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Looking for volunteer leaders? Give them what they want

Volunteers from the Mortgage Bankers Association of Georgia help out with a HomeAid Care Day for Jesus Set the Captive Free, which provided $2,000 in labor and materials.


Earlier this month, I attended a conference for the Association of Junior Leagues International as a member of the Atlanta chapter. The conference was filled with volunteers from across the country, each ready to lead tens, if not hundreds, of fellow volunteers in pursuit of the Junior League’s mission. Many have dedicated five or more years of their time, contributed hundreds of dollars directly, and helped raise much more from others. Captivated by their efforts and enthusiasm, I wondered what made so many commit so much of their time, talent, and treasure.

What I learned, in just one weekend: These women were not “volun-told” what to do. Instead, they were empowered to make the volunteer experience their own.

If you are looking for volunteer leaders, you must understand what leaders want from you and your organization. It takes intentional, programmatic efforts to establish volunteer leadership that’s effective and sustainable.

So what are volunteer leaders seeking?

First, they’re looking for meaningful community work. Meaningful work can mean many different things, depending on the organization, but there is one variable that remains the same: Every volunteer position must be indispensable. Don’t create volunteer position descriptions just because they look good on your website; you need positions that will drive your organization for the next five to ten years. Treat every volunteer as a piece of the puzzle, keeping in mind that if you are missing one piece, you will never have a complete picture.

Next, they want a well-run organization. I had a boss who used to say we treat our volunteers like kids who can’t swim: We throw them into the pool and watch them struggle to stay afloat. This is no way to treat a dedicated supporter. Once volunteers are placed, you must supply them with the tools, knowledge, and other resources they need.

Finally, each volunteer deserves flexibility to fulfill their role. Whether that means off-hour and night-time options, online opportunities, or another non-traditional plan, you must make sure that everyone who is willing to volunteer can be included. Think about working moms, teens, or supporters who live outside of your service jurisdiction: When building volunteer position descriptions, remember that there is not just one type of volunteer, but many different demographics looking to get involved.

Interested in learning more? Join me for the final installment in the Certificate of Nonprofit Volunteer Management on June 12, where we’ll examine, in detail, the strategies and tactics that go into building a volunteer leadership corps, and training them to become your best advocates. You can also sign up for the full certificate series, starting up again on Sept. 6.

Shirley Anne Smith is the executive director of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation and a facilitator with GCN’s Nonprofit University.

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