5 Sentences to Energize and Support Your Volunteers (and everyone is a volunteer)

I was cycling from Breckenridge, Colorado up Vail Pass on a recent Sunday afternoon. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the Copper Triangle, a major cycling event, was happening at the same time, and I soon found myself slowly climbing up the steep mountain while hundreds of cyclists were racing down. A mile and a quarter before the summit, one of those speeding cyclists clipped the wheel of another rider and was thrown from his bike about 10 yards in front of me landing on his head.

Several of us watched helplessly as he flew through the air, and then raced to the scene of his limp and lifeless body, while blood streamed from his head onto the steep asphalt trail. Fortunately, one cyclist was a nurse and she immediately jumped in to help; another rider called 911; another retrieved the number from his helmet to contact the race officials; and I rode fifty yards up the mountain, placed my bike perpendicular to the trail and worked to slow down speeding racers so they didn’t ride into the accident or into one another as they were forced to brake suddenly.

Watching me struggle with the volume of riders coming at me at a fast speed, another cyclist approached me. “How can I help you? I want to be of assistance, but the scene down there is just too sad for me to watch.” We decided he would take my spot and I would position myself another 25 yards up, just before the blind curve.

Most of the riders were appreciative, slowed down immediately, thanked us, inquired as to how serious things were and followed our directions immediately. But we were shocked by the 5% who not only didn’t help but actually made matters worse.

Within the first five minutes of the accident, one rider refused to stop and rode her bike directly through the spilled blood and headed down the hill. Other riders shouted rude remarks to us as we directed them to slow down. “I see there’s an accident, sh_t happens.” “Don’t tell me what to do!” “This IS SLOW (for me),” which was decidedly beside the point.

Every time a rude remark was thrown our way, my fellow-rider-turned-traffic-cop and I looked at each other in disbelief. This was not the tour de France. How in the world could people be so self-centered? Why would anyone treat folks just trying to help in such a rude manner?

Just as my mind flashed back to the dozens of times my mother had come home in tears over her 50 years of volunteering due to a lack of couth, common sense or appreciation of some jerk, another rider slowed down and said: “What you are doing here is valuable. Thank you.”

I was shocked at how important that stranger’s quick sentence of encouragement felt during that stressful moment.

I haven’t been able to find out what happened to our fellow fallen cyclist. I pray that he’s recovering well.

And I’m left with a vivid memory of how quickly a team of volunteers can come together to do the best they can, and of the outliers who made their job more difficult.

5 Sentences to Energize and Support Your Volunteers

1. What can I do to help?

Sometimes the best we can do is follow. The nurse was in charge, but she needed help from the rest of us. It’s easy to assume we don’t have what it takes to be useful in a time of crises… but it’s so important to stop and think. What must be done here and how can I help?

2. What you are doing here is valuable.

Sure volunteering comes with its own intrinsic rewards, but it also comes with a lot of crap. You can’t go wrong by reminding a volunteer that their work is making a difference.

3. Thank you.

So simple, yet so often underused. I try to quadruple my “thank yous” when working with volunteers–and remember everyone is essentially a volunteer–discretionary effort can’t be bought.

4. Let’s have some fun!

Okay, clearly not appropriate in this context, but many times that’s exactly what your volunteers need. I loved it when Sean Glaze suggested this in his Frontline Festival Post 12 Exalting Phrases Good Leaders Share With Their Team

5. What do you think we should do?

Have you ever volunteered for something you know you’re good at, only to be micro-managed? Your volunteers have great ideas and different perspectives. Tap into their hearts and minds as well as their lending hands.

I think one of the reasons that we sometimes forget to support volunteers is because we’re volunteering too– there’s a sense that we’re all in this together because we believe in the mission and the cause. A little extra effort to say the right thing at the right time can still make a remarkable difference.

See Also: Why Volunteering Will Make You a Better Leader

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Posted in Energy & Engagement, Winning Well and tagged .

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.

5 Comments

    • Thanks so much, Shawn. Yeah, it was a very tragic day– It’s always amazing to me the differences in how people choose to show up.

  1. A great reminder that we are all volunteers, in some way, in this journey called life. And as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination that gives us meaning. A great but sad story about how we can so easily lose sight of what is important…

  2. A gem. When I think about biking, my mind goes to the carefree days when I wouldn’t wear a helmet and my hair (substantially more than I have today!) would flutter in the wind. Times are different and I ride with a helmet since I appreciate the value of safety – for me and also as a role model for kids and others.
    And with this, I think about the three parties involved in the volunteer situation:
    1) The person or entity that requires growth, nourishment, understanding, resources
    2) The person who is able to facilitate the growth, etc.
    3) Those in the sphere of influence.
    Half of the reason I began to wear a helmet is because of #3 – because I am a role model to my kids and others in my sphere of influence. In the same way, volunteers have influence beyond the person or entity that requires help. They influence by example – to others who may be in a position to give as a volunteer tomorrow.
    What a great way to facilitate reflection on leadership & volunteerism.

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