How Project Managers Can Successfully Lead Volunteer Teams

How Project Managers Can Successfully Lead Volunteer Teams

Leading an all volunteer team requires a different approach.

Leading an all volunteer team requires a different approach.

Project managers have a hard enough time leading employees — people who are paid to give up their time and energy to the company. The stakes are raised when they need to lead volunteers who are unpaid for their work.

While volunteers often bring more passion and dedication to the cause than employees, they may also be less committed to seeing the project through. After all, there’s no risk of getting fired and missing mortgage payments if they step back from the work.

Project managers need to be mindful of how they lead volunteers if they want to see their organizations thrive to help their communities.

Many Volunteers Step Into Leadership Roles

Not everyone who steps into a leadership role in a nonprofit or volunteer group is a professional project manager, meaning many are left to learn management skills as they go.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than 77 million Americans volunteer each year, giving up more than 6.9 billion hours of their time. These volunteer hours range from religious groups to civic and political organizations in addition to cultural, health and environmental endeavors.

Of these volunteers, 21 percent provide professional management services. They serve on boards or committees, manage other volunteers and lead projects through completion. That means there are roughly 21 million people out there trying to lead volunteers and encourage them to give more of their time and resources.

If these 21 million leaders want to see their volunteer teams grow, they need to approach their organizations with the same care as a Fortune 500 company, and approach their volunteers with the same (or higher) level of dedication they would show paid staff.

Constantly Recruit and Train New Volunteers

Volunteers do so much more than the work assigned to them. They represent the organization, recruit others to join and reflect the nonprofit’s standing in the community.

“It is short-sighted to think of volunteers simply as unpaid labor,” writes Susan J. Ellis, president of volunteer management training provider, Energize, Inc. “Volunteers govern, advise, advocate, organize, represent us in the community, provide a link to the client perspective, add new ideas into our strategic planning. Their potential is limitless, if we unleash it.”

While many paid employees care about their company’s mission and brand, they view their job as just that: a primary source of income. Volunteers, on the other hand, take on their roles willingly and treat the nonprofit as part of their identity, making them deeply invested in seeing the organization succeed.

If you want to build a thriving organization, you need to develop a recruitment and onboarding process for new volunteers, the team at volunteer management software provider InitLive explains. With adequate training, you should be able to develop a deeper pool of people to pull from when unexpected tasks arise. This prevents your existing volunteers from getting overworked and creates a process for welcoming and utilizing new volunteers.

Track The Success of Your Recruitment Efforts

Successful onboarding is essential to the recruitment process. If you can convince volunteers to stay, then the growth of your organization is unlimited.

As you recruit volunteers and onboard new helpers, set tangible goals to better understand how successful your recruitment efforts are. Amy DeVita, COO of Top Nonprofits, shares four markers that you can use to evaluate your efforts:

  • Acquisition. The number of new volunteers who start working with your group.

  • Satisfaction. The level at which volunteers feel like they are making a difference and genuinely helping the organization.

  • Involvement. The level of growth within an organization once someone starts to volunteer.

  • Retention. The percent of volunteers who stay with the organization.

Satisfied volunteers tend to be more involved and will take on more projects. If you’re not able to retain recruits because of low satisfaction, then you won’t be able to grow as fast as you want.

James McBryan, cofounder of volunteer time tracking system Track It Forward, says organizations need to develop a sales funnel with their volunteers. For example, if you reach 100 people at a volunteer recruitment event, between 10 and 20 people will likely be interested. Five might actually show up to volunteer, and only one or two will become long-term volunteers. This is no different from companies reaching 100 people in hopes of getting five customers and a few loyal repeat customers.  

Tracking these metrics will help you see which volunteers are sticking around and where your retention weaknesses lie.

Be Clear About Project Needs and Expectations

Some organizations need teams of willing hands to pick up miscellaneous tasks, while others want to recruit specific skill sets to help with projects. As you sort through your new talent, try to carefully place volunteer skills with opportunities.

Dorothy Harrigan Guerrero, editor-in-chief of the Alcalde, the alumni magazine of The University of Texas, says volunteers often get discouraged when their skills aren’t used. Someone with a bookkeeping background stuffing envelopes and manning the name tag table will grow bored. Plus, you’re wasting untapped volunteer talent that you could be using to grow your organization.

While volunteers may have the skills you want, they might still be uncertain about whether or not to join your team.

“When you are engaging with a potential volunteer, it is helpful to understand the basics of buying decisions, which includes the decision to accept and commit to a volunteer opportunity,” volunteer services professional Louise Sparrow writes. “No matter how simple and straightforward the role may seem...[volunteers] need to work through any fears, uncertainties, or doubts associated with accepting the position.”

