The Gift of Leading Volunteers

The Gift of Leading Volunteers

I have led many groups of people in my nearly 30 years in the workplace.   I have also experienced leading volunteers, those individuals who are driven by choice and not by need.   Choice is different.  Choice is something that is stirred by passion and a desire to make a difference. I have valued leading “paid professionals,” those that come to a job to do good work and to get compensated for it. Some (we’ll call them purpose driven) perform for the sheer joy that the job brings them.   Most work out of necessity and the hope is that the joy of their work feeds their souls.  These individuals bring out the joy for those leading them.  

But how do you lead volunteers when the individuals are “performing” by choice?   They don’t want to be told what to do or how to do it.  And I am not their boss.   In many instances during my career, I have been called to lead.  But in my volunteer experience, I chose to lead.   My hope is that volunteers want to step up and lead themselves.  My role is simply to come alongside, purely for support.   I have seen first-hand that the passion that stirs in the hearts of volunteers make it seem like they are not being led at all.  

Royal Family Kids (RFK) is an organization that makes moments matter for foster children.   For the past eight years, I have been a part of a team that creates a week where foster kids who have been products of abuse, neglect and abandonment, come to camp for a week.  The hope is that for a week they can just be kids.  Away from the uncertainty, the confusion, the anger and hurt, to a safe environment, where smiles and laughter happen, where water balloons are rampant, where food is ever present and where the love of God shows up during the entire week.  

For the past 4 years I have been the camp director of the staff that come to camp.   This leadership, beyond leading in a corporate environment feeds every part of my being.   Because the staff lead in the very best way and their passion comes out in their love for these kids, I am able to simply provide feedback and then get out of the way.  I can come alongside, but only when it is needed.  

In the book titled, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in OrganizationsJames Kouzes & Barry Posner discuss the five practices that are associated with better leadership results.  As I think about our most recent camp experience of a few weeks ago, examples of each of these practices resonate with me.  

  1. Model the Way– This is about sharing values and aligning actions with values.  Every volunteer (all 30 of them) had a deep understanding and appreciation for the kids that were coming to camp.  While there was a bit of anxiety and uncertainty in what to expect, the values of RFK ran deep in every staff person’s veins.  There were no questions about how to show up.  
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision– Every volunteer staff person was all in!   And new leaders emerged.  Some who didn’t know they had it in them!  We imagined how the week would be and it came true.. and then some!  The week was about the kids.  No personal agendas or what’s in it for me. Everything that each person did was for the kids!  We were grounded in the vision of creating beautiful memories for kids that desperately needed them.  
  3. Challenge the Process – We were starting a new camp.  New camp location and many new staff.  So many old processes to challenge.  We didn’t need to do things the way we had done them in the past.  This was probably the most difficult step for me.  But the team was ready and made new traditions happen, which created a sense of “new” ownership and many, many wins for the kids! (Think 1000 water balloons and the biggest water balloon fight ever imagined that lasted over 45 minutes. Think laughter, squeals and giggles!) 
  4. Enable Others to Act – Others will act when there is relationship building and trust.   Teambuilding and the building of trust happened during our training and continued through a social gathering at a camp supporter’s home.  It further continued through group texts and new Facebook friendships when camp was over.  At camp it happened organically by everyone pitching in to offer help and support.  It was amazing!
  5. Encourage the Heart –While it felt like this happened throughout the entire week, sometimes recognizing contributions and showing appreciation never seems like it is enough and there was probably an opportunity to do even more.  Fostering a sense of community was foundational before we even left for camp and I believe it will continue through the planning of camp 2020.

So, how do you lead volunteers?  Through modeling, inspiration, challenge, enabling and encouragement that bring volunteers to the space they volunteered for in the first place.  And with love and grace for every single one. 

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