Note to self: when your volunteer manager mindset needs a boost

Sometimes we get stuck on our perceived limitations. Here’s how to climb out of that thinking.

It’s no surprise that last week’s post, which was all about the disparity between a volunteer manager’s value and her salary, generated a lot of comments.

The salary question seems to be something that’s always operating in the back of our minds, even when we don’t discuss it openly.

The volunteer managers who commented on the post made some really important points, including the need for an academic degree track for our profession, and the importance of making our accomplishments known to decision-makers on a regular and quite visible basis.

Please do take a look at the comments – and leave your own, if something you read sparks your thinking.

There is another dimension to the value/salary question, though, and that’s what receiving a lower salary does to our personal sense of value.

I’m not just talking about our value on the job – I’m talking about what