I'll Help with That, but Don't Ask Me to Lead It!

By Susan J. Ellis

Have you found that it is easier to recruit a volunteer to do frontline, hands-on work than to accept a leadership position on a board of directors, advisory council, or key committee?   This is becoming a universal concern, including for professional associations of volunteer program managers.

The presidency of an organization or chairing a major event still offers status and public/professional applause, but there seem to be fewer and fewer people willing to give the time and effort necessary to fulfill these top functions.  Why?  And what is the future of our society if no one wants to lead?

The Negatives Might Outweigh the Positives

Consider what we ask of leadership volunteers in most situations.  We expect them to:

  • Give enormous amounts of time, often spent attending meetings – lots of long meetings, and not always productive ones.
  • Mobilize a board or committee made up of other volunteers who may, in fact, have already rejected the heavy responsibility of leadership and have very different ideas of what it means to work on behalf of this group.
  • Be willing to stick their necks out and take risks on behalf of the project at hand.
  • Make difficult choices and then face scrutiny (and maybe criticism) from their colleagues and friends about these decisions.
  • Accept legal liability.
  • Defer gratification, in that it may take months or years to see the beneficial results of their work.
  • In some cases, such as being an officer of a DOVIA, to be leaders and also to do their own clerical work, data entry, and even bring meeting refreshments!

If we’re honest about it, volunteers are right if they assume this is a major commitment.  In fact, it may be more of a mystery why some volunteers agree to serve in such roles at all! 

What Does a Volunteer Leader Get?

Applying basic volunteer recruitment principles, the key would be to articulate the benefits of service at the leadership level, and then to identify the type of people who would find satisfaction in those.  For example:

  • The intellectual challenge of developing and implementing strategies to help the community or association.
  • Opportunities to interact with many colleagues or community leaders, possibly regionally, nationally, or even internationally.
  • Being at the forefront of positive change and action.
  • Doing something with long-term and lasting implications.

As important as these benefits are, many – perhaps most – prospective volunteers will not see them as outweighing the negatives already listed.  Time is simply too precious a commodity today to sink hours into a volunteer role designed decades ago.

Strategies Worth a Try

Approach the Less Obvious Candidates
There are at least three categories of people to consider recruiting for leadership positions:   those predisposed to fulfill the roles you need; those open to being convinced to fill the roles; and people who are more comfortable as followers but have  leadership potential. 

It is not always obvious who might be quite willing to accept your position offer because it’s common to create a list of candidates based on who is already very active in the group.  This approach, while certainly appropriate, is limiting and also tends to “reward” current volunteers with ever more demands.  Instead, a nominating committee needs to learn more about less active members, some of whom might welcome an invitation to come and create a group more to their tastes. 

What do members do outside this organization?  Are they, in fact, officers of other groups or top managers in their place of work?  It always surprises me that annual “dues renewal” notices do not ask even the most basic questions of renewing members, such as their professions or other affiliations.  Most associations know practically nothing about their members unless these people self-select to become active.

Redesign Volunteer Leadership Roles
Regardless of the category of potential leadership recruit, it’s time to examine how we can redesign volunteer leadership roles to improve our chances of getting a yes to our invitation to serve as an officer or chairperson.  Here are two of my ideas – what are some of yours?

  • Avoid “co-chairs,” which sometimes is the way we negotiate two reluctant leaders into accepting a role supposedly lightened by being shared.  Wrong!  First, the co-chairs now need to take time to communicate and coordinate.  Second, no one is really in charge and both chairs feel reluctant to overstep the other.  An alternative is a leadership team of two to four volunteers who rotate the top position every few months.  This makes it clear at any time where the buck stops, while genuinely allowing the others to have a bit less to do in the other months.
  • Create designated “executive assistant” volunteer roles to support the top officers.  Some people would never want to be the leader in the limelight, but are very happy to work behind the scenes.  Some functions might be:  handling routine telephone and e-mail exchanges that always fall to the top leader; setting up meetings and handling the logistics of invitations, rsvp’s, and refreshments; keeping track of deadlines; etc.  Not only does this involve new people “on the inside” of association management, but it genuinely lessens the work load of the leadership volunteer.

There are some organizations that ought to consider paying someone to fulfill these support functions.  This is not a negation of volunteers!  Rather, it’s a recognition that someone paid for perhaps five to ten hours a week to do the routine tasks would provide continuity as volunteers rotate through positions, develop consistent systems that ultimately would save time, and free volunteers to do the work that they are most needed to do:  lead with vision. 

My point is that trying over and over to recruit people into serious, time-consuming roles without examining the traditional way we structure leadership positions is a dead end.  People are smart enough to recognize a sacrifice when it’s offered to them!  If we begin to pay attention to streamlining the work of leaders, we may discover more volunteers willing to say yes.

So, what are your ideas for changing our approach to leadership positions we need volunteers to fill?

What have you tried as a recruitment technique that’s been successful?

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