How to Lead Volunteers

how to lead volunteers

Leading volunteers is vastly different than being a boss at work. It really is challenging to know how to lead volunteers. Instead of giving orders, you need to use persuasion instead.

If you have led a volunteer organization, then you’ll be able to sympathize with others who have. I have volunteered for several positions at my church to better my leadership experiences. Here are three things you need to know to lead a volunteer organization.

Ask For Help; People Will Come

It may be the same people every time, but they’ll come. Human beings are hard-wired to serve because we want to feel useful. There’s a purpose to live when you extend to others an invitation to serve. You’re allowing people to help one another.

On several occasions, I have asked people to help others move, participate in park clean-ups, and donate canned goods and packaged products for food banks. Frequently, I’m there to chip in alongside these good people who chose to serve.

Despite the good you do, it can be discouraging when only a few people show up to a project that requires many to accomplish. However, your task is to manage the resources you have, people included, to best achieve the task.

Here’s how to manage your resources:

1. Ask how many it takes to do a job on your list.

2. Ask what equipment/resources you need to get each job done.

3. Prioritize your list.

4. Make a shift rotation for longer jobs

This list is challenging. But, when you’re working with volunteer schedules, resources, and attitudes, you have to manage your own expectations about what gets done. This makes your job a little harder, but it’ll keep your volunteers well-informed if you do it right.

“When you can lead volunteers well, you can lead almost anyone.” John C. Maxwell, The Complete 101 Collection

Clearly Explain Your Vision

One of my Army bosses put unit us leaders into a room to design a vision statement for the unit. It was tedious and laborious, but it was worth it in the end. Finally, the group started to buy-into the vision statement and work more effectively.

Similarly, you can share your vision with your volunteers. People are inspired by leaders who have a vision, however great or small. It allows individuals to shape their opinions and life tasks to contribute to a worthy cause. You don’t have to go through a week-long seminar to understand your vision, but you have to share it through your actions, thoughts, and conversations with your volunteers.

If you want a useful resource for creating your vision, I recommend Start with Why by Simon Sinek or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R. Covey. These are the two of the best thinkers on leadership.

When I have to make a vision statement or develop a mission plan, I ask myself a series of questions. I ask myself:

1. What makes you jump out of bed in the morning?

2. What do you believe in?

3. Why do I believe in this cause?

Next, write that down and share it with others and why it’s important to you. Inevitably, someone else will be inspired by what you said or did, which will inspire others to act as well.

Not Everyone Wants to Participate, and That’s OK

The hardest thing to remember is that you’re not going to inspire everyone. You have to be content with that. Remember, not even Martin Luther King Jr. converted everyone to his way of thinking, nor Joan of Arc, nor General Robert E. Lee, nor Abraham Lincoln, and the list goes on. If they couldn’t get everyone to participate, then take comfort in your abilities to work with those who have chosen to volunteer.

Rejection is part of being in charge of a volunteer group. You’ll even face rejection from within your group, and that’s OK. That’s how a group blossoms into something more significant. Talk to the people in your organization and see how you can make it better.

Learn From Mistakes

The best way to learn from your mistakes is to review your work. Here’s how I do it:

1. What was my mission?

2. What did we do well before the event? What can we improve on for planning and resource gathering?

3. What did we do well during the event? What can we improve on during the event?

4. What did we do well after the event? What can we improve on after the event?

It seems redundant, but this will save you in the future when you plan similar events. You learn from each experience and apply it to the future. Many volunteer organizations (and working organizations) do not take the time to review themselves objectively. You find problems and develop solutions quicker, maintain things you do well, and refine your administrative processes to create a capable team.

The ones you need to pay attention to are those who fully contribute to your organization. Critics and complainers will always find something to gripe about, so don’t waste your time with them. Instead, focus on building up your area and take relevant criticism to heart when needed.


There’s a reason why volunteer organizations are some of the most challenging places to lead. You’re operating with an unstable workforce coupled with significant responsibilities. Despite this, your vision means everything to your volunteers. So make it known.

Volunteer organizations are the lifeblood of society and contribute to a variety of global solutions. You just need the vision to make it happen!

Have you ever led a volunteer organization? What are some issues you ran into? Let me know in the comment section below.

Books Mentioned

The Complete 101 Collection by John C. Maxwell. Read a review here.

Start with Why by Simon Sinek. Read a review here.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.

Photo Credit

Featured Image: KindelMedia

Images 1-3: Rodnae Productions

Image 4: Lagos Food Bank


8 thoughts on “How to Lead Volunteers”

  1. Hi! Thank you very much for sharing your experience in this respect. Yeah, being a boss at work is completely different from leading volunteers.

    One of the most important points is asking for help. People have already identified themselves with the cause. So joining a group that has clear goals in relationship to that cause is a natural step. And leaders should never miss that, that those volunteers are following the cause, not him.

    1. Paolo,

      You’re right! We need to ask for help. We thrive on teamwork. Making that cause known will inspire others in return. I appreciate your comment!


  2. Thank you for your post. It is useful for me. I am going to lead volunteer work in our local community. Your article give me the useful advice.

    I did some initial work and find that not everyone want to participate. Even though some people already sign up for the service, they never show up fort the assigned work. I agree with you that it is impossible to inspire everyone. I realize that I have to be content with the reality. 

    I like your description on the best way to learn from your mistakes is to review your work. Have thorough review the entire event: what did we do well and what can we improve …

    You provide nice guidelines for me to carry our future volunteer work.

    1. Anthony,

      That’s exciting you’re going to do volunteer work in your community. What projects will you be working on in your community? I’m glad the article provided some useful advice. Thank you for your comment!


  3. Hello Robert,                                                                                May 24, 2020.

    Your website is quite different from the many at WA reviewing various products.

    I found it most enjoyable and refreshing from a volunteer perspective. I too have volunteered with the last position being at my local hospital.

    I really enjoyed your blog on history and leadership. It was a fascinating read and made me think about the different types of leaders. Good and bad.

    Professional development is so important and much more so today than it was 40 years ago.

    I have bookmarked your website so I can continue reading your articles in the future.


    David Cartwright

    1. David,

      Thank you for your kind words! History can teach us a lot about leadership and it’s interesting to know how we can apply those lessons from the past too. Volunteering and leading is a whole different style as well. Thank you for your comment!


  4. leading in voluntary organization can be difficult, there is a tendency that employees will not fully utilise your potentials in carrying out their delegated duties because it’s in such organizations as one that isnobody’s and as such are free to do whatever that pleases them…as a leader in such an organization if you could do little or no with the power vested upon you on as leading employees to carry out their duties…

    1. Evan,

      It can be difficult to lead volunteers for sure. Like what you said, employees have their own interests. The leader’s job is to synchronize those interests together for the good of the organization. Thank you for your comment!


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