How to Lead and Motivate Volunteers

For many years I was the CEO of a large not-for-profit organisation in a community just west of Sydney, Australia. Without hesitation I would say the key to the effectiveness of this organisation was the enormous contribution of hundreds of volunteers, many of whom were contributing between 10 and 20 hours of very effective and focused skilled labour every week.  On top of their valuable work these same people were often among our best financial supporters contributing thousands of dollars each year into our budget bottom line.

I learned so much about working with volunteers as I led this organisation from startup through various stages to become a significant community organisation working with all aspects of society but especially providing  young people with hope, emergency care, social connection, leadership training and opportunities to serve both locally and internationally.

A sporting team huddle with hands joined in the middle

Things I know about volunteers:

  1. Volunteers want their lives to make a difference.
  2. Volunteers are generous people who are learning to be more generous.
  3. Volunteers will give amazing commitment if they know that what they do is making a difference.
  4. The main payoff for volunteers is relationship. They respond to being valued as a person as well as for the work they do being valued. They love to be part of a fun team achieving great results! Reward great effort with fun relationship times.
  5. The volunteer spirit is an awesome foundation for building a healthy effective organisation.


[NB. Surveys in workplaces have shown that employees will leave a highly paid job where there are poor relationships for a lesser paying job if they are confident they will have better relationships].

Keys to leading motivated volunteers:

  • Be willing to spend time with them to get to know them, value them and connect with them. It will be time well invested.
  • Take time to know and tap their passion. Passion to help people, for a cause, to be part of a successful team, to grow and learn.
  • Set the bar high. Never lower it just because they are volunteers or you insult them and actually give them the sense that what they are doing is not very important, where it doesn’t matter if they turn up or not.
  • Demand commitment of volunteers. Treat them as equal members of the team to staff members. I.e. give them job descriptions, signed contracts, clear expectations, an orientation/induction, consequences of non performance.
  • Call volunteers to account if they do not fulfill their commitments. It is an opportunity to assist them to grow. They will either leave or appreciate it, learn and grow.
  • Encourage them to grow. If a volunteer knows that working with you is going to assist them to grow as a person, then they will become highly motivated.

I am saddened when I hear leaders of organisations complain about their volunteers, how they wish they had more money to pay people so they can get good staff. I venture to say leaders with this attitude would have similar problems motivating paid staff.

Motivation does not come with salary. Motivation comes from being inspired to be part of making a difference. Apparently Steve Jobs was lured back to Apple from his role as CEO of Pepsi Co by the challenge, “Are you going stay and make sugar water or do you want to come and change the world?”

If you are a leader or manager of a Not-for-Profit organistion try to create an team atomosphere where real relationships are possible as you work hard together to achieve awesome results that make a difference.


I’d love to hear your comments.

INTEGRATE: Why Work Life Balance is a Myth | John Drury

Integrate: Why Work Life Balance is a Myth and what you really need to create a fulfilling lifestyle

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