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!
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?
Statistics sources from
Receive an update when the next hot topic is posted!