The Nuances of Communicating with Volunteers

I do not profess to be an expert on this subject!  I believe that this skill likely offers opportunity for growth for most of us!  Therefore, I consider myself to be a work in progress!

Just like in a company a volunteer organization typically has a hierarchy.  However, the dynamics of the relationship(s) are dramatically different because the forms of reward, punishment, recognition and consequence are not the same.  Let’s face it an employee can be written up, put on notice, demoted and/or fired!  These things could also happen in a volunteer organization however, in most cases long before you get close to this happening the person in the hot seat will in all likelihood fold up their tent and take their volunteer efforts elsewhere.  In the meantime they have likely disrupted operations.

Experiencing success in a volunteer organization requires the ultimate degree of leadership skills.  The more positive that a person feels about the organization or the cause, you, the relationship that you have with them and the contributions that you have made (to the cause and to the individual) and have the potential to make in their life, the more leeway that they will give you.  You may have heard of the example of making deposits before and it especially applies in this arena!  If you have made many, many emotional, non-judgmental, supportive, friendly, non-critical, helpful, beneficial, nurturing deposits into the life of a volunteer or the lives of those that the volunteer organization strives to represent, then your account of deposits will likely provide you the advantage of some negative withdrawals without detriment.  Or in other words you can afford to make a few mistakes and be forgiven.  If however, you haven’t established any track record or history with the person and/or the organization then you have some work to do especially if you have been assigned a higher ranking position.  It is a huge mistake to think that just because you hold a position or title that it means anything to others.


As an organization, Toastmasters is unique because we do attract many members who know they have specific issues with communication.  Some of the people who become members are vulnerable, overly sensitive, introverted, shy, thin skinned and in some cases looking for what is wrong so that they can find an excuse to quit!  If you, believe as I do, that this organization has the potential to change lives for the better then one thing you don’t likely want to be, is someone else’s reason for quitting.

What do you bring to the equation?  To simplify this and boil it down to its simplest and lowest common denominators I will suggest what you bring to the table is based on two key components.

  1. Your natural personality style. Are you extroverted or introverted?  Are you task and logic oriented or are you more people and emotion oriented?  Do you make things happen or watch others do so?  Are you a social butterfly or socially awkward?  Are you a decisive doer or a nurturing procrastinator?  Awareness and insight into your own personality style and the leadership strengths and weaknesses that you bring to the table are the most critical factor in building successful teams that want to perform to the best of their abilities.  Are you fun and enjoyable to be around?  Are you approachable?  Do you attract people or repel them?  Do you care and do people know so?
  2. The environments (work, social and home) and the people (parents, family, mentors and role models) that have shaped you into the man or woman that you are. Are you the kind of person who has learned to follow by listening and taking instruction?  Or do you work/live in an environment where you are in charge and people are forced to follow your instructions and commands without question?  Have you blossomed in an environment that has molded you into someone who must balance between asking questions, listening, learning, edifying, empathizing and when the time is right leading with compassion?  Do you follow, manage or lead?  Or are you someone who lives and works in isolation?  Do you know how to play nicely in the sandbox of life with others?

If you are struggling with leadership in a volunteer organization then the first place I would recommend that you look for help is inwardly.  People do not have to follow you so the question is, do they want to follow you?  Do they like you and/or respect you?  (Both are best but one might do.)  How are you approaching them?  Once you clearly understand that they do not have to do a single thing that you “tell them to do” then you have overcome a huge hurdle in making results happen.  People who volunteer don’t want another boss in their lives!  Most of them have a boss if they are employed and would love to get rid of them if they could.  Are you leading by example?  If you want them to perform a task that is uncomfortable then sometimes you have to show them by example that it isn’t all that bad by rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty.  If you want them to listen to you then you first need to extend them the courtesy of listening to them.  People will emulate you!  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  They will do 50% of what you do right and 100% of what you do wrong!  Ask yourself, “Would I like to have a team of people who were exactly like me?”  If your honest answer is no then what needs to change?

Spreading the load by delegating is a wonderful way to accomplish more in less time.  Proper delegation requires a willingness to relinquish your trust to others.  If you are the type of person who has trouble letting things go because you don’t think others will uphold the standard that you desire then you suffer from, “no one can do it as good as me syndrome” and you will be forever limited to the results of your own efforts.  You must make sure that you set people up for success when delegating.  Clear communication is vital and ensuring that they are capable of handling the assignment in the required time frame is a must!  To accomplish this you must effectively communicate and explain the task, tasks and/or duties and then confirm that what you have explained is both understood and accepted.  If the expectations are complex then you may have to ask questions in a delicate and sensitive manner to ensure full comprehension.  Make sure that the person can complete tasks and assignments with-in the allotted time frame and that they are competent and confident in their abilities.  If the volunteer lacks the competence or even worse the necessary insight to appreciate that they are in over their head then it is likely that you are both in store for some frustration and disappointment.


Not all volunteers are worthy of the roles that they have been assigned.  A person who joins as a volunteer because they were strong armed into the role or because they want or need the credit, the position or title etc. in order to satisfy some personal objective is likely to contribute little or nothing to the organization which means they are taking up space and preventing someone else from the growth opportunity.  A volunteer who blows people out due to their disruptive nature, lack of tact, over bearing personality, inappropriate or offensive conduct or rude and edgy mannerisms can be an organization’s worst nightmare!  If any of these characteristics resemble you then it is time for a makeover.  The goal is to grow the organization, attract more people, build your numbers, create more interest in volunteerism and perpetuate this positive cycle.

Are you prepared to take the blame when things go wrong?  This is probably the most important question that you can ask yourself.  Whenever you point your finger there are always three fingers pointing back at you.  Do you have the guts to accept responsibility when things don’t go as expected?  If you are having more than your fair share of issues with your team of volunteers and the common denominators in your failures is you, are you prepared to accept that you could be doing better as a leader?  One of the key findings in the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins was that leaders in great organizations were willing to “face the brutal truth”.  I have found that my greatest life lessons came to me as a result of my willingness to bend and ask someone else who had the results that I desired the following question:  “Knowing what you know about me, what would you suggest that I change or do differently so that I can achieve what you have been able to achieve?”  It takes guts to ask a question like this, it takes even more guts to listen to the answer without responding or making excuses for your short comings.


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