Best Practices for Engaging Volunteer Leaders

Posted Wednesday, June 2nd, 2021 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

Engaging volunteer leaders offers you the opportunity to move from “doing it all” to “getting it done” at your nonprofit organization. In fact, by modeling the change you want to see, you empower volunteers to lead teams, projects and initiatives, and free up paid staff to do the work for which they are uniquely qualified.

In a recent webinar, which is now available on-demand, nonprofit expert Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, shared strategies and helpful tools for engaging volunteer leaders. She outlined how to articulate the benefits of engaging volunteer leaders; assess needs to identify new potential leader positions; identify traits of potential leaders; and reflect on the benefits and barriers to effective delegation.

Leadership can mean many things, so you will want to consider the various leadership roles a volunteer can assume at your organization. Think about their leading teams including committees, projects, initiatives, groups of other volunteers, and more.

Why Engage Volunteer Leaders?

Volunteer leaders can increase your organization’s capacity, relieve staff members’ workloads, build meaningful relationships with other volunteers, and bring new skills and perspectives to your organization.

An example that helps put the effect of engaging volunteers for leadership into perspective is from Home Health and Hospice Care and their specially trained vigil volunteers that provide presence and comfort to actively dying patients. A Volunteer Coordinator describes, “Before we had Vigil Team Leaders, I was challenged by the prospect of scaling our volunteer program and the services we provide. Engaging Vigil Team Leaders has been a light at the end of the tunnel. If I didn’t have this option of leadership volunteers, then I would not have been able to do my job.”

For more details on this case study, download the eToolkit Engaging Volunteer Leaders which also offers six useful tools for needs assessment and building plans.

Engaging Leaders in the Volunteer Lifecycle

Engaging volunteers in any role should involve assessing needs, writing position descriptions, thoughtful recruiting and screening, equipping volunteers for success, and measuring and celebrating volunteer impact. But engaging volunteers as leaders can pose some additional challenges within the volunteer lifecycle.

Effectively empowering volunteers as leaders may require overcoming resistance from colleagues, more thoughtful work planning, garnering sufficient resources to train and support volunteer leaders, honing delegation skills, and investing in their leadership development.

The topics and tools featured in our new eToolkit are designed to enhance existing volunteer engagement practices. When seeking to utilize the potential of volunteer leaders, these tools will help you:

  • Advocate for volunteer leaders by reducing barriers
  • Identify needs and plan the work
  • Delegate the work and support volunteer leaders to success
  • Develop current and future leader

Advocating for Engaging Volunteer Leaders

Volunteer leaders can build the capacity of staff throughout an organization, but many professionals are reluctant to empower volunteer leaders and uncomfortable delegating responsibilities. Effectively advocating for volunteer leadership requires not only an ability to articulate the benefits of engaging volunteer leaders but also understanding what gets in the way of delegating.

Staff reluctance to delegation can stem from multiple sources, including:

  • Lack of skills to effectively delegate
  • Fear of being replaced by volunteers
  • Resistance to changing how work gets done
  • Reluctance to give up control over the work
  • Past experiences that did not go well
  • Lack of trust in volunteers’ ability to be successful

Complete the Building Support for Engaging Volunteer Leaders tool in the eToolkit to help you advocate and inspire colleagues to engage volunteer leaders in their work. Also, think about how the volunteer’s and organization’s perspectives differ. You will want to consider what tends to get in the way when engaging volunteer leaders. Understanding the concerns that underlie these barriers will help you inspire others to overcome obstacles to delegation.

Identifying Needs and Planning the Work

Building support for engaging volunteer leaders sets the stage for successful volunteer leadership but ensuring that the role addresses a true organizational need and planning the work is equally vital. Whether leading a team or a project, volunteer leadership should be deployed toward a purpose that is authentic and pressing.

To help you identify needs that volunteer leaders can address, you should:

  • Review strategic plans to identify organizational priorities
  • Assess internal processes to identify gaps that a volunteer may be able to close
  • Have staff review departmental and personal action plans to identify areas where success is constrained by capacity
  • Consider which programs or initiatives the organization wishes to expand or replicate

Before confirming the project or need for volunteer leadership, try the Checklist to Assess Needs and Readiness to ensure the leadership role will be strategic, appealing to prospective volunteers, and sufficiently supported.

