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Volunteer Power!


The Paid Boss vs. Volunteer Administrator
Why is it so hard to motivate a team when you are not the paid boss?

by Thomas W. McKee

Actor Tom Hanks has a wonderful line as a gruff baseball coach in the film, A League of Their Own, "It's supposed to be hard," he says in the midst of a tirade on playing great ball. "If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. It's the hard that makes it great." To paraphrase Hanks, "Volunteer leadership is hard and if it wasn't hard, everyone would do it." But why is it so much harder than being the boss at work?

The main reason that volunteer administration is difficult is because the volunteer organization is the most leadership-intensive enterprise in society. A lot of business people are surprised when they hear this. However, there are two very specific reasons that leadership is different—and hard.

Positional Leadership

The first difference is leadership by position. In business and in government, leaders have power because of their position. Positional leadership doesn't work in volunteer organizations. In business, bosses have tremendous leverage in the form of salary, benefits and perks. Most followers are pretty cooperative when their career is at stake. In the military, leaders can use rank to influence behavior.

However, the great manager never relies on being the "boss" to demand outstanding performance. Peter Ueberroth, the mastermind behind the Twenty-third Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, was a model leader. To boost spirits of the many Olympic staff, Ueberroth wore a different uniform each day: a bus driver's suit, a kitchen staffer's whites, a blue-and-gold usher's shirt. When the workers, many of them volunteers, saw him in their uniform, it was an affirmation of their place on the team through identification. He was one of them.

We don't have to wear a uniform to identify with the workers. But we must work along side of them. When the Maloof brothers, who own the Sacramento Kings, put on their jeans and helped pick up trash with volunteers who were cleaning up a less than desirable area of Sacramento, people joined in. They did not just make an announcement and then not show up. They lead the way with their identification.


The second difference is MBWA. When you are the boss, you see your workers every day at work to visit and talk with them. You give them constant feedback and encouragement. It was easy to walk to their desk, their office, or out on the manufacturing floor. We call this MBWA – manage by walking around. It is much more difficult "walking around" with volunteers because they are not just down the hall. How do you motivate your volunteer team when you only see them once a month or even less?

How can we MBWA? Volunteer administration depends on regular communication by using the phone, the answering machine, e-mail and personal thank you notes. Volunteers need this constant conversation to feel connected. Just like employees need constant feedback from their supervisor to feel plugged in, so the volunteer needs regular feedback to feel that their role is important to the team. We all need constant encouragement. One of the most neglected tasks of the volunteer manager is the task of affirmation. As I look back on my volunteer work, I am the product of a chain of "affirmers," people who believed in me and took time to communicate to me their confidence in me that I could make a difference. Many times I would have quit and dropped out if it hadn't been for some key person who believed in me.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is constant communication, affirmation, and identification. We only see our volunteers once a week, once a month, or less, and in those times we are so busy doing our volunteer work that we often don't take the time to take the suggestions to heart. This is why volunteer administration takes more effort, but the benefit is worth all the trouble.

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