From Implementer to Leader — the Unexpected Signal that Your Volunteer Management Style is Evolving

Another take on certain a certain kind of job frustration

Vol Mgt Implementer to Leader - Twenty HatsDoes your boss frustrate you more than she used to? Seriously – perhaps when you started this job, you recognized that your boss had a different work style from you but you respected that, but now you find that your boss’s point of view or the decisions she makes seem increasingly incompetent to you. Perhaps you see a better way to resolve the issue and feel you are not being heard?

You might even be wondering if it’s time to leave your job because her decisions seem so wrongheaded.

That’s one interpretation. Here’s another: your leader is not the problem. You are frustrated because you are ready to step up and lead, too.

There is a difference between managers and leaders. Leaders are the vision people, while managers are the implementers who make the vision a reality.

But the difference has nothing to do with your job title or you position within your organization. Mid-level managers like volunteer or development directors need to manage AND lead, influencing their boss and co-workers while still doing the daily in-the-trenches administrative work.

Leading in your job has to do with the way you perceive yourself and your abilities – and the way you work with others to get transform those great ideas into something real.

I saw this issue play out in my soft skills course last spring. I had a student who loved her job as the director of volunteer engagement for a local nonprofit. She saw the potential within her organization for expanding into new programs. She was incredibly frustrated, though, because her boss often vetoed her ideas. My student saw her boss – who was an immensely practical and cautious person – as the problem. To me, the issue was recognizing her desire to play big and have an impact and then helping her figure out how to bring her boss on board with her great ideas.

Are you poised to start managing less and leading more? If you are not certain, here are some signs that you might be ready to step up your game:

  • You see the solution to a long-standing problem that your boss has not noticed.
  • You start help your local professional association – or even serve on the Board.
  • You no longer engage in office drama – it feels like a distraction from more important work.

If any of these apply to you, your next step is to observe your work. See where you lead, where you can start leading, and figure out what you need to learn to do the job better. Nonprofits are great incubators for leadership because we wear so many hats. With some self-reflection and skill development, you will find as many opportunities for growth as for frustration.

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Are you a vol mgr with a frustrating boss? There might be another reason for your frustration,


  • Since most volunteer managers interact with all program areas across their non-profit, we often have an agency-wide perspective to bring to the table. As a profession, I think we need to do more to help non-profits incorporate their volunteer coordinator/program into the agency’s leadership and strategic plan. While some non-profits already do this, its seems to me like this is a real growth opportunity for volunteer managers.

    • Agreed, Laura! Volunteer engagement pros bring so much value to the table when they are included at the top levels of nonprofit leadership. The first step to getting there is learning how to lead from the middle.

  • Excellent article! Frustration is not always a negative, it can very easily be a sign of increased abilities and a readiness to lead as you so aptly point out. Volunteer managers very quickly develop a high skill level in leading people, so this truly pertains to them!

    • Exactly! I think sometimes we perceive our frustration as a sign that something is “wrong,” when it may be a signal that we’re ready to do more. That’s especially true for volunteer managers with all their great people skills. Meridian, thanks for sharing.

  • Very good points, Elisa. We have a great deal of turnover in the field, and this is one reason why – being frustrated with no positive change, we go somewhere else OR when we are able to lead, we get promoted! If you ever have the opportunity to mentor someone, keep this in mind if your mentee is describing being frustrated or if you personally feel this way.

    • Thanks, Gretchen! Mentoring and coaching are so important in our profession. When we bring smart, competent volunteer managers on board — people with great relationship-building and organizational skills, we need to support them and give them opportunities to lead further.

  • I had never thought of boss frustration this way, but as you concisely put it, it can signal a readiness to be more of a leader. While I am comfortable managing the day to day operation of our volunteer program, I sometimes “think big” and want to do something about it. Fortunately, my new boss is good at guiding me, and I just made a significant change to our program that has a broad cost savings impact. Tis was noticed (and approved) by upper management, and then they surprised me completely with giving me an unexpected bonus! So that is very motivating! I now need to find another way to take the lead and improve things – keep it going!

    • Congrats, Jenna! It sounds like you have built a relationship with your boss that paves the way for your own big ideas. And – you are able to connect the dots between the changes you make and the goals of your program (like cost savings). That’s the kind of strategic thinking that builds strong volunteer programs.

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