Once you have a list of possible needs, then assess whether the need is appropriate, and the organization is ready to engage volunteers as leaders. Next, develop a detailed work plan to guide the effort.

Delegating Work and Supporting Leaders

Once you have built support for engaging volunteer leaders and crafted a work plan, it is time to cultivate a leader. As with any recruitment effort, you can look externally and recruit from the community at large, or you can look internally for an emerging leader. Along with standard recruitment strategies of online search engines, tapping social media networks, and peer-to-peer recruitment, consider who among your current volunteers may be ready to move up and take on more responsibility.

Volunteers who are ready to move up, display behaviors that often:

  • Express aspirations
  • Take initiative
  • Ask great questions
  • Offer solutions
  • Problem-solve well
  • Follow through
  • Care about meeting and evaluating results
  • Take on progressive responsibility
  • Improve after feedback

Is it Time to Delegate?

It’s time to consider developing your delegation skills when you feel like you’re rowing alone, working late, and touching every decision, or If you’re constantly bombarded with questions and your team feels as though you don’t trust them.

Delegation does not come naturally, but it’s worth it. A few main reasons people resist delegating, includes insecurity, desire for control, lack of training, lack of clarity or perspective, overprotection, and history. However, effective delegation means setting clear expectations around who has authority for each element of the work. For any volunteer-led initiative, the staff and volunteer leader should agree upon the intended results.

Effective delegation also involves clearly communicating levels of authority. Breakdowns in delegation usually can be traced to lack of clarity around such details as level of authority. When engaging a volunteer leader, determine the delegation level and communicate with the volunteer leader so that everyone understands and agrees.

Consider these levels of delegation:

  • Level 1: Follow my instructions. Make it clear that your directions need to be followed as given.
  • Level 2: Gather information and report. Assign volunteers to gather information and report on findings. Make it clear that you will discuss the findings, but the decision is up to you.
  • Level 3: Investigate and make recommendations. Assign research and request a report with recommendations. You will still need to approve actions moving forward.
  • Level 4: Authority to decide. Grant decision-making authority to the volunteer leader, while being clear that you still expect to be kept informed.
  • Level 5: Authority to act independently. Authorize the volunteer to do whatever they think is best without the expectation that they will report back.

There is a specific tool to help you zero in on the level that is appropriate and help you determine and communicate the delegation level your tasks require.

How do I Support Volunteer Leaders?

While delegation involves empowering others to get work done, such empowerment does not mean a lack of support. We can–and should–delegate authority to volunteer leaders while also supporting them. Check out the Support Plan to ensure each volunteer leader has a designated support person and that this support person has time set aside to communicate, nurture accountability, help problem solve as needed, and recognize the volunteer and team along the way. Be sure to ask yourself:

  • What training is needed? What gaps in knowledge or skill will impede success?
  • Whose support is needed? Who is the primary contact? When will you meet/communicate?
  • What communications are needed to the team? Do others understand the role of the leader?
  • How will success be defined? Do the leaders know if/when they are successful?

Individual Volunteer Plans

Volunteer leadership is a capacity building strategy. To sustain the strategy, organizations must invest in volunteer leaders through training and development. Such support demonstrates to volunteers that the organization values their unique skills and commitment. In turn, volunteers are more likely to remain dedicated to the organization.

Individualized support tailored to personal aspirations and needs can transform an emerging leader into a competent leader–and can elevate a current leader into a deeply committed one. The Individual Volunteer Plan is a practical, collaborative tool designed to facilitate conversation between volunteers and staff partners about pathways to leadership. By working through the tool together, staff and volunteers:

  • Assess the volunteer’s current competencies
  • Explore areas for growth
  • Identify opportunities for training, mentoring, and coaching
  • Commit to providing training and new leadership responsibilities
  • Schedule a time to reevaluate and update the plan
  • Celebrate the value of volunteer contributions

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more, watch the “Engaging Volunteer Leaders” webinar. In addition, download the “Engaging Volunteer Leaders: Going from Doing it All to Getting it Done” eToolkit here.

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The information contained herein is for informational purposes only. Sterling is not a law firm, and none of the information contained in this notice is intended as legal advice. Clients are encouraged to consult with their legal counsel about the impacts of any requirements. This, and other important information can be found on the Sterling website at