Herding Cats with Volunteers

During the 2000, Super Bowl, Budweiser produced a commercial featuring rugged cowboys herding cats.  It was a hilarious look at the tough-man image contrasted with cute and dainty cats.  The funny point was the old joke about how futile it is to herd cats.  For those of us who have had the privilege of leading volunteers, it might be a pretty valid comparison; leading volunteers and herding cats seems to have about the same likelihood of success.  For sure, leading volunteers can stretch one’s leadership muscle, but a few hints might help us all lead volunteers well, and give us some great insights into leading both volunteers and non-volunteers alike.

If you are used to leading employees, or people who rely on a paycheque, this is a very different world.  Leading volunteers will force you to use a variety of skills, but raw authority isn’t something that works well here.  In fact, it doesn’t really work in the workplace either, but that’s another story.

Rather than simply having the authority to direct people, leading volunteers counts on several underlying factors.

Make sure the mission and vision of your organization is compelling and effective.  People are drawn to many causes, and the more effective your organization is the more invested volunteers are likely to be.  Whether animal rescue, assistance for the homeless, or contributing positively to the environment, manage the vision so that volunteers are enthralled with accomplishing it.

Every role is a vision-critical role. Volunteers are joining your team because they love the vision of what you are trying to accomplish, so make sure everything you ask them to do is a role that counts for the vision.  Volunteers are surprisingly robust and willing, and sometimes the tasks we ask volunteers to do are less than glorious.  So, if you are relying on a volunteer to do behind the scenes work, make sure they understand how their role contributes to the vision of the organization.  Someone who volunteers to vacuum the office space contributes significantly to a warm and welcoming environment for clients and guests who benefit from what you and your team offer.

Think community first, and task second.  While you are going to rely on volunteers to accomplish things, don’t make tasks the main thing.  Give volunteers opportunities to connect with each other and build community.  This gives a higher purpose to the volunteer experience and provides true strength to the whole team.

Volunteers thrive on being needed and known.  So, get to know them, and let them know they are vital to the mission.  The combination of these two powerful ideas will keep volunteers coming back time and time again for more positive experiences with your team and the cause.

Don’t be cheap with affirmation!  Let them know their efforts are appreciated and let them know how they have contributed to the vision.  Tell great success stories of life change and wins for the organization.  Knowing they are appreciated and have contributed to success will give them boundless energy to come back.  It means they own their part of the vision, and knowing they contribute is fuel in their tanks.

So grab some volunteers and herd some cats, it’s not as hard as they say!