Nonprofit Volunteer Manager: Lead From Where You are at

Leading From the Middle: What every volunteer manager ought to know

Picture a leader in your mind. Any leader.

What kinds of things does the leader do? When does the leader do them?

What does the leader say? How does the leader say them?

What does the leader look like?

Does the leader look like you?

In the case of many leaders of volunteers, we tend to focus on the “volunteers” part of the phrase and overlook the “leader” piece. Is it because we aren’t often at the top of the organizational chart? Maybe since our work is externally-focused, our own value gets lost.

Or, maybe this is an area that, as a profession, we can do better ourselves.

Are you leading? Not just your volunteers. Are you leading from within your organization?

When you aren’t the key decision maker in your organization, it may be tempting to equate that with permanent follower status. But what lean agencies need is leadership throughout. On the part of organizations, this requires a potential shift from individual-focused leadership to a more collective approach. This is big-picture strategy and thinking and likely beyond the scope of any single team member.

Fortunately, leadership is not solely defined by org charts and strategic plans. Regardless of whether your organization embraces a collective leadership approach, you have space to lead right from where you are.

John Maxwell famously talks about leading from where you are. This involves owning and developing your influence to lead wherever it is needed – across your organization, up to your formal leadership, and down through your team or volunteers.

Nonprofit Volunteer Manager Lead From Where You are at

When thinking about building your own leadership chops, Maxwell is always a great place to start, but where to go from there? This week’s blog includes four field-tested leadership development ideas that you can work on, no matter where your position sits within your organization.

None require your boss’ approval, only yours. Your leadership potential is all up to you. These are tools that you, as a leader in the middle, may find useful in shaping your work, your style, and your influence, regardless of your title.


4 Leadership Philosophies for the Volunteer Manager

Reality Based Leadership – Cy Wakeman studies workplace drama – what causes it, how we inadvertently feed it, and how to root it out. She estimates that the average worker spends 2 hours a day invested in workplace drama, to the detriment of the work, the mission, the organization and, ultimately, the individual.

We’ve all dealt with workplace drama (and if we’re honest, we’ve all also probably been involved in some of it). The emphasis in Reality-Based Leadership is in owning your own stuff and controlling what you can. This means checking one’s ego at the door and focusing on what you can really know to be true (reality) instead of the story you may be telling yourself (ego, drama). This approach gives you tools for the next time your boss makes a decision you don’t understand, or your co-worker seems to dismiss your work. Skip over the assumption of disrespect or harm and head straight to what you can control to avoid this feeling again. The effect of rooting out drama has the double impact of making you more productive and boosting your position as a leader from within. Definitely worth checking out if you ever feel misunderstood or undervalued in your work.

Nonprofit Volunteer Manager: Lead From Where You are at

Emotional Intelligence – This is an area you’ve probably heard people talking about as a polarized world has increased calls for empathy. Having emotional intelligence boils down to exercising a level of awareness and control relating to feelings – yours and those of others. Workplaces, especially those in the nonprofit and governmental sectors, need these skills throughout their staff, especially among team members who interface directly with the public.

There are several authors on this topic, some focusing more on the psychology and understanding of emotional intelligence, and others more on exercising and improving it. Both will serve you in a volunteer management role as leadership in all directions is kind of the name of your game. Understanding the feelings of your co-workers, boss, team, and volunteers takes a lot of emotional intelligence. Understanding your own feelings in response to those and the myriad other external factors that interplay with your role can be exhausting. But, growing and exercising your emotional intelligence is imperative to establishing yourself as a professional in your organization and on your team.

Strengths-Based Leadership – You know what I love about Strengths-Based Leadership? It boils down to focusing on what you’re really good at. For example, if you’re a whiz in math, don’t go beating yourself up over not having memorized half of Shakespeare’s body of work. Be really good at math! Put another way, if you are truly inefficient and lousy at data entry, let’s not spend countless hours trying to make you good at it. Find another way! How freeing is that?

Before we get too excited, we all must accept that there are just cruddy parts of every job.  (Yes, even your boss has cruddy parts in their job.) Strengths-Based Leadership isn’t saying you get to shirk those responsibilities because you don’t like them. Instead, it might suggest that you find more efficient ways to resource those responsibilities. Lucky for you, your very job is to find resources for all kinds of jobs in your organization. Knowing your strengths may very well help you define some of your organization’s volunteer roles. Additionally, going through the Strengths-Based exercises will give you an appreciation for the strengths of others on your team and where they also might need help from volunteers. If you become the volunteer manager who can assess the needs of your team members before they can, you are definitely positioning yourself as a leader from within. Or the one with a magic crystal ball. Whatever 😉

Nonprofit Volunteer Manager: Lead From Where You are at

Your crystal ball of volunteer manager fame and glory.

Essentialism – This is not specifically a leadership theory, but in the chaotic world of nonprofits and the further chaotic spaces inhabited by volunteer coordinators, it’s a vital approach to consider. We know that yours is a role that repeatedly gets tossed new responsibilities, sometimes without consideration for how it will impact the time you have available. Essentialism, “the disciplined pursuit of less,” gives you the tools to critically think through what’s really important. You may not always be able to make prioritizing decisions as responsibilities are handed to you by a supervisor, but there are still plenty of things that are under your control. Using essentialism can help you make way for some of the unpredictable stuff that comes your way, without stretching you too thin.

Given our sector, I’d highly recommend studying this set of techniques with your organization’s strategic plan nearby. If you’ve done a strategic plan for your volunteer management program, have that with you too. Carefully looking at both your obligations and what is truly essential for meeting your org’s mission and strategic plan gives you two key tools. 1. You’re being a leader when you’re using the strategic tools of the organization to shape your decisions. 2. You know exactly where your time goes and is needed, so when the next random request comes in, you can have a polite and honest discussion about what other items on your responsibilities list should take a back seat in order to complete the new. This is advocating for you and your position from a leadership mindset.


Lead From Where You Are, Volunteer Manager

This is far from a comprehensive list, but hopefully a good starting point if you’re looking to firm up your leadership skills and perception. Leadership work is often focused at the top of an organization chart, but its leadership from within that is driving today’s nimble and successful agencies.

Embrace the leadership that is inherent in your role. Establish it if it’s not already accepted in your organization. Hone your skills and demonstrate the respect that you desire for your position. Read and read. And then square your shoulders and lead.

I expect that the next time someone asks you to imagine a leader, it will be yourself that you picture.

Nonprofit Volunteer Manager: Lead From Where You are at