I think about leadership a lot, and recently I have been thinking about the leadership of volunteers/ leading in voluntary organisations. Surely it is harder to lead in an organisation or venture where the people who do the work are there because they want to be, and not because they are being paid (even when they still might want to be any way)? How does a leader keep things fresh, inspire, ensure that volunteers do not get bored and slip away?

A little research suggest that the mains reason people volunteer with to…

To contribute to their community

To use their skills and experiences

They have been personally affected by the cause they are volunteering in

To explore their own strengths

To network or meet new people

Their friends/family also volunteer

Eric Burger, of the online volunteer hub How to Lead Volunteers | Nonprofit | VolunteerHub Blog  gives seven tips on leading volunteers.

  1. Form relationships

Getting to know individuals, their quirks and motivations is really important. It is useful to remember a few things about them, their experiences, and skills.

  1. Ensure commitment

Sometimes, organisations are a little desperate, so they recruit less committed volunteers. It is essential to judge and ensure commitment, and then to reward that commitment via sound leadership.

  1. Restate objectives and roles

The absence of clarity can be damaging to an organisation’s objectives. It is always wise to be sure that the overall objective and the objectives of individuals is clarified and kept at the forefront.

  1. Recognise achievements

Volunteers and not being paid. It is crucial that their efforts are recognised and their impact on objectives is openly celebrated.

  1. Communicate

Listen to volunteers, get to understand what motivates them. Steers goals based on having communicated with everyone.

  1. Trust

Volunteers need to know that you trust them and have faith in them. Mistakes might happen, but people need to be trusted all the same.

  1. Invest

Research suggest that voluntary organisations invest little financially into their ventures. Sound investment is wise in order to drive the objectives of an organisation/ venture.

The process got me thinking about my own experiences of leading volunteers. In late 2017 I was nominated to oversee the beginners running course, hosted by my local Athletics club – Ely Runners. I still lead it today. The 10-week course had been running for a few years and worked purely due to small number of LiRFs (Leaders in Running Fitness) and a couple of CiRFs (Coaches in Running Fitness). I quickly enrolled on my CiRF qualification, as I felt that to lead such an endeavour, it might be wise to back up my limited experience with some official knowledge!

The 10-week course is for true beginners to running, or people returning to running. It is very inclusive and very popular in my home City.

I decided I would ask a fellow CiRF, Charlotte, to mentor me through the first 10-week course, as I felt it was vital to have someone to consult and offer me tips and reflection. I am not a naturally organised person, but I soon realised that I would have to cover a lot if I was to lead the course successfully. Marketing; risk assessing; organising the small payment expected from course participants; setting up communications with participants; thinking of the structure of the course and which coach/ leader should lead each session (and much more).

I soon found myself working with and leading a group of runners who were all more experienced that me and certainly more talented. This was scary stuff!

My marketing was via social media almost exclusively and drew upon the benefits of running for the local population, but also celebrating the fact that the course was fun and inclusive: thanks to the people who volunteer on the course.

I developed a few strategies, which I really hope to have helped to motivate each of the coaches/ leaders: each week during the course I mention to participants one of the many pearls of wisdom I have remembered from the coaches. For example, Lauren’s tips around breathing; David’s advice around nutrition; Jon’s superb interval training; Charlottes excellent tips on running form: I ask them to explain to the group. I always thank the coaches in front of the participants at the end of the session (and get a round of applause going). I always email all participants (copying coaches in) during the evening of each session, mentioning what an excellent session the particular coach of the week led. Each week I add a group selfie (all participants and coaches) onto the club Facebook page. I wrote coach profiles and shared these with participants: this covered the many talents and achievements of the course coaches. I do my best to encourage newer coaches to lead sessions with support from a more experienced one. It is my hope that this inspires and motivates I hope so.

The coaches with Ely Runners beginners

I invested in the course by slightly increasing the number of coaches/ leaders and getting them on courses to become qualified.

I soon discovered that there is a more private aspect to leading a group of volunteers: they and the participants open up to you, and tend to tell you, their anxieties. A trusted ear has become essential. Each coach’s and participant’s problems and thoughts are serious to them and should be treated as such. It has become important to listen carefully and help wherever possible.

Turnover is low among the coaches, with the same committed people showing up and helping in their own time, after work, in all kinds of weather.

I still have things to improve upon in my role as a leader on the course: we do not meet enough outside of the weekly sessions; I could push more for the club to invest in kit for the coaches; I should be looking into ongoing training and personal development for those who volunteer; I should do more to seek feedback from participants about each coach. I have work to do!

That being said, I sought the views and feedback of Ann, one of our newest volunteer coaches on the course. Ann offered me some of her observations.

  1. The planning and communication have been efficient
  2. Time has been made to ensure that all participants know that the coaches are volunteers
  3. The shout out to coaches at the end of sessions has been appreciated
  4. Mentioning specific coaches on the follow up email to participants has been appreciated
  5. Ann feels I have been a driving force in making the whole club acknowledge the coaches
  6. Ann felt grateful for support and reassurance when she first ran a beginners’ session
  7. Ann says I let her go with it and trusted her with a session I was not familiar with
  8. Ann appreciates that I have tweaked sessions based on volunteer coach feedback
  9. Ann feels that her coaching skills have been supported in a collaborative environment

Coach Lauren offered this feedback…

“I believe that to be a good leader you need to have empathy. Whether you’re the Prime Minister of New Zealand, leading a team of fifty employees or leading a coaching session for those new to running, the ability to put yourself in the shoes of those you’re working with sets you apart from other leaders and enables you to bring the best out of people.  And in his role as a running coach and leader of the Ely Runners’ Beginners’ course, this is what Justin does so well. He remembers what it feels like when you first decide to make that decision to go running, when you turn up to your first training session with others, and when you first feel like giving up. He has been there, and he uses his own experiences to help others find a way through.

In addition, Justin always knows when to step back and give someone else time to shine. When another coach is leading a running session, Justin mucks in with the masses, listens to the coaching instructions and ensures that he leads by example, taking on feedback and highlighting the good work done by his Fellow coaches, which in turn gives them the confidence they need to grow as a coach.

And the best bit? Justin does all of this with a huge smile on his face, and his energy, enthusiasm and sense of humour all play a huge part in making him the kind of leader that people can relate to and respect in equal measure.”

I share this feedback not to be self-celebratory (although I am not beyond the odd pat on my own back!), but to match it to what I have read about the leadership of volunteers, and to understand what works, so I can keep doing it!

I have wondered where my experience of leading volunteers (and Ann’s and Lauren’s feedback) fits with the tips offered by Ed Burger. I won’t try to analyse that: I will leave that to the reader. What I will say though is that I am definitely under no illusion as to what extent my role has contributed to what the Ely Runners beginners’ course coaches do. I am sure they would do it without me! They are all passionate about running, introducing new people to running, and seeing the progress beginners make. To this end, their motivation comes from their own passion and seeing the outcomes for people new to running.

I will leave this with two thoughts

  1. Leading is tough; I think leading people who are volunteering brings additional challenges, but there are still overlaps with leading when the people involved are not volunteers.
  1. What can I learn from leading volunteers that can be transferred into my work?

Justin Smith TEA Operations Manager and Coach in Running Fitness with Ely Runners.

Ely Runners