My Five Things Every Volunteer Needs

We all need help. The summit on that mountain cannot be reached without a team. I've been thinking about volunteer teams lately. Why are volunteers so hard to keep? Why is it a struggle to lead a team of volunteers? How can we be better at reproducing ourselves on teams? These have been questions in my mind at my current job. You see, in my role, I have been afforded to space to be able to serve in whatever ministry I'd like as a volunteer. Most of my "paid ministry",  time happens 9-5 Monday - Friday. So afternoons, evenings, weekends, I get to choose what I'd like to be a part of, whether it be leading a small group, outreaches, etc. I've been getting a unique perspective on being a volunteer in someone else's ministry. I say unique because I believe once we get on a church staff or business staff, we can lose touch with what it feels like to be a volunteer. 

Below, I've come up with 5 things every volunteer is looking for. 

  1. [ Authenticity ] - We all know those leaders who love us only because we signed up to volunteer in their area. Or we know leaders who puts on that smile but there is nothing behind it. Or we know the leaders who say one thing and do another. Don't you just hate that? Volunteers are looking for authentic leadership. They're looking for teams that are real and do real things together. People are looking for a leader who will care about them individually alongside the team corporately. Authentic leadership has a deep understanding and realization that people matter. They understand that owning up to mistakes does not make them weak but actually makes them stronger. Being authentic does not mean that you use manipulation as a form of "good" leadership but that good leadership comes through influence. And that influence is built and predicated on relationships. Volunteers are not looking to be a part or cog in the machine, they're looking to be vital parts of the organism. Organic authentic leaders tend to hold on to volunteers and teams of volunteers longer because it's harder to leave, or to walk away from, a leader that you deeply trust, love, and are committed to. I often say, people commit to two things but one more than the other, The Vision....and ultimately more-so, The Person
  2. [ Vision ] - Where are we headed? This is often one of the MOST overlooked aspects of leading teams of volunteers in my opinion. Often, we get so deep and tangled in the weeds of the everyday, the things we "need to get done", that we don't look up to see what may be on the horizon. We don't look up to see where we are heading or where we want to go. Volunteers feel this deeply. Where there is no direction or plan, people will scatter. There isn't anything to grab onto. Often, in the midst of the busyness of the team, there is nothing to hold onto that screams, "This is only for a little while". Volunteers want to know that what they are working on now, contributes to the greater good and the greater purpose of your team, organization, or ministry. 
  3. [ Space ] - It is understandable that we confine people to their role. The role might have been determined based on an interview process, gifting test, aptitude, etc., and so it only makes to place him/her where your volunteer best fits to contribute to the team in a most production and for them, a fulfilling way. When we do this, we may run the risk of serious burnout or boredom on the part of our people. I like to give my volunteers space within their roles. What this looks like is frequent meetings or what I call "Touchbacks" to hear what may be going good and what may be going wrong. I give them space to, within their role, create ways to do what I am asking them to do. Sure, I can tell them HOW I'd like it to be done but this does not create buy-in nor does it create ownership. Ownership happens when we provide space to allow someone to take on their role and run with it. When a volunteer has the space to own his/her role, it leads to commitment and longevity. It leads to better recruitment for his/her team. It leads to less turnover. It leads to happiness. For you, giving space provides a way for you to let go of the responsibilities that someone else can handle and grow your capacity as a leader to focus on other things. 
  4. [ Development ] - It is easy to have people sign up to volunteer for your team or event. Well, sometimes at least. What we do with people once they're on our team isn't easy  and therefore it isn't thought about. Volunteers have a deep desire to grow and be better. They feel that they have something to contribute. This is why they signed up. When we invest in our volunteers within their interests, they will keep coming back for more. We should take time and meet with our volunteers to share the wins, to teach skills, and to encourage. This is how I think about it: every time I meet with a volunteer team, the goal is not to only go over what needs to get done; the goal is to bring value to their lives. We meet so that I can invest in them by talking about the things that matter to them. Sharing with them best practices and new ways of thinking about their roles and responsibilities. I don't believe in natural born leaders. I believe everyone is a leader but their capacity to lead can be shaped, groomed, and expanded by how much we can develop or invest in them. The more you bring value or the more you invest in your team, the greater they will be. Thus, bringing more value to your goals, a further push towards your vision, and greater results. 
  5. [ Movement ] - Ever been in one of those dead-end jobs where there was nowhere to go? You were showing up each and every day on time and working hard yet nothing to show for it? It sucks. We can often treat our volunteers like this. Most volunteers won't want to stay at the same level for very long. Create opportunities to switch it up or move them up. I liken it to internships. Interns, as awesome as they are, are looking to gain experience to take their role or job to the next level. Interns don't want to stay interns forever. They want more. When more isn't given, they will leave. Same with volunteers. They want more. A volunteer that is sold out to your vision will always be looking for new ways to achieve it. Sometimes this looks like moving up on the leadership ladder, becoming a team leader, being hired, etc. If a leader comes to you asking to do more or help in an area, don't just put that request in a pile. Act on it and act on it fast. The indicators or flags in your head should be going off because that person is getting restless. Allow for movement and for change. Create roles that best fits the person and where he/she is trying to go, making sure it still fits your vision. If it doesn't or if his/her idea is outside of the realm of the team, then help them to find a place somewhere else in the organization or ministry and be ok with losing them. I call it the Exit Space. Holding on to people where God may ultimately be leading them to move on can be very damaging to that person, you, and others on your team. People, volunteers, should always be in a state of movement, growing, leading, creating, curating, developing, and exiting. 

These are just a few thoughts on what I believe your volunteers are looking for. Want to add to my list? Share your thoughts in a comment below.