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managing volunteers

Three things I've learned about being very involved in volunteer organizations:

1) Chickens. There's an old joke about a chicken who goes to a pig and says, "Let's start a breakfast restaurant where people can eat ham and eggs!" The pig responds, "Sounds like I'd be committed, you'd only be involved."

Chickens are the ones who constantly come up with things "we" should do, but they're only going to be sidelined involved. The worst is when they throw criticism at the pigs who are TRULY committed and doing the hard work.

Step 1 is turning their great ideas around, when they say "we" should do something, respond with "AWESOME idea, I totally support that, I'd suggest that YOUR first step will be to..." Never respond with "we don't have time" or "don't you see how hard I'm working?" Help them in.

2) On the other hand, you can go past the committed pig and become the all-out martyr. Toxic martyr volunteers sacrifice huge amounts of time themselves, then guilt everyone who isn't doing the same. They'll complain loudly that they're the only one working... even in a room full of people working. That's when you notice a pattern — they never ask for help or try to organize anyone to assist, and they hate when you try and take their (volunteer!) job away from them. There's a great article about how we need to celebrate the lazy leader who gets even help from everyone instead of the guy who lost his job/family/sanity for your organization.

3) Constantly ask for help. I've been shocked at the number of times I've asked for someone to take over an activity 150 times, then suddenly I get the wording or timing right and somebody jumps up and just takes it over, telling me it's such a fun thing they do they wish I'd asked earlier. We have to be creative and look for ways to package volunteer jobs to make sense to people. Be like habitat for humanity, who invites people to show up with no skills, planning or thinking and somehow gets them all to build a house. Most of the volunteers have no idea how much pre-planning and expertise is involved in giving them that mindless day of "giving back" — but that's what it takes, that's what all non-profits take. Nothing is mindless. The mind is somewhere. If the mind is you, seeing what needs done and planning long term, make sure you're not also the one brush-painting the house. As soon as you really know how to do a job, train your replacement and give it away. Move up to the busier intersection. That's how you grow.

ironphoenix told me about Maxwell's level's of leadership last year and I still refer to it a lot. In a volunteer organization I think it looks like this:

1) Step 1: ask people to do things. You'd be surprised how few leaders are even here.

2) Know who to ask. People will help because they're your friend.

3) Design an engaging, interesting system that draws people in

4) People know what to do even without you

5) Your values are part of people's identity, they own the organization and can't help but be extremely involved. You've made something that lasts



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 22nd, 2018 04:00 pm (UTC)
That's a neat take on Maxwell's 5 levels! I think for (2), people will help because they trust you to consider them as well as the organization.

I've seen the types of volunteer you mention... balance is hard!

Volunteer jobs benefit from low-risk opportunities to learn and try new skills. Let someone ride sidecar, then try it out with a mentor, before they commit to being In Charge Of It, especially if it's a long-term commitment. Specific times for training (what we call "formation") are also helpful, because people get little feedback and may be off the rails, or may feel like they are even if they aren't.
Jul. 23rd, 2018 11:39 am (UTC)
Great analysis! I learned to "delegate" volunteer work just two years ago, when we had the big refugee influx and I organised help for 80 people all on my own with the local volunteers. On the day, they arrived in our village, I suddenly had no car any more because of family reasons and while usually I would have done a lot of the driving people to doctors, institutions and whatnot myself, now I had to reach out and ask others, not wait until they offered help. That was very hard for me but it taught me a lot, which now is useful also in my work life. It took me until age 52 for it...
Jul. 23rd, 2018 10:49 pm (UTC)
In my corner of the world we use "give away your legos" (a reference to an excellent article by the same name http://firstround.com/review/give-away-your-legos-and-other-commandments-for-scaling-startups/ ) and point out that you can't be promoted if nobody else knows how to do what you do - growth requires giving away work as fast as you can.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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