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.


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.


[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.

Unwarranted Confidence, or Too Dumb to Know that I’m Dumb


I was recently introduced to a fascinating psychological concept known as the Dunning Kruger Effect.[1] One reason it grabbed my attention was that John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, was the one who introduced it to me. You may not be aware that Cleese is a Visiting Professor at Cornell University, where he lectures on the creative process, among other things. Wouldn’t you love to take classes from him?

Cleese describes the effect: “in order to know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place. Which means, and this is terribly funny, that if you are absolutely no good at something at all, then you lack exactly the skills that you need to know that you’re absolutely no good at it.” He adds “You see, if you are very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you are very, very stupid? You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are.”[2]

The Dunning Kruger Effect is a phenomenon where unskilled individuals rate their own abilities much higher than they really are, simply because they lack the skills to properly evaluate their own skills. This idea has been validated in well-constructed studies measuring self-awareness of social, logical and grammatical skills. Statistical analysis showed that the effect held true in each of these unrelated areas. Another portion showed that when individuals received some training in the subject material, their ability to self-assess improved significantly.[3]

This has been compared to the “Lake Wobegon Effect,” as stated by Garrison Keillor: “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Without proper feedback, everyone views themselves as above average. And most of us realize that this is a mathematical impossibility. Of course, there is no research to substantiate this effect.

What does this mean for leaders? How can we apply this? If the unskilled cannot accurately evaluate their own performance, how can we expect them to function better? The leader must invest time and effort in training the people he leads if he expects his organization to move forward. It may be argued that only the leader’s investment in himself or herself is more important.

This training may also be delegated to other capable individuals. But the unskilled must have good mentors! And the mentors also need regular guidance.

I believe that this is why so many leaders choose to micromanage: to them, it seems simpler to manage everything themselves than to train their followers. In like manner, it is much quicker for a parent to do household chores than to take the time to help their children learn. But the time invested pays big dividends.

This is a lesson that a teacher should understand well. As our dental students begin to learn dental skills, I have noticed that it is difficult for them to evaluate their work, but as they progress, their evaluation skills tend to improve. And it is absolutely critical that they learn to accurately self-assess before they receive their degrees! I will never forget the morning a new third-year student received a start check to perform just his second restorative procedure on a live patient. With an air of confidence, he told the attending faculty “In my experience this is very straightforward.” I wonder if he still feels that way.

And added challenge for the leader is that the incompetent are generally unable to recognize competence in others. Based on the work of Dunning, it becomes imperative that we make sure that those whom we lead have sufficient training to do what is expected of them. If we fail to provide that training, we are preparing our organization for failure. Individual growth leads to organizational growth.

A good leader trains his people.

“The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.” 

-Benjamin Franklin

[1] Dunning, D., et al. (2003). Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence. Current Direction in Psychological Science, 12:3, 83-87.

[2] YouTube. John Cleese On Stupidity, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvVPdyYeaQU

[3] Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121–1134.