Six Principles for Harnessing Volunteers' Talents

Author Bruce Tulgan (Winning the Talent Wars) asserts, “In the new economy, the best people are the most likely to leave. Why? Because they can.” Perhaps this is why management guru Tom Peters says we must be obsessive about P.O.T., the Pursuit of Talent. While Tulgan and Peters are both talking about paid staff in the new economy, associations and other organizations would be wise to note the relevance of their thinking for recruiting, developing, and rewarding volunteers. When competing for volunteer time and talent, organizations need to have compelling value propositions to offer. 

We are told this is the era of Me Inc., the Brand You, the Free Agent Nation, a time when everyone is taking his/her personal portfolio of talent and auctioning it to the highest bidder. Volunteers, however, have always been free agents. Organizations have never been able to hold volunteers hostage as corporations hold employees with their stock options, vested pensions, and so forth.

Sure some volunteers in the past “toughed it out” in unfulfilling positions, because they were the generally accepted stepping-stones to more significant leadership roles. But volunteers have always been free to walk. The difference now is more and more of them may be doing just that, taking their talent portfolio to volunteer opportunities (and organizations) they find meaningful, challenging, and rewarding.

So how do organizations attract and reward talent-rich volunteers in this age of Me, Inc.? Tulgan offers "a new set of organizing principles for employing people in the new economy." These principles appear below along with my commentary on their relevance to volunteers as opposed to employees. 

Talent is the show. 
Talent is the show when it comes to volunteers. Organizations need their talent, and volunteers are looking to further develop and/or share theirs. You would be well served to revise your recruitment brochures and methods to focus on recruiting talent regardless of an individual's age, tenure, and so forth. Learn what talents people can share and what talents they can teach others. Then match them with the work to be done. 

Staff the work, not the jobs. 
Spend less time monkeying with the organizational chart. Identify the work you hope to have volunteers do, find individuals whose talents match the work, and then create the structure to get the work done. A few talent-rich people with lots of time could fill what you might now list as multiple leadership positions. The work matters, not the positions. Structure should never be an end in and of itself. It exists only to facilitate the work being done and should be changed freely as needed. 

Pay for performance and nothing else. 
We need to break the practice of rewarding volunteers just for showing up. If volunteers do not see serving the organization and its mission as a privilege instead of a right, you need to help reframe their thinking. Volunteers who do nothing more than take up space should be cordially invited to the door. Organizations need clear performance standards for volunteers, and these should be articulated as people join your team. Reward results and performance … nothing else! Make results the criteria for more prestigious positions in your organization, not simply lengthy do-nothing tenure. 

Turn managers into coaches. 
If you have recruited for talent and provided an appropriate overview and training, your volunteers now need coaching. Being micro-managed is one of the many pet peeves of volunteers (ironic that this is a frustration shared by staff). If I am smart and talented, I need to know the rules of the road, the desired end results, and the deadlines to be met. Then I need you to get out of my way and let me show what I can do. Think athletics: when you deal with superstars, you coach more than manage. And if you are not recruiting superstars for your volunteer opportunities, you should be developing those volunteers you are recruiting into superstars. 

Train for the mission, not the long haul. 
Don’t assume your most talented volunteers have any intention of being around for the long haul. Focus on connecting their talents and interests to the organization's current mission and vision. If they stick around for more involvement beyond their initial contribution, great. Just don’t organize all your recruitment and training efforts to create volunteer "lifers" for your organization; it probably won't happen as much as you might hope. 

Create as many career paths as you have people. 
To be attractive to potential volunteers, we need to have flexible and fluid opportunities to leverage their time, interests, and talents for the good of the organization. How ridiculous is it that many organizations still turn away willing and capable volunteers because “no positions are available at this time.” Projects and positions should always be available if the right candidates/talents present themselves. After all, the work is never done. Try thinking of what your organization would look like if every individual sought a meaningful volunteer opportunity. Then organize yourself to let that become a reality. With any amount of luck, it just might.

This is an uupdate of an earlier post.