Volunteers use risk management tactics to determine if the project is best for them. They weigh whether they think they can handle the task and if they want to take it on with the expected time commitment.

Furthermore, when it comes to developing a project and recruiting volunteers, stay as flexible as possible with the schedule necessary to complete your goals. If you operate on hard and tight deadlines, you risk losing volunteers through burnout or missing project goals when you can’t find willing hands to jump in and help at the last minute.

“Establish from the volunteers what they can commit to in terms of their availability and contribution,” Ben Aston, founder of The Digital Project Manager, tells us via email. “Having something written down, with hours specified for different dates will help them understand exactly what they're committing to.”

Tracking these hours can also help you see how far behind the project is if a volunteer drops the ball.  

Identify Infrastructure Problems and Skills Gaps

As a project manager, you will likely find problems and holes within the organization that will slow your process down. You will either need to fill these holes or find volunteers to fill them for you.

For example, you may also be serving in an infrastructure building role as the organization’s project manager. Bruce Harpham at Project Management Hacks says he’s volunteered with groups that had no set standard operating procedures for various activities and programs.

“If I have to do an activity weekly or monthly and it has significant impact, then it makes sense to create a procedure,” he writes.

Operating without a plan in place takes up time and mental energy you may not be ready to invest, especially if you thought you were leading a project with a set strategy. You’ll need to create one for the project at hand and that future volunteers can use when you step aside as a project manager.   

Project managers often encounter two problems when they start working with a volunteer organization, project manager Bruce Harpham explains. First, the organization may lack defining metrics that a PM can use to track success. (The vague goal of “raising awareness” is used here as an example.) Next, that organization may have a limited to non-existent budget or may be reticent to let a volunteer request funds.

In both of these cases, a project manager has to set their own goals and work with what they have, meaning your team has to get creative with extra volunteer time and in-kind donations. Even the most willing volunteers can grow frustrated when a nonprofit doesn’t have the resources they need.   

Be Mindful of the Time You Take Up  

You ask a lot of your volunteers. The more you ask, the less time they have for their personal lives or for other projects within the nonprofit or community group.

“Volunteers are donating their time and energy to your mission. Don’t waste their time by creating unnecessary work,” Tanya Fitzgerald, customer success manager at software provider to social good organizations Blackbaud, writes. “Never schedule or conduct meetings without a full agenda, and ensure the content is relevant and critical. If a meeting is deemed not necessary, cancel it to make every minute count with your volunteers.”

Your paid employees don’t care for unimportant meetings and busywork, and neither do your volunteers.

Tom McKee, president of Volunteer Power, has been there. He served on a committee in a volunteer capacity for three years, but declined to continue because of bad management.

“The person who led the committee was a wonderful person, passionate about our mission, and a hard worker; however, that manager just couldn't lead meetings,” he writes. “A meeting that should have lasted about two-hours lasted four or five hours, and I would get home at midnight.”

McKee says volunteer managers need to be human resource managers, respecting the talents and time of the people working for them.

Look for Signs of Burnout and Disengaged Volunteers

One of the biggest threats to volunteer organizations is burnout. Your best volunteers can leave at any time, creating a skills gap that might take months or years to fill.

Project managers need to be on the lookout for signs of burnout in volunteers. Identifying these signs early on can help you pull back their workloads so they continue working with the organization.

Kayla Matthews at Volunteermatch shares some signs that your volunteers are getting burned out:

  • They complain about the work or are cranky when asked to do things.

  • They stop showing up when promised.

  • They look exhausted.

  • They lack interest in taking on projects or sign up for fewer opportunities.

There are also those volunteers with a “hero syndrome,” where they want to be seen as always helping and working, Jayson Bradley at Pushpay writes. These team members will try take on as much as they can — often too much — to prove their worth.

From a management perspective, these are people the organization often relies on to pick up the slack. Be aware of who in your volunteer ranks has this trait and try to manage their work. Otherwise, when they reach their breaking point and crash, your organization will be left with a big hole to fill.

Additionally, volunteer project managers need to be invested in the personal lives of their team members — more so than they would be in a traditional paid setting.

“When I don’t take the time to know what’s going on in their personal lives, I am communicating that either I don’t care about them or that I don’t have time for them,” John Rinaldo, D. Min., consultant at Parish Success Group, writes. “Either way, their morale starts to wither.”

Knowing what is going on personally with volunteers can help you scale back their work if they’re going through a rough time. This may mean they will take a step back from the volunteering entirely and return later instead of quitting the organization completely because they feel overwhelmed.

When your volunteers feel underappreciated, overworked or frustrated, they’ll leave. As a project manager and leader of your team, you need to learn how to best work with the people around you so they can help you make a significant impact on your community.

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