leading volunteer teams

Leading Volunteer Teams for Increased Productivity

Whether you’re working with a volunteer-led advisory group, a task force, an event planning committee, or a governing board, when leading volunteer teams of any kind, you want to be set for success.

Investing in team capacity building now can help you not only offer opportunities to new leaders but also sustain the growth of your leadership over the long run.

The outcome of successfully leading volunteer teams results in a self-perpetuating cycle — the more successful teams are, the more likely they will want to help out next time. And, each time volunteers are involved in teams, the better they get at it.

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5 Volunteer Team Productivity Accelerators

In her book, Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, leadership expert Christine Comaford outlines five key elements that help build trust and propel teams toward success. These approaches can also help your volunteer teams succeed and work more independently.

1. Maintain Focus

Encourage everyone to be fully present during their designated time together. Ask questions instead of making statements to foster mindfulness. Set up regular rituals that kick off the meeting and help the team transition to the business at hand.

Eliminate distractions by setting ground rules (e.g. no checking smart phones during meetings) and encourage candid conversations about what’s really happening, without wishful thinking.

Finally, when leading volunteer teams help them hone in on the most important work by offering a method for prioritizing tasks.

2. Reinforce Open Communication

When leading volunteer teams, encourage them to be as clear as possible in both their communications and their intentions. One way to create a safe space for candid discussions is to set ground rules and by “walking the talk” as a leader. Practice compassionate, transparent dialog and don’t shy away from problems when they arise.

Share a compelling vision and co-produce a plan with the team. Answer the questions — Where are we now? Where are we headed? How will we get there? Describe the ultimate goal and allow volunteers to create the roadmap and choose the route.

3. Set Up Accountability Systems

In addition to sharing a vision, be sure to clearly define and communicate the expectations for the team. What does success look like? What specific outcomes will be produced by the team? These might be improved processes, digital assets, a report, or any end result the team will generate. If there is a specific outcome goal, offer it as a range (e.g., increase customer satisfaction scores by 20%, at minimum by 10%, 30% would be a stellar achievement).

Make sure volunteer teams have agreed using a project charter or “owners’ agreement” that everyone signs. Research shows that signing a document has real impacts on future behavior.

Finally, set up a regular reporting schedule for the volunteer team you’re leading, and conduct “pulse checks” to stay informed on progress and concerns. These meetings don’t have to be long and drawn out — you can conduct them quickly, even while standing up.

4. Increase Your Influence Through Rapport

Build rapport with the team by mirroring the positive behaviors they demonstrate. This shows that, even though you are leading the volunteer team, you are also cued in and understand their culture and dynamics.  

Also, be ready to step outside your comfort zone. Judiciously increase your self-disclosure and don’t be afraid to admit mistakes or failures, current or past. This makes you appear more approachable and will lead to greater trust and influence.

5. Set Everyone Up to Generate Sustainable Results

Make sure your requests when leading volunteer teams are realistic, given their current expressed level of commitment. You can no longer ethically self-sacrifice or ask volunteers to follow suit. Burnout is real and should be prevented.

Also, ask volunteers to commit to only one project at a time, rather than overburdening the most productive people with too many tasks. Encourage volunteers to take small breaks to bond, rest the brain, and refocus energy.  

Also, help volunteer teams become more efficient by providing templates for all project-related documents and suggest other time-saving tools and processes that might help.

Many hands make light work, and multi-talented volunteers, working in collaboration, are simply unstoppable. If you’ve suffered from lackluster results from volunteer teams, take a step back and assess whether or not you’ve set the table for success. If not, try some of the recommendations above and watch your projects gain momentum and soar.