t have the luxury of positional power. They don’t directly supervise staff with whom they might place volunteers, their executives may or may not fully understand the impact and requirements of volunteerism, and volunteers can vote with their feet.
Without positional power, an effective volunteer manager has to rely almost exclusively on their ability to inspire others to act in the best interests of the mission. Too often, however, new professionals are led to believe that by merely employing the traditional tools associated with volunteer coordination (e.g., volunteer agreements, positions descriptions, opportunity postings, etc.) they will attract and retain the volunteer talent needed. Much to their chagrin, it doesn’t usually work out that way.
Volunteerism is about human interaction and is driven by emotion first and foremost. How volunteers feel will drive what they ultimately do. So, it’s important for new leaders to develop a deep understanding of how human motivation works in the volunteer context.
Humans Are Predictable
Neuroscience offers many clues in this regard. They have found that human beings are hard-wired to behave in specific ways, based on certain triggers. Our brains have developed over thousands of years of human evolution and have a concrete role in helping us survive as a species. We are not always rational, but we are pretty predictable. Leaders of volunteers can gain better results by understanding these underlying patterns of behavior.
For example, researchers argue that minimizing danger and maximizing reward is a key organizing principle of the brain. They posit that the urge to approach possible rewards and avoid potential threats is deeply ingrained and primes much of our reactions to external stimuli. Instinctively, our brains see threat more often than reward.
In addition, in order to assess whether we are under threat, we are also highly sensitive to “clues” about our status within a group. If we feel we are excluded, the resulting social pain can be as powerful as physical pain. When humans, including volunteers, don’t feel they are part of the “in group,” the consequences can be significant. They include: reduced cognitive functioning and performance, increased self-defeating behavior, inability to focus on long-term behavior, and reduction of pro-social behavior and teamwork. In other words, when community members feel excluded, they will be less likely to volunteer and donate.
The primal, largely subconscious, part of our brains is the most powerful instigator of human action and reaction. Therefore, the most effective leaders of volunteers know how to manage for inclusion, mood, empathy, and even fear in their volunteer corps. Some know this intuitively, and others need to build this kind of emotional intelligence. So called “soft skills” are now of primary importance.
Leadership Skills for Volunteer Coordinators
Successful leadership in today’s fast-paced world requires thoughtful planning to create brain-friendly environments where everyone feels included, intrinsic rewards are plentiful, and where volunteers have some control over their destiny. From this perspective, the skills and tools new leaders require are completely different than what has been proposed in the past. Onboarding and team building become more important than ever, replacing paperwork is not longer a core strategy. It’s no longer what is done for volunteers, but what is done along side them.
The primary thing new leaders of volunteers need to recognize is that their role is shifting. In order to be successful, they must move from a command and control supervisory approach — and all of the trappings that entails — to that the role of team facilitator or coach.
My hope is that new leaders understand how they need to build community from the grassroots to the grass tops versus the other way around. This takes humility, listening skills, negotiation, and sophisticated conflict resolution skills. Through navigating complex human interactions, and helping volunteers do so, new volunteer administration professionals will have a better shot at success.