People First HR Services

Don’t try to direct volunteers, let their efforts find best path

Colleen Coates

During the holiday season, many non-profit organizations and even understaffed companies make use of volunteers to stretch their resources. Whether it is because they want to give back to their community or because of the realities of the job market, more highly skilled workers are available and eager to lend a helping hand.

The idea of co-ordinating volunteers, including student interns and committees, can be an organizational nightmare for some people — one that brings the simplicity of herding cats to mind. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Managing volunteers isn’t about directing people as much as it is about allowing their efforts to find the best path.

It’s important to remember that volunteers are doing something because they want to, not because they need to. They are motivated in an entirely different way than most paid staff members. They are not bound by the same controls as employees and yes, there is nothing but personal commitment preventing them from walking away if things don’t turn out as they hoped.

At the same time, volunteers are passionate about what they are doing. They believe in the cause and want to have an impact. Managers have the power to drive volunteers’ performance by valuing their contribution and matching their passion with functions that will help achieve the desired results.

Some things to keep in mind about managing volunteers that will keep them focused and fulfilled while working on the tasks you assign:

— As with employees, volunteers deserve to know the mission, vision and values so that they can share the goals of your organization.

— Give volunteers all of the support they need to get the job done on target and on time, including ensuring they understand your expectations and have access to all necessary resources.

— Continually reinforce individual contributions to the overall goal. This will help keep your volunteers engaged in what they are doing.

— Be open to volunteers’ suggestions for improvement. They are keen workers committed to the same goal as you, making their feedback as valid as that received from employees.

— As long as it doesn’t crowd productivity, allow greater leeway for volunteers to bring their own unique personality and individual style to the project.

— Forgive little mistakes (they will happen) and focus on the greater good.

— Where there is one good volunteer, there are likely several more. Ask them if they can recommend anyone else willing to help out in the future.

Once your volunteer corps is hard at work, you may wonder how to keep them motivated until the tasks are complete, especially if those tasks are somewhat menial or mundane.

In my experience, an effective way to motivate volunteers is to give out recognition and rewards. Recognition means to identify someone for the job they have been recruited to do and have the qualifications to carry out. By rewarding them, you are patting them on the back for going above the expectation.

Stimulating volunteers’ inner motivation can be done through a number of ways. Be available to give people feedback and welcome their ideas in return. Invite them to interact with paid staff as valued members of your collective team.

Providing a few perks to your volunteers also goes a long way to motivating and encouraging them. Offering free snacks or ordering in pizza or sandwiches for lunch is always a winner. Even the simplest things can become great incentive for people to keep going.

Sharing lunch or coffee breaks together also tends to make for more fun on the job, which is another key motivator. Volunteering can be stressful and all too often, managers get too focused on the serious business at hand and forget the importance of letting off some steam as an effective stress buster. Groups that have fun together tend to stay together.

In many organizations, especially across the non-profit sector, volunteers are depended upon to help carry out the mission. The total worth of their time, enthusiasm and output is beyond measure. Like the saying goes, “Don’t ever question the value of volunteers. Noah’s Ark was built by volunteers; the Titanic was built by professionals.”

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai

Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at




Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2011 H2