How To: Be a Volunteer Leader

By: William Ferguson

Volunteering with an organization is a great way to meet new people, find a mentor, give back to your community, and even further your career. As association professionals, we spend so much of our time focused on helping our volunteer leaders that we forget there is another side to the volunteer coin: serving.

I think that, for most of us, the reason we are in non-profit management is because we want to help. We want to solve problems. We want to help create solutions. In short, we want to change the world – even if it’s just through helping change the regulations for widget makers.

If you’re in a position where you’re not quite feeling enough challenge, or if you want to branch out and gain some leadership experience, why not consider joining a committee? There are many volunteer opportunities such as serving on a board of directors or committee, chairing a fundraising event, speaking, or even acting as a greeter at an event.

I’ve had the honor of serving on a few committees– both at the regional and state level. I’ve had many newer staff members ask me how to get involved and thought there may be many more would-be volunteers who have no idea how to get started. Let’s go!

Join an Organization

It’s hard to volunteer for an organization if you don’t support their mission. Not to mention, without being a member, many opportunities will be closed to you. To find the right organization for you, do a search online for your interests and/or your local area. Many national organizations have state or even regional chapters.

Pro Tip: Did you know that LinkedIn has a service to help match you up with volunteer positions? Just log into your account and type in “Volunteer” in the search box at the top! You can also add Volunteering to your profile as an opportunity you are looking for and LinkedIn will periodically send you opportunities that meet your criteria.

Pick a Volunteer Position

Once you’re a member of an organization, give them a call or send them an e-mail! Ask to speak with the person who oversees membership or volunteer opportunities. Tell them about your experience (both personal and professional) that could match up with their needs. For instance, cash handling experience might be a good fit for volunteering at an event registration desk!

Show Up.jpgShow Up and Be Present

Once you’ve chosen how to serve, the best advice is to show up and be present. Those two things are not the same. When I say “show up”, I mean make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be, and be on time. When I say “be present”, I mean do not be distracted. Put the smartphone away, don’t have sidebar conversations with other folks in the meeting, and give your attention to what you came there to do.

Do What You Say You’re Going To Do

It can be a lot of fun to become part of something bigger than yourself. You’ll discover strengths you didn’t know you had and you’ll make friends with folks you never would have met otherwise. However, it is important that you do not overcommit. For instance, if you agree to make phone calls to past due members by a certain date, make sure you schedule your time appropriately so you can complete the task.

No matter what task you have volunteered to do, make sure you can do it. If you need help, reach out to the committee chair or to the staff liaison (if there is one) so they know you may need some help to complete the item.

Working on a committee is about being part of a team charged with a specific task. You should feel free to offer your opinion on the issues at hand and feel like your voice is heard – even when your idea might not be accepted as the best one. You should talk to your other committee members and get to know them. One volunteer opportunity can turn into many as you come to show you are committed to the organization’s goals and are willing to be honest about what you can and cannot do.

Know When To Step Back

All volunteers are capable of burning out or becoming overwhelmed by other facets of their lives. When you realize you need to scale back on your involvement, talk to the committee chair and work out a plan to finish out any tasks left, or to delegate them to others if needed. Treating your fellow volunteers with this level of respect will ensure that when you once again have time to give, you will be welcomed back with open arms.

Final Thoughts

Meeting 03.jpgServing in a volunteer capacity can give you a fresh perspective on what your own volunteer leaders go through on a regular basis. It can help you spot problems before they become disasters and help a great volunteer take the time they need for themselves before they burn out completely and lose their love of what the organization is trying to accomplish.  It can also really enhance your own leadership skills and help you make yourself known to your community and your industry.

There are thousands of organizations out there that could use your help. Now that you’ve read about why they’re such an awesome idea, why don’t you go search for an opportunity of your own? Tell us about how volunteering has helped your career or personal happiness factor in the comments below.

2016 William Ferguson

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