As our organizations and work become increasingly complex, we are called upon to find new ways to inspire volunteer leadership. Volunteer leaders can no doubt take organizations to new levels, but only if they are given the space to do so.
Social science research offers some insights into both the individual characteristics that promote successful volunteer leadership and what the organization can do to provide a context for that leadership to flourish.
4 Findings on Volunteer Leadership
A research study on leadership in volunteer-led associations noted correlations between an increase in volunteer hours contributed by Sierra Club members and individual and organizational characteristics. Below are four of their key findings and some key takeaways for those who lead volunteer leaders.
1. Leaders with more applicable skills, available time, and aligned motivations tend to be more committed leaders. Not surprisingly, those who work full-time are less likely to contribute time as well as those who are intrinsically motivated.
Implications for Practice: Purposefully recruiting and involving volunteers who have sufficient time to devote to leadership roles is a clear takeaway. In addition, matching volunteers with roles that appropriately leverage their skills is critical. It may also help to identify emerging leaders early on.
2. The number of trainings leaders participate in has the single largest effect on behavioral commitment. Skills development helps volunteers build the capacity and inclination to lead. Enthusiastic participation in training might also be a key indicator of interest and potential.
Implications for Practice: Helping volunteers develop leadership skills and models for collaboration can go a long way in helping them succeed. Creating a leadership pathway, with associated training, may help potential leaders step up with more confidence.
3. Members who devote a smaller share of their time to meetings are more committed. When volunteers are bogged down by meetings that aren’t well-run and waste time, it may have an effect on their efficiency overall and thus their level of engagement.
Implications for Practice: Offering both volunteers and paid staff members support and tools to run effective, action-based meetings may help them better move through information. This might include decision making models, timed agendas, etc.. In addition, reducing or eliminating meetings that are unnecessary (e.g., where info could be as easily shared through email or other communications), can free volunteers up for more critical leadership tasks.
4. Finally, teams that operate more interdependently and share work more equally, tend to give more time to the organization. According to researchers, working independently may make it harder for individuals to “free-ride,” interdependence may generate greater trust, and interdependence may strengthen the bonds between team members.
Implications for Practice: Volunteer leadership is clearly a team sport, so setting up groups to address key organizational or mission-centered issues will be key to increasing volunteer leadership. An investment in team capacity building can also help staff leaders “let go” of control and delegate greater responsibility to volunteers.
So, why are some leaders more committed than others? The answer is two-fold — 1) individuals with certain personal characteristics are more committed, and 2) the right organizational support and context can influence leadership potential. So, the onus is on volunteer coordinators to find community members with the time and potential for leadership.