When Your Volunteers Aren’t Getting the Job Done

When a committee of volunteers falls short of expectations, it is frequently because they lack adequate training.

Two men try to reach across the divide

There are many organizations that rely heavily on the work of volunteers to carry out the goals and functions of the organization. In fact, many of us receive our first lessons in leadership as volunteers in some type of organization.

When an individual volunteers, or is asked to serve, it is usually assumed that he or she understands the ideals and goals of the organization and is willing to support them. Occasionally a handbook or guidebook is given along with a hearty “thank you for serving,” then they go to work. And we see varying degrees of success (or failure).

I have served in organizations where individuals, or sometimes entire committees, were not measuring up to the goals of the organization, despite their best efforts. Common practice dictates that when this is identified, it is time to change out committee members or chairs, or in extreme cases, disband entire committees. Their responsibilities might then be given to someone who is “better equipped” to get the job done.[1]

You may have seen this in your own volunteer service.

There is something wrong with this picture. Very wrong. Common practice is not necessarily best practice. You wouldn’t buy a new car and hand the keys to your sixteen-year-old without providing some serious training first.

If a volunteer or a committee is failing to do its job, then there is a leadership failure somewhere. Not just the committee chairs, but the leaders who oversee the committees,  have failed if a committee is not functioning as it should.

I believe that the following is important to a new volunteer, or even an experienced volunteer who is serving in a new role.

 

  1. Proper orientation. Assure that the mission, vision, and goals for the organization and the committee are understood. Ensure that the volunteer is aware of the organizational culture and history and understands his or her place within the organization.
  2. Job-specific training. A volunteer should understand his or her role in their particular committee. Never assume that because they volunteered, they already get it. Many positions and assignments have what are disparagingly called “oh-by-the-way” responsibilities. In a well-run organization, volunteers should understand what their positions entail before accepting the responsibility. This should be made clear at the outset. All too often, an “oh-by-the-way” is made known only after a failure.
  3. Outline expectations. The training should include explaining any expectations that come with the position. What is required of the member? How will it be measured? How often is performance evaluated?
  4. Mentoring. Just because a committee has experienced members as well as new people, it should never be assumed that mentoring will occur. Yes, many individuals will take this on by themselves, but this should be assigned by the chair, who should try to identify the best members to mentor a new member.
  5. Empowerment. The new volunteer should feel empowered to speak and to act as a part of his or her assignment. Frequently those with less experience hesitate to share new ideas or seek clarification out of respect to those who are “wiser and more experienced.” That should not be a part of any organization’s culture.
  6. Follow-up. It takes a few meetings or a few assignments to get a grasp on the assignment. Questions don’t often arise until after the volunteer has been involved for a time. Make sure that a respected and experienced member is assigned to provide the follow-up and address the questions.
  7. Re-train as necessary. Inoculations require periodic boosters in order to provide effective coverage. They are not good for a lifetime. In the same way, we should provide training boosters as frequently as needed.

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Naturally, training requires time and resources. It requires raising the organization to a higher level. Some leaders are better qualified than others to provide this training. In any organization, all will come with their own gifts and abilities. It is incumbent upon those vested with the leadership authority to ensure that skills and talents are developed and utilized, not only for the benefit of the organization, but for the benefit of the individuals who volunteer.

A good leader of volunteers does not set his people up for failure: a good leader sets clear expectations and enables his volunteers to achieve them.

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[1] I will admit that there are cases where a committee has performed its designated function or outlived its usefulness and should be disbanded. Sometimes this should also occur due to fiscal concerns. But in my opinion, it should never happen simply because there is a perception of poor performance.

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