Trevor Stockwell Leadership Development Services

Navigating the Challenges of Leading Volunteers

04 June 2024
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Having led multiple, diverse and cross-functional volunteer teams for many years, I have recognised key insights to empower anyone to lead volunteers more effectively. Yes, that means you too!

Leaders set the standard and create the culture within any organization, and this holds especially true for those guiding teams of volunteers. The unique nature of volunteer management presents distinct challenges that require a tailored approach. Volunteers bring their time and expertise fuelled by passion rather than obligation, making their successful management a strategic balance of inspiration, engagement, and empowerment.

Here are three common challenges faced when leading volunteers and strategies to effectively overcome them.


Challenge 1: Sustaining Motivation and Engagement

One of the primary challenges for volunteer leaders is maintaining high levels of motivation and engagement among team members. I intentionally look to create a great volunteer experience which improves both the wellbeing of the individual and team, AND positions them to be their best self when interacting with those they serve and work alongside.


Volunteers often juggle busy personal and professional lives, so keeping their enthusiasm and dedication intact is crucial. Unlike paid staff, financial incentives are not an option, making intrinsic motivation a key driver.


Strategies to Overcome This Challenge:

1. Cultivate a culture of purpose and appreciation: Purpose is the most powerful motivator. Regularly communicate the positive impact of volunteers' contributions and how their efforts align with the organization's mission. When volunteers see the tangible difference they make, their sense of purpose and commitment deepens.


2. Encourage a sense of belonging: Create opportunities for volunteers to connect and build relationships. Purpose-driven relationships enhance engagement and fulfilment, as volunteers feel part of a team and community working towards a common goal.


3. Recognize individual contributions: Treat each volunteer as an individual with unique strengths and motivations. Provide specific support tailored to their needs and interests. Aligning tasks with their skills maximizes their sense of fulfilment and value.

*(Use DISC for greater insight into identifying key skills, leadership strengths, and communication preferences).


4. Celebrate milestones and achievements together: Recognize and celebrate both small and more significant accomplishments. This positive reinforcement creates a feedback loop that boosts motivation and engagement.



Challenge 2: Effective Communication and Coordination

Effective communication is crucial in any leadership role, but it becomes even more complex with volunteer teams. Volunteers come from diverse backgrounds, have varied schedules, and different communication preferences*, making coordination a greater challenge.


Strategies to Overcome This Challenge:

1. Establish clear communication channels: Implement standardized methods for sharing information and gathering input. Ensure that every volunteer can easily access and contribute to discussions.


2. Leverage technology: Utilize technology to streamline communication processes. Tools like group chats, forums, and virtual meetings can bridge the gap created by different schedules and preferences.


3. Tailor communication strategies: Adapt communication methods to accommodate diverse preferences*, whether through real-time meetings or via email and chat groups. Remember, not every team member will have the same communication strengths or preferences as you. (They see the world differently to you). 


4. Prioritize active listening: Build a culture where volunteers feel heard and valued. Active listening strengthens the human connection and enhances trust, collaboration, and morale.


5. Reflect and Improve: Regularly assess the effectiveness of your communication and seek feedback. This self-awareness helps in identifying areas for improvement and ensuring all team members are well-connected. As part of healthy self-leadership, it's essential to reflect on your communication's effectiveness regularly. Seek input from your team to highlight areas for improvement, as you may connect better with some individuals than others without realizing it. Leading multiple volunteer teams through various challenges has helped me continually develop my leadership, communication, and emotional intelligence, and this is an ongoing activity for me.



Challenge 3: Leadership Development and Succession Planning

Leadership turnover is inevitable, and volunteer-led organizations are particularly vulnerable to gaps in leadership continuity. Without effective succession planning, the departure of key leaders can disrupt operations and hinder progress.

Strategies to Overcome This Challenge:

1. Proactive succession planning: Identify and nurture emerging leaders within the volunteer team. Provide them with opportunities for growth and leadership development.


2. Encourage continuous learning: Implement a culture of continuous learning and growth. Empower volunteers to take on more responsibility / leadership roles and support them in their development journey.


3. Document processes: Maintain detailed documentation of processes and the rationale behind them. What you do AND why you do those things. This ensures smooth transitions and operational continuity during leadership changes.


4. Champion ownership and accountability: Instil a sense of ownership and accountability among team members to highlight the importance of healthy self-leadership, and how their actions influence the team (positively or negatively).  Also encourage them to take collective responsibility for nurturing future leaders.


Over to YOU!

I believe in your ability and potential to follow these strategies and enhance the experiences of the volunteers you lead, AND their effectiveness.

Leading volunteers requires a flexible approach that acknowledges and addresses the unique challenges of volunteer management. By prioritizing motivation and engagement, enhancing communication and coordination, and investing in leadership development and succession planning, you can effectively navigate these challenges and foster a thriving volunteer community.

In doing so, you ensure the ongoing success of your organization’s mission and enhance the fulfilment shared among your team. 

This requires consistent intentionality and effort on your part as a leader, but the rewards are well worth it.


Why settle for a mediocre performing team when, with deliberate and strategic focus, you can empower them to excel?



Effective team leadership starts with you. Developing healthy teams is one of the benefits of successful self-leadership. To learn more about this, read my book, 'YOU Lead You - Self-Leadership Instead of Self-Sabotage'.



To explore your team members’ instinctive personality traits and communication preferences order the DISC Personality Assessment HERE or contact me to discuss this .






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