I lead a team of volunteers from the local area and from my company. Members often show up late for our service project, and they work slowly. But I don’t have any authority to “reprimand” apathy or poor performance. Any advice?
In theory, motivating volunteers is no different from motivating paid employees. Great leaders only turn to threats of consequences when all other means of motivation have proven futile. Of the many strategies I have seen used to bring out the best in volunteers, three areas of action stand out as the most effective.
Demand an exemplary work ethic and measurable results. High expectations appear, at first glance, to be counterintuitive. The fear of offending or overworking volunteers usually paralyzes leaders. But volunteer leaders who get things done practically ignore the voluntary aspect of the work. They focus on the fact that a job needs to be done and that the mission is big enough for the volunteers to support it full-force. Whether the project is building homes for the poor or cleaning up after the fish fry, top leaders don’t accept slacking. They politely ask the loafers to pick up the pace.
In order to “demand” an exemplary work ethic, volunteer leaders paint a very clear picture of what it means to volunteer even before the helper agrees to join the cause. Explain beforehand that standards are high and that everyone is expected to work hard or not at all.
Praise good performance. That old axiom really is true: “What gets recognized gets repeated.” Positive reinforcement is usually associated with childrearing and education, but it is just as effective with adults. Who doesn’t like hearing his or her name followed by a compliment, a thank-you or a plaudit? Many surveys have shown that, when it comes to boosting morale and improving job satisfaction, such verbal recognition is even more effective than material compensation.
And be specific, not vague. “You didn’t miss a spot, even in the hard-to-reach places” is more memorable than a one-size-fits-all line like, “You’re a hard worker.” This approach conveys sincerity and attentiveness.
Prepare and organize. Many volunteers get frustrated with volunteer work because they show up to get something done but are delayed by haphazard (or absentee) leadership. This lack can lead to late starts and later finishes, which can be perceived as disrespect for their other commitments. Even if you try to make up for disorganization with a lot of positive recognition, the negative effects of poor project management can and will drive volunteers away.
Remember that a paucity of professionalism at the top will always result in a dearth of dedication in the ranks. People will follow your lead. If you act like a pro, so will they. Most volunteers will, like most paid workers, work hard out of respect for the efforts you have made to prepare and support them on the job. The culture of hard work and a professional attitude start at the top.
And then there’s the “mission factor,” a built-in level of loyalty many paying companies never see. People volunteer because they want to help. They believe in the cause and find joy in performing its specific tasks, no matter how menial.
Volunteering for a good cause is a reward in and of itself. If you have a kind heart and a Christian spirit toward the work, you will be a walking inspiration to the people around you. And don’t be surprised when your highly motivated workers end up having the same effect on you.
Executive coach Dave Durand,
author of Time Management
for Catholics, is online at DaveDurand.com.