Leader or Liability: Are Leaders Sabotaging Volunteer Engagement?

By Andy Fryar (AU)

Three years ago, after more than 30 years of working directly in volunteer management positions, I experienced a change in career, a change which has created many new experiences for me and altered my perspectives on several things along the way.

These days, I am fortunate to lead Better Impact’s Australian and New Zealand Division, distributing their excellent volunteer management software across that part of the globe. It’s a job I love, as I still get to work with volunteer leaders and voluntary organisations of all shapes and sizes each and every day. It’s also a job, indeed an industry, that didn’t even exist when I first started as a volunteer manager back in the 1980s.

I get really excited about the endless possibilities that new technologies bring, not just to society more broadly, but in particular to the way that we go about recruiting, supporting, and enabling our volunteer teams.

Like it or not, the future is already here!

In addition to the excitement for the work I do, my role has started to give me a new perspective on the way that many volunteer leaders approach the leadership of their teams. I must admit that, in many cases, I’ve been astounded at just how much volunteering leaders actually sabotage their programs, often without even realising it!

Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common types of sabotage I have seen.


I get particularly excited when I have the chance to talk about how today’s volunteers can have a level of control and participation in their own volunteering experiences. Many online platforms now allow volunteers to be active participants in their volunteer engagement, allowing them to sign up for vacant roles, download their own schedules, keep their own data up-to-date and to communicate with us in a wide range of ways.

Usually, when I introduce this concept to volunteer managers I can hardly contain my enthusiasm, and yet for many volunteering leaders, even those who really do get the benefits of what online technologies can bring to their programs, this one aspect remains a real mental stumbling block!

In fact, I’d love a dollar for every volunteer manager who has told me that “my volunteers are just too old or not tech savvy enough to log in online.” Whenever I hear something like that, my auto translator kicks in. I hear that it’s actually the volunteer manager who is not yet comfortable with these new technologies, or they think that they don’t have the time to dedicate to them.

Interestingly, my experience has shown me that when volunteer programs do initiate these incentives (even for those who are sceptical), they inadvertently receive feedback that it was a piece of cake. They wonder why they never did it sooner.

So, don’t underestimate the abilities of your volunteers, no matter how old, or young, they may be. You may be keeping volunteers from learning something exciting and new!

Comfort Seeking

One issue I have spoken about for a number of years is what I consider to be the cardinal sin of volunteer management –continuing to lead 21st-century volunteers using volunteer leadership techniques from the 1990s or in some cases, the 1980s!

Again, I don’t often believe this is intentional, rather, it comes about as a result of trying to lead over-worked and under-resourced volunteer programs. Or, volunteering leaders may have found a nice cushy role and don’t want to mess with the status quo.

One of the common tell-tale signs is when a volunteer manager tells me that only about 30% of their volunteer population even has an email address (which is then an excuse not to embark on using new technologies as effectively as they could be). Here in Australia, 87% of the population accesses the Internet every single day, with sending and receiving emails as the most popular activities for those online (97%). So, I always find it hard to believe that the 13% not accessing the Internet are all apparently volunteering!

Anecdotally, I had a volunteer manager tell me just in the last week, that she recently took over a team of around 90 volunteers, and she was informed that most of the team did not have an email address. So, she went and asked them, discovering that actually all but one had access to email.

So please don’t get too comfortable in the program you have built. A good volunteer program should be evolutionary and be changing all the time – because you can bet your volunteers are expecting it.


The final management style that I observe, which is detrimental to building strong, robust volunteer teams, is finding it difficult to give away any level of control to others.

Micromanagers often feel the need to be in control of everything and can’t delegate anything, meaning that the end result of almost all that they do is done in some sort of ‘half-baked’ fashion. They seem to be forever chasing their tails and always trying to ‘catch up’, rather than being in a place of calm and control.

I’ve often said, “Show me the volunteer manager and I’ll tell you about the program they run”, and I am quite serious about that. Volunteer leaders who are manically trying to control everything will often lead programs of a similar nature and have higher levels of volunteer turnover than those where the volunteer manager is able to effectively delegate and is in control of their team.


Let me make it clear, that I don’t write this Hot Topic in order to “dis” anyone, but rather to simply offer my observations as someone who is now one step removed from the day-to-day management of volunteer teams.

Volunteer management is too much of an important job for leaders to fall into bad habits and damaging management practices, and it’s simply my hope that these few observations may assist in breaking some bad habits for some of you.

So, I’m interested to know if you agree or disagree with my observations?

Are there other ways that volunteer leaders sabotage their programs that you’d like to add to my list? I’d love to hear them.

Have any of you been able to break one of these bad habits? How did you do so?


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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Heather Allen MBE, Hertfordshire, UK

I ran a Volunteer Centre for nearly 20 years and it never ceased to amaze me how long it took Volunteer Managers to respond to initial offers of help from potential volunteers. Many failed at the very first hurdle! Only yesterday I heard of an experienced volunteer who had moved to a new town and registered her interest in joining the local branch of the charity she had previously worked with. I should add that her role required a significant amount of training. So you'd think they would have jumped at signing her up. But no, 5 weeks on and contact has only just been made. In the meantime she has become rather disillusioned. I know Volunteer Managers are very busy people but in your article you talk about lack of delegation. Surely the task of welcoming and explaining the recruitment process is one that could be easily delegated?

Submitted on
Martin, Sydney, Australia

I cant wait to see the hundreds of responses. It is interesting that you have observed this while "outside" of the volunteer management spectrum. Trust me when I say that some of us, but very few, see the same on the inside. I suspect that organisations are not setting the bar high enough when recruiting for these roles. After all anyone can look after the "vollies" right? And this is what we are left with. Your title is misleading though. Leaders don't sabotage. Incompetent managers do.

Submitted on
Barry Altland , Writer, HHHE, Winter Garden, FL, USA

Brilliant distinction between Leader and Manager here! Bravo! My writing agrees!

Submitted on
Laura Kinder, Director, Senior Companion Program, Spark the Change, formerly Metro Volunteers, Denver/CO, USA

Because we live in a tech/digital world, it is important to learn why volunteers don't have emails, FB accounts, cell phones for texting, and other social media venues. Once a barrier known, as leaders of volunteers we should offer solutions, such as working with senior centers, workforce centers, public libraries, having an organization volunteer computer station and provide access and training to these volunteers. Never underestimate the abilities of your volunteers and always provide them with the tools they need for success in your organization and the community.

Submitted on
Anastasia, Leader or Liability: Are Leaders Sabotaging Volunteer Engagement?, UnitingCare, Queensland, Australia

I agree there are lots of unintentional saboteurs of their own volunteer programs. Often this is the result of a lack of resources - don't rock the boat, I'm barely able to catch my breath with what I have to do - how can I possibly add any more 'unknowns'!! But sometimes it is the result of gaps in confidents and skills. Volunteer Managers have for a long time identified as the underdog of the organisation, fighting for every bit of resource or recognition they can get! They have responsibility for huge numbers of people who deliver so many benefits to the organisation and the people they support, but they feel the organisation barely knows they exist. Added to this is the fear their volunteers will only help if they are personally nurtured by the volunteer manager. All this goes in to making our profession 'culturally stuck'. I guess the reality is, if we are going to meet the needs of the people we support through inspired community members volunteering for us, we will all need to start thinking about living in todays, and tomorrows world.