Forget the fun parts – the real sign that #volmgmt is for you

There’s more to job satisfaction than following your passion. Read on and see if you agree.

News flash! Following your heart is not the reason that you have chosen to manage volunteers or work in a nonprofit.

At least, not according to author Mark Manson, and his argument holds more than a kernel of truth.

Mark Manson, who has a best-selling book and a popular blog, believes that the best predictor of success is our ability to enjoy the struggles that are part and parcel of the experience.

In The Most Important Question of Your Life, Mark writes, “what we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire but by what bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings.”

This notion of enjoyable struggles is an interesting lens for reviewing the choices you have made in your life – especially the professional ones.

If you look back at some of the careers that you have explored, I bet you’ll find that you loved all kinds of pursuits– but the ones you stuck with were the ones with tough parts you enjoyed. At the very least, you were willing to hang in there with them.

If you’re not a ballerina, it’s because those endless hours of practice were a drag. Much as you may love dance, you have to enjoy the sore muscles and relentless focus on technique to make the commitment. Or – if you’re not a chef, perhaps fast pace and long nights were just not for you.

You get the idea.

When I put this question to my Volunteer Managers Leadership Circle, one member said she loves the struggles that come with working with volunteers. She was offered a new position at work as program manager and turned it down – because the hassles associated with that role did not appeal to her.

Here are some scenarios that come with the volunteer manager job description:

  • Resolving volunteer problems with diplomacy and tact
  • Developing systems for your volunteer engagement cycle
  • Mastering new skills that you need but did not possess when you took the position – things like facilitation, training, or marketing

If you enjoy these struggles, high fives all around for thriving in the complicated, personality-driven world of working with volunteers.

Here’s the flip side that I wonder about ―

When you work in a nonprofit, it’s easy to fall into what I call “stoic struggles,” meaning that you put up with situations that appear to be part of the nonprofit contract, but are generally unacceptable. I’m talking about things such as:

  • Working long hours and not attending to self care
  • Making do with equipment that does not work or furniture that falls apart
  • Scraping by with a budget that does not meet your needs

You need to be careful how you approach these struggles. Because when you take the stoic approach, you may tell yourself that you enjoy the challenge of learning skills off of YouTube, or getting creative with a minimal budget, or pushing yourself to work beyond what is reasonable.

But addressing your stoic struggles with acceptance will not serve you in the long run – it will only continue the status quo.

The person who really succeeds in a nonprofit is the person who enjoys the struggles that come with their job description AND treats stoic struggles as opportunities to advocate. They like figuring out how to increase their influence, or make the case for professional training, or learn to set limits without ruffling feathers. That’s the key to nonprofit job satisfaction.

Some of you have found your sweet spot and will remain as leaders of volunteers for many years. Some of you will embrace a new set of complications as development directors, program managers, or leaders of entire nonprofits. Some of you will eventually conclude that volunteer engagement or nonprofit work is not for you.

Whichever path you choose, make sure you take on the struggles that move you forward.

Want to ramp up those advocacy skills? My Six Principles of Buy-In will make it less of a struggle to influence others. Email me for the handout and worksheet – or use the signup form on the upper right of the navigation bar.  – Elisa


  • Another fabulous post – I have been in the non-profit world longer than I care to admit. I have had a few different roles, but the one I have enjoyed the most (and stayed with the longest) is volunteer coordinator. Despite the tight budget and other challenges, I honestly feel fortunate to do this for a living. At a time when it is so easy to get focused on the negative, I get to spend my days with people that want to give back…some of them after spending their careers as public school teachers or working in other non-profits….don’t feel they have done enough and want to do even more.

    When all is said and done, that is what gets me up in the morning. If I can create an environment where people like that can be effective in whatever volunteer role they have chosen for themselves, I feel like I accomplished something.

    • Thanks, Laura! Your experience lines up so well with Meridian’s comment about volunteer managers wanting to excel. It sounds like you give your volunteers a meaningful experience that benefits them AND your organization.

  • Excellent post Elisa! Struggles are part of volunteer management and you are spot on when saying that a successful leader of volunteers ” treats stoic struggles as opportunities to advocate.'” Advocating shows a desire to excel, and a strong voice for leadership, two qualities that describe volunteer managers. Thanks!

    • That’s so true, Meridan! Thanks for sharing.

      Just about every volunteer manager I know has a strong desire to excel and lead a top quality program. Once again, it comes down to educating and advocating for what we know is needed.

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