How To Recruit Leaders In Your Volunteer Organization

Shortly after joining a new church, the council president enthusiastically revealed that I was part of their “volunteer leadership succession plan.” I politely declined and spent the next month working to act less “leader-like” at church. Plus, I figured if I skipped coffee hour, I could dodge the recruiters.

Busy people freak out when asked to lead too much too soon.

Some of your volunteer organization’s best qualified leaders are convinced they’re too busy to lead. And so the same dedicated generals continue to carry the load.

They’re busy too, but feel stuck… they’ve invested too much to see it all fall apart. It’s not as fun as at used to be, but they’ve got the template. That’s risky too.

How to Recruit Volunteer Leaders

When people lead, they connect more deeply to your mission and to one another. Connection feels good. They stay. Make volunteer leadership easier and more accessible.

  1. Create Bite Size Roles – This will annoy the guy who did the whole job for the last 20 years… you’ll need to politely tell him to chill. He needs relief, and it’s a new day. Consider breaking the bigger jobs down into something a strong leader with an already booked life could imagine herself doing.
  2. Inventory Talents & Skills – You need to know what people are eager to give. Some will be too humble to tell you. I was directing a children’s musical at our church, and was thinking I’d have to bother the usual suspects to paint the set. One of the newer members came to me with his portfolio of AMAZING art, as if he were applying for a job. I had to resist the urge to kiss this man I didn’t know. He spent countless hours creating an amazing scene. Bottom line, we didn’t know, and would have never have asked.
  3. Limit Terms – It’s easy to rely on the same people to do the same thing year after year. The shoes become too big to fill, and the unintended side effect is intimidation…not to mention stagnation. Plus, knowing there’s an exit strategy is attractive. Everyone saw how the last guy got stuck.
  4. Include Young People & Give Them Power – Kid’s have enormous leadership potential. Scaffold gently, and take some risks. My teenage son gets so annoyed when adults try to micro-manage his leadership efforts. He’s got it… Give kids room and watch the magic.
  5. Empower Possibility – Volunteer organizations have a habit of asking someone to “lead” and then tell them exactly how it should be done. That will turn off your most creative volunteer leaders. Be willing to accept radically new approaches and new ideas.
  6. Communicate Opportunities – “Who should we ask to lead this?” is asked by committees all over the world. That question depends on established connections and may overlook the most qualified. Communicate opportunities and cast a broader net.
  7. Allow Failure – Criticism and gossip will turn away your best leaders FOREVER. They’ve got enough of that crap in their day job. Encourage, develop, and make it okay to experiment and fail forward.
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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

28 Comments

  1. This is an awesome list!
    The only thing I would add is:

    Connect what they are doing to the organization’s core mission. In the case of a congregation, share how what they are doing is transforming the lives of others.

  2. Important message. I think the biggest impediment to recruiting lay or volunteer leaders is an over emphasis on the importance of professionals. If you create a culture where individual members are inspired to think that their contribution is as critical as the ‘professionals,’ some will rise to the occasion.

    In addition, volunteers need to be trained to think of what they are doing as a job, requiring the same reliability and competence as if they were paid.

    One result is that volunteer roles can seque into careers. We have had several volunteers be in the right place at the right time to eventually join staff, as their roles became essential.

    • Bill, Thanks for enriching the conversation. I was hoping you would chime in on this one…

      I’ve also seen some organizations struggle with where to draw the line… should this be a paid role, or volunteer… sometimes the line is very thin.

      And as you say, organizations need to be able to count on folks to do what they say they will. I think that’s one of the trickiest part in leading volunteers… when folks aren’t accountable it’s so much more difficult to address, but it does need to be discussed.

  3. I agree with all of these.

    I would include the “direct ask.” Often my church ties to solicit volunteers through announcements, but the simple one-on-one ask always is the best way to get them to the first meeting.

