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How to Unleash the Visionary Volunteer
Without Destroying the Organization

What do you do with visionaries who are always thinking (and acting) outside the box?
By Thomas W. McKee


Gary was a visionary. In fact, Gary's enthusiasm, passion and energy were contagious; he was a great impetus to the mission of our organization. In brainstorming we are never supposed to put down new ideas; but in Gary's case it was getting out of hand. One week Gary called me from the East Coast while he was on a business trip with a whole new way of running our organization. While traveling across the U.S. on a plane he got inspired. Two weeks later he had revamped his "airplane" idea and wanted to change everything. He reminds me of Steven Covey's leaders who are up in the tree saying to the managers and employees cutting trees below, "Hey, guys, we are cutting trees in the wrong forest." The problem with Gary is that every week he wanted to move the entire work force to a new forest.

The problem with visionaries is that the word administration is a confining word. Visionaries prefer spontaneity. They say that too much administration limits the mission. In short, they consider administration and vision contradictory. With two or three visionaries like Gary, the organization can become spasticójerking and groping this way and that without any real direction. How much freedom do we give to visionaries? How do we empower groups to accomplish their dreams for the organization? How do we encourage the vitality and passion of a visionary without jumping so "outside the box" we end up in jail? This tension reminds me of the faculty member who told his colleagues in a university, "The state legislature has always granted us complete academic freedom here, and if we don't do what they want, they are going to take it away from us."

In order to allow both freedom to experience the new ideas and enthusiasm through the vision of our members and to establish some guidelines to keep our direction sure, I've discovered two roadblocks that must be eliminated and two guardrails that must be erected on the superhighway of our mission.

Roadblock One: My Way is Best

Having some gray hair has its benefits. I get to speak at major events and people respect my experience and ask for my advice. There is, however, one major drawback: I have to keep reminding myself that things have changed.

Sometimes a visionary has suggested a new idea that I felt would fail. My experience was telling me that we did this before and it didn't work. I don't want to discourage them because I know we learn through failures; so I say, "Go ahead." But, to my surprise, it works. They pull off a winner. I have to keep asking myself, "What was different this time than the time it failed?

A major roadblock to visionaries is our experience. Even though I have had my share of success and failures, I have to keep reminding myself that the way I did it in 1980 may not be the best way in 2003.

Roadblock Two: Decisions Come From the Top

Many organizations delegate an assignment to a committee or team. The team merely performs a task assigned. Much like the boss who says, "Go get me a cup of coffee." Visionaries won't stand for delegation. They demand to be empowered. The organization that doesn't empower visionaries and still follows the principle, "all decisions come from the top" will not keep visionary volunteers.

Jodi is a visionary. She declined to work on volunteer committees because she did not respond to just following someone else's solutions to a problem. Jonathan, the executive director, called Jodi and said, "Jodi, I need your help. Our membership has declined 5% in the past two years. We are not keeping our members and are having a hard time recruiting new members. I would like you to head up a task force to look at our whole membership recruitment procedures and turn this around. What kind of a budget do you think you would need and who would you like to be on your team? I'll help you recruit them." Jodi was empowered to do this project and she did. (See Jodi's project charter and game plan here)

Visionaries are often self employed, free agents or executives. They are used to making decisionsóempowered decisions. Visionaries who own decisions make them happen. Effective volunteer managers give their visionary volunteers problems to solve. When visionaries figure out the solutions to the problem, they own the solution and will make it happen. Un-empowered decision making is a huge roadblock for the visionary volunteer. Most volunteers want to own the decisions.

Why We Need Guardrails

If I am going to remove these two roadblocks--I am going to empower visionaries and realize that my way is not always the best. How does this solve the problem of the visionary? It seems that by removing roadblocks, I am just adding fuel to the fire of a out-of-control visionary. That is why we need guardrails. If we are going to empower our volunteers by removing these two roadblocks, we also need two guardrails to keep our organization from running sideways at every suggestion and decision of a visionary.

When working with an enthusiastic visionary, we must remember that not every idea is good for our organization. Visionaries can be like the farmer who got up in the morning to feed the sheep. He started to get the feed when he saw the tractor needed to be fixed. He started for the barn to get the tools when he saw that the wood needed to be chopped. He started to the wood pile to get the ax when he noticed the horses were out of the corral. He ran to catch the horses and then noticed the barn had caught on fire, so he forgot the horses and ran to put out the fire. While putting out the fire, he heard his wife yelling to him that the gas stove was not working and he needed to fix it.

I feel that way sometimes in a leadership role. I am so busy fixing up everything that I don't have time to feed the sheep, which is what I started out to do in the first place. I see broken programs and I stop to fix them. Visionaries are like that. They see a need, after all they are passionate about our cause, and design a program to meet that need.

So how do we know which ideas we should put into place? Two guardrails line our mission superhighway to keep me on course and keep our visionaries from chasing every new idea.

Guardrail One: Well Focused Mission and Values

One non-profit organization cannot change the whole world. We cannot be focused on every aspect of life that needs our expertise and concern. However, we can make a difference in a focused segment of society.

Our mission and values shape our focus. They shape the focus of the cause and when a visionary comes up with wild and new ideas we always test it against the mission and values.

Guardrail Two: Clear Lines of Communication

The number one problem in marriages, businesses, government, and in organizations is communication. Regular communication is essential for the empowered volunteer. The following suggestions will help keep a visionary in check and still feel a sense of empowerment.

1. Each team, committee or volunteer has a charter. Volunteers must have a position charter. For a sample volunteer position charter see: www.volunteerpower.com/positioncharter.

2. The committee or special project must have a project charter. For a sample committee project charter see: www.volunteerpower.com/projectcharter. A project charter outlines the scope of the project, the roles and responsibilities and check-points.

3. The written or verbal reports between the volunteer manager and the volunteer. And continual feedback is a gift.

4. Regular meetings (breakfast, lunch, Starbucks) between the Executive Director and the visionary are needed to keep lines of communication open.

Setting these two guardrails is not to say that visionaries will not challenge our guidelines; I hope that they never stop challenging us. As long as we have an active, proactive organization, I can guarantee we will be challenged. That is the nature of an organization that is thriving. But part of the growth and maturity is removing roadblocks that block empowerment and developing and refining these safety/guardrails together.


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.