Not long ago I helped lead a large event that required several dozen volunteers. Many of us met for the first time on the day of the event, so our communication took place via email over the course of several months.
That event served up a few great reminders for a guy who no longer gets a ton of face time with volunteers. As a leader in a multi-site church, I’m leading the leaders of volunteers, not necessarily the volunteers themselves. And while there are a few overlapping similarities in the two, it’s a different world when you’re in the trenches and working directly with those on the front lines.
But back to the event…in the postmortem analysis, here are a few things that I learned about a few of the things I got wrong. If you lead volunteers in any capacity, this might be helpful to you.
1. Make it clear.
Clarity trumps confusion every single time. When you’re making the ask of a volunteer, make it clear what you’re asking them to do. Give them a one sentence job description that gives good details. Nothing frustrates a volunteer more than giving their time when they’re not sure how their time will be used (or abused).
2. When you can’t make it clear, make it compelling.
In my case, I was leading someone down a path that I hadn’t been down myself. It was hard to give a job description, because even I wasn’t 100% sure what the job would entail. And so I relied on the why more than the what. I attempted to lead with vision so the team would understand our destination, even if they couldn’t see the map.
3. Make the process simple.
To be clear, clear doesn’t mean that you vomit all the details from the first moment. To overwhelm a volunteer with all the nuances of job can be off-putting, both for the volunteer (who suddenly wonders what they’ve gotten themselves into) and for you (who has to figure out a way to stick to the plan even though the plan has changed).
By making the process simple, I mean that you reveal what the volunteer needs to know as the volunteer needs to know it. At the beginning, you tell them what you want them to do and when you need them to do it. Closer to the event, you tell them how they need to prepare (travel information, dress code, meeting details, etc.). And when they show up, you tell them things that can only be communicated on-site (here’s where you’ll be standing, here’s what you’ll be holding, here’s where you get more information).
There’s a complication with simplicity: you will have volunteers who want all of the details as early as you can give them. They’ll devour every syllable of every email you send and pore over the instruction manual you send out. They’ll often want to know more than you actually know. Then there are volunteers who will barely read any of it, so you have to make sure that your “have-to-know” communication gets across in short, manageable, digestable bites. The trick is balancing the two.
(By the way, did I just make the “simplicity” section the longest section in this post? Why yes. Yes I did.)
4. Be a helper.
Act as your volunteer’s biggest cheerleader. By giving you their yes, they’re trusting you with their time, their confidence, and their reputation. You don’t win and the event doesn’t win if your volunteers don’t win. So make sure you are acting not as the chief know-it-all, but the servant of all. Answer their questions. Help them understand their role. Coach them in a way that brings out their best. Equip them to do the work of the ministry, because that’s your ministry.
5. More gratitude. Less attitude.
If you’re anything like me, you get frustrated when a volunteer doesn’t read or doesn’t listen or doesn’t pay attention or doesn’t show up. (Or maybe you’re just more sanctified than I am. Don’t burst my bubble.) Listen, friends and fellow leaders: it’s way too easy to devolve into complaining about those who are sacrificing their time. Your volunteers are exactly that…volunteers. They don’t have to be there. They don’t have to do what you ask. Anything that we get beyond nothing, we should be grateful for. So thank your vols early and often, and make sure the gratitude on your lips works its way into your heart.