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Volunteer Power!
Motivating Your Very Busy Volunteers
by Thomas W. McKee

I received this letter from Gabrielle Rolf recently. I think that many of us identify with his question:

Gabriel's 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.



Hello Gabrielle:

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.
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 accomplishment.

    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 accomplishment.

    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.

  4. 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:
    1. What struck you the most?
    2. What did you see that you questioned, disagreed with, or wondered how it would work?
    3. What did you read that you feel we could use to help us in our volunteer program?

  5. 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

Tom McKee Tom 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.

The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer 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 details 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 www.volunteerpower.com.