Why don’t volunteers follow through?

Golf Swing

How is volunteer management like golf? It’s all about the follow through.
 (Photo credit: gibsonsgolfer)

I’ve asked myself this question more times than I can count.

Sometimes I ask it as a manager who works with dedicated volunteers–all of whom seem completely confident in their ability to live up to a commitment one moment and many of whom are absolutely “too busy” to follow through the next.

Sometimes I ask it as a volunteer who enthusiastically agrees to work in one meeting–only to sheepishly admit in the next meeting that the work is (still) not finished (or sometimes–started).

One very enthusiastic and capable volunteer explained this phenomena from her perspective in a way I’ll never forget.

She noticed that while she was sitting in the volunteer committee meeting she was very motivated to take care of the part of the project to which she committed.

But once she got back to her office to start working, she discovered the task that seemed straight forward in the meeting was actually somewhat complicated.  She needed information she didn’t have, or was faced with a judgement call she didn’t feel qualified to make.  In other words, the task required quite a bit more time and energy to complete than she had anticipated.

All the while, the piles of work she knew how to do–and that she was being paid to do–were staring her in the face.  So, she set the volunteer task aside and went back to doing her regular job.  Before she knew it a month had passed and her volunteer task was left unfinished.

What can be done?

The first step is for all of us to stop blaming each other.  The work we are trying to do would be challenging even if everyone who believed in our cause could devote their full-time attention to it.  By remembering that all of your volunteers and most of your staff members are juggling multiple commitments, it is easier to be gentle with others (and ourselves) when things don’t go as planned.

In addition to compassion, these practical steps can lead to more successful volunteer led projects.

Assign the right work to volunteers

Volunteer effort is best spent on work that can be done in discrete chunks of time.  That’s why a volunteer who seems so great in a committee meeting or at the annual gala sometimes struggles with work that requires bursts of self-directed individual effort between meetings.

If your organization can eliminate the need for volunteers to work in the more difficult self-directed way many of your struggles will disappear.*

Work the details out together

Another road block for volunteers is that work that seems easy when it’s assigned, turns out to be more complicated in practice.  Often that’s because we try to “save time” in meetings by glossing over the details and asking volunteers to just “work it out later.”  If instead you dedicate meeting time to making sure your whole team works together to uncover and solve as many of those “complications” as possible, you’ll find that the extra meeting time saves you months of “sorry, I’ve not gotten to that yet.”

Allow more time

When you work with volunteers you essentially trade spending money for spending time.  Often it’s a good trade, but expecting a volunteer committee to work as efficiently as even one staff member is crazy talk.

To compensate, create a well padded timeline for your volunteer driven projects.

Then double it.

Make Sharing Easy

If you’ve ever had a volunteer go silent in the middle of a big project you know what a double whammy that situation can create.  Not only is the  volunteer unable to complete the work to which she committed, but because she has sole access to the work that had been done so far,  it is also difficult for others to pick up the slack.

This problem can be all but eliminated by ensuring that everything volunteers need to do their work is stored in a shared space.  Keep spreadsheets, meeting minutes, photos, documents–every piece of electronic data that is required to manage a project– in a cloud-based system like Dropbox or Google Drive.  Then when a volunteer (or even a staff member) gets hit by the proverbial bus, the rest of the team can pick up the pieces (of the project).

Your Turn

Fess up!  If you are either a volunteer or volunteer manager, I want to hear from you.  Share your volunteer success stories and train wrecks in the comments below.

*Stop laughing.

5 thoughts on “Why don’t volunteers follow through?

  1. One other tip I have found useful, both as a volunteer and as a volunteer manager: Team up volunteers.

    In my experience, volunteering is a lot like going to the gym, it is easier to show up (which is really half the challenge) when you have a commitment to one or more partners. That personal commitment to meet with people you know at a specified time can often be a far stronger pull than the knowledge that one has a piece of volunteer work to do. Plus, working in teams has the added benefit of bringing more minds and bodies together to get the work done (and as a roommate of mine was fond of saying, “many hands make light work”).

  2. That’s a great tip, J. Thanks for sharing! The other benefit of working in groups is while one person working on their own might misunderstand the task they were given and take on to much (or to little) responsibility, the shared memory of 3-4 people is much more likely to be accurate.

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