  4. Whenever I produced a community theatre production, I always recruited one new face.

    I’d reach out to people I felt good about and asked.

    I don’t believe in recruiting. I want people who enthusiastically enroll.

  5. Make it a habit to honor volunteer leaders. Be plentiful with the gold stars and certificates, but also put their names into newsletters. Write them letters of recommendations. Above all, tell them that you appreciate their work – (observe something specific that was done) and mean it.

    Karin, you’ve done it again with another great essay.

    • Steve B., Terrific addition. My church did a gratitude summer. Each week they would highlight one volunteer who had done something significant (in some cases it was highlighting 20 years of service in many arenas, and in others it was for one big project). They sent an email out to the entire congregation… and it was always a surprise. I looked forward to those emails each week, it was fun to see who was selected and why. I must say, this is a slippery slope, running the risk of excluding… the list seemed pretty well-thought out, and involved all the staff. I was impressed.

  6. Karin, you and I have had similar experiences at our church!

    I didn’t skip coffee hour and was recruited as the church’s fundraiser…now going on 4 years!

    I like all of your suggestions, but the one that will always mean the most to me is this: let me know I’m appreciated! A few simple words of gratitude, and it’s amazing what I’ll volunteer to do next…

  7. I’d like to add one last thing, service is a privilege. I was a volunteer for the organization I now lead for 12 years. I was a pro bono lawyer. I realized that the most fulfilling thing I did was the volunteer work I did. We are a volunteer driven organization. 700k budget, with 4 million in donated volunteer services. That happens because, 1. we work hard to have an excellent volunteer experience and 2, our volunteers get the value to themselves of what they do. thanks as always, NAMASTE

    • Bill, Thanks so much. You are doing amazing work at such scale. An important add… the experience matters so much. People want to do work that feels good while they’re doing it. Namaste.

  8. What a wonderful post!
    I believe to volunteer is beautiful way to give while all the while you are really receiving.

    This post is fantastic. Thank You Karin.

    You are loved.
    Lolly

  9. Great points, Karin. For organizations seeking volunteers, I know standards need to be set but they also need to make it “easy” for volunteers to get involved. Time is short and many want to find meaningful ways to give their time. Spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to volunteer will discourage and delay people from jumping in. I have been amazed on how challenging some volunteer organizations make it to find the opportunity to jump in and then figuring how to jump in. Thanks for giving some great ways to engage volunteers! Jon

  10. Karin,

    when looking at the list it reminded me all the corporate initiatives (usually well intention without/with limited budget) and I wonder what would be reason to think differently about volunteer leader recruitment and any other leader recruitment…

    BTW thanks for inspiring blog.
    Vlasta

  11. Terrific post, Karin and one that I can totally relate to! I think another great benefit of volunteering in a leadership role, is being able to transfer those leadership skills and knowledge into our professional lives. Similar experiences in communication, dealing with conflict and difficult people and coaching can be helpful in both volunteer and business. I have written about this too and how volunteer jobs actually prepare us for successful leadership careers.
    By the way, in our synagogue, we too are struggling to fill the bigger positions in leadership and have found smaller projects are more enticing for volunteers.

    • Terri, thanks so much. I so agree, that you can learn so much about leadership from volunteer roles. I think most denominations are dealing with a similar struggle to grow volunteers in an increasingly complex society.

  12. Great thoughts, Karin!

    I think sharing a big vision and showing the person how they can be apart of it can help us to keep volunteers. People want to be apart of something bigger than themselves.

  13. Pingback: Tips for recruiting volunteers | InterConnections Tipsheet

  14. This is a great post and the comments have added great insights to the conversation. At our church we a diligent to thank volunteers with personal notes of thanks from time to time and an annual volunteer party where they do nothing but enjoy the staff serving them.
    One further thought, give volunteers high quality leadership training. We host quarterly leadership development events and provide an online leader development tool where they can access articles and videos to enhance their leadership as a volunteer and in the workplace.

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