by Thomas W. McKee
I received this letter from Gabrielle Rolf recently. I think that many of us identify
with his question:
I volunteer for a Fire Department in Connecticut (USA) as an EMT-B. I am also an officer
and work feverishly on motivating and retaining our current volunteer membership. As noted
in some of your articles, volunteers live busy lives, have families and have become more
aware of the risks out there as Emergency Responders. We are seeking some guidance on how
to "pump up" the troops and get them invested again in our Fire Department.
Thank you in advanced for any words of wisdom.
Thanks so much for your very significant question as I think a lot of people are feeling
the same way you are. I have five suggestions for you to motivate your volunteer managers
and to "pump up" the troops as you get them invested again in your Fire Department.
- Emphasize the "risk" factor in recruiting. Don't apologize. Use the "Peace Corps"
method--sleep with bugs, snakes and put your life at risk to make a difference in
third-world countries." It seems to work for them, and the people who volunteer know
what they are getting into and are committed.
- Capitalize on the "Hero" aspect of the fire department. Since 9/11 the status of the
fire fighters has never been higher or more respected. Appeal to this sense of stepping
up to the challenge of the volunteer fire department.
Tap into person-centered motivation. Research psychologists such as Daniel Yankelovich
have documented the fact that in the job market "job incentives are so unappealing that
employees no longer are motivated to work hard. As a result they withdraw emotional
involvement." Researchers Patricia Penwick and Kedward Lawler took a survey from 28,008
readers of Psychology Today and found that money and status were not motivational, but the
top motivational factors were personal growth, a sense they are worthwhile and a feeling of
This is good news for volunteer fire-fighters. You don't offer money. But you do offer
status (being a volunteer fire fighter does have status--so you have that going for you).
Many volunteer positions offer a sense of status; however, what you offer most are three
person-centered motivational factors: personal growth, self worth, and the feeling of
One of the most effective volunteer managers I worked with knew how to tap into these
person-centered motivational factors. Jim was the volunteer manager of a teen center. He
didn't get paid for this position--he was a volunteer. Jim was self employed and ran a small
successful vending-machine company. But he gave much of his time to managing a teen center
and had a whole team of volunteers who would show up after school to teach computer skills,
play basketball, shoot pool or just hang out with the kids. One day three of his volunteers
stopped him to complain about the facilities.
They complained that the building looked trashy, it needed new equipment or at least some
paint. Jim followed three person-centered motivation rules to solve the problem, and he was
able to motivate his volunteers.
- Rule One: Stop multi-tasking, turn off the CD running full speed in your mind,
look the volunteer straight in the eye, and listen.
- Rule Two: Determine the volunteers' real needs. What are they really saying?
- Rule Three: Let those talking be a part of the solution.
Jim set up a breakfast meeting with the three volunteers. By the end of the breakfast meeting
Jim arranged the three volunteer to visit two other teen centers in neighboring communities.
The investigative team brought back from their visit new ideas, organized a painting and
renovation project, and began to raise funds for some new equipment. Jim had a team of
volunteers who were highly motivated.
When Jim listened to these three complaining volunteers (rule number one), he determined that
what they were really saying was that they wanted to make a difference but were embarrassed by
the looks of the building. They felt that Jim was a great visionary and loved kids, but he wasn't
so sharp on details, and he probably didn't even see the need for paint. And they were right-on
about Jim (rule number two). So Jim, met with them and empowered them to solve the problem (rule
number 3). Jim knew the missing link of volunteer management : person-centered motivation.
Copy our free articles for your team of volunteer managers--those who are responsible for
recruiting and managing the volunteers. As you check out most volunteer management web sites
they are selling resources. Ours are free. Run off a newsletter or an article and hand it out to
your volunteer managers to discuss at your next staff meeting. www.volunteerpower.com/articles.
After your team reads the article, discuss these questions:
- What struck you the most?
- What did you see that you questioned, disagreed with, or wondered how it would work?
- What did you read that you feel we could use to help us in our volunteer program?
Take your volunteer team on a training retreat. Take advantage of a planning day. A suggested
planning retreat schedule at www.volunteerpower.com/resources/retreat.asp.
I hope one of these five ideas will work for you.
I hope that my letter to Gabriel will be of an encouragement and help to all of us who
recruit and motivate the 21st century volunteer.
Thomas W. McKee
is president and owner of www.volunteerpower.com
a leadership development
firm specializing in volunteerism. He has over 40 years of experience in volunteer leadership. Tom began his speaking
career to one of the most difficult audiences-high school assemblies. Since those days he has addressed over 1 million
people spanning three continents-Africa, Europe and the U.S. Over the past 40 years he has trained over 100,000 leaders
how to manage the chaos of change in an organization.
Tom and his son Jonathan are authors of the book, The
New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer
(Group Publishing). The New Breed
the new cultural shift in volunteer management and also includes valuable, applicable resources for leaders, including
job descriptions, icebreakers, team-builders and community-building activities, equipping leaders to move forward with
confidence and empower valuable volunteers.
About The New Breed:
The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer
by Jonathan McKee and Thomas W. McKee.
Group Publishing. Paperback, 176 pages. ISBN: 978-0764435645. The book can be ordered at