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How to Delegate to Volunteers

09/06/2016 Jeff Babiak, Stephanie Allgeyer

As a manager, you no doubt know the benefits of delegating some of your work to your staff.

But as a manager of a nonprofit, perhaps you also have volunteers that you could delegate to at times.

What is the main difference between volunteers and paid staff? It is, of course, that volunteers are not paid. Not with money, anyway.

It is easy to delegate to paid staff because they are being paid to do whatever work they are assigned by their manager.

It is more complicated with volunteers. To keep them motivated and willing to work hard, you have to take into consideration the kinds of rewards – or “compensation”– they are seeking. Then try to delegate the right tasks to the right people.

Some volunteers are looking for social opportunities. They want to meet new people and interact with others. You should delegate tasks to them that afford such opportunities.

Others volunteer because they want to make a difference. Give them tasks in which they can accomplish something tangible, where they can see the results of their efforts.

Still others want recognition. For them, it matters less what kind of work you give them than that you recognize their efforts and express your appreciation.

Some volunteer in a specific field because they want to learn the skills in that field. Or they may see it as a way to get their foot in the door for a career. They are motivated to make contacts with people who might give them a reference or tips on places that are hiring.

Some volunteer because they enjoy the nature of the activity and they would not be able to do it otherwise. Maybe it’s working with animals, speaking to immigrants in their native language, or being around the theater or museum.

The list could go on and on.

Guidelines for Successful Delegation

Before you delegate work to your volunteers, you should get to know them. Find out what motivates them.

Make it a point to meet with each of your volunteers soon after they are “hired.” Ask them what brings them to your organization. Probe what they hope to do there, what would make it a successful placement for them. Listen attentively.

Also get to know them beyond the job. What are their hobbies? What do they do in their paid job, if they have one. What are their hopes and dreams for the future?

A second preparatory step is to make volunteers feel like they are a part of the team, and not “just volunteers.” Show them around the organization and introduce them to people. Include them in meetings and other events when appropriate.

The first step of actually delegating is to define the task and make sure it is suitable for a volunteer. Then list the key features of the task, keeping in mind the above list of things that motivate people to volunteer. Does the task involve working with people, learning new skills, using an interesting piece of equipment, or what?

Next, select the right individual, matching what you have learned about your volunteers with your assessment of the task. Ask, don’t tell. Say to the individual, “Are you comfortable doing this? It’s OK if you aren’t.” Make it easy for them to decline the task if they wish.

If they show interest, express your confidence in them and their ability to carry it out.

Explain the results you want to achieve, rather than specifying step by step what you want them to do. It is more motivating for people to have some control over how they do a job.

Identify any resources they will need to do the job, and provide those. Ask the individual what else they need.

After assigning the task, get out of the way and let them do their job. But also follow up at appropriate intervals to see how it’s going and whether they need anything from you – and to be sure they can do the job.

Finally, don’t forget to give them praise and recognition. Don’t wait until they’re finished. Give encouragement and express your appreciation along the way.

Volunteers can be a big asset to a nonprofit organization, especially during cash-strapped times. To tap into this asset, just keep in mind what kinds of rewards are most motivating for each of your volunteers, and do your best to deliver.

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