How to Lead Volunteers: 3 Lessons from My Experience

Leading volunteers is not always an easy job. Unlike employees, they are hard to fire and they may or may not be motivated enough to give their best efforts. But sometimes the magic happens, and you get the best people with the best skills supporting you in a volunteer capacity. That’s what happened last week, and I want to share some of the lessons for the rest of you.

Nikki (left) has been my co-director since the original event in 2013

Nikki (left) has been my co-director since the original event in 2013

Last weekend I participated in an event that has been going for four years now. The Light Up the Night 5k race was held Friday night at 11:59pm to benefit the Carpenter’s Cabinet, a local food pantry supporting those in need. I started the race four years ago with my co-director as a way to get people more active and to partner with a local charity as part of a local outreach effort at church. It is always a great event supporting a worthy cause, and every year the planning team and I pick up new ideas, tips, and strategies to make the race better. This year was no different. Looking back, I actually see some crucial leadership lessons that are worth sharing. Oh, and in case you are wondering, these can work with your employees, too!

Lesson One: Align Strengths to Tasks

A challenge in recent years is having the right volunteers supporting the right pieces of the course. This year was even more critical, because we had to change the course last minute due to some road work on our main route. This meant that we needed 2-3 volunteers with the ability to do more than just clap and cheer–they needed to set up key points (water station, turnaround, etc.) and motivate people at the same time. When selecting the people, I looked for those with some real-world experience with managing basic logistics and a great attitude.

While all of the volunteers that helped were appreciated, those few were the ones that made my job much easier because I knew they could handle the responsibilities without issue. The work takeaway: make sure you’re delegating to peoples’ strengths and then get out of the way.

Lesson Two: Contribute Strategically

I have always been stretched by the limited number of volunteers, and that forces me to jump into the fray for various tasks that could have been handed off to others with the right training and time (both in limited supply when the race is ten minutes away!) However, this year we were able to secure enough volunteer support that I spent most of my time managing the finer aspects of the race from finish line design to simply chatting with racers and trying to create a great experience for everyone involved.

This doesn’t mean I gave away all of my tactical responsibilities, just like you can’t give away 100% of your tasks at work. Some things you just have to do. It just means I was able to pick the ones that were urgent and important, handing off the others to my team so that my focus didn’t waver.

Lesson Three: Lead by Example

This is not new, and it might not be particularly exciting for you, either. But it works. I have been planning and preparing for this race since March, when I started leading a Couch to 5k running group to prepare people that wanted to train for the race. Since that first practice, I have been working to secure resources, organize details, and prepare the best possible race for our participants.

It’s easy to think that doing the “little” things might be beneath me after all of this preparation and my years of supporting this, but that certainly isn’t the case. From filling the water jugs to helping with registration, there is no task too small. The benefit of that is twofold: first, if I need anyone else to do it, I can explain it since I’ve already done it at least once; second, others see me leading by example and know that they need to give it their all as well.

This isn’t a chance for me to toot my own horn. I don’t spend hours preparing for the Light Up the Night 5k just to get a pat on the back or to collect a check. I am doing it because it’s what I am called to do, and I am blessed to have the opportunity to serve others. I have a great team that supports the race as well, and they do an incredible amount of work to pull it off every year. I’ll wrap up with a verse that sums up my thoughts simply:

Happy is the generous man, the one who feeds the poor. Prov. 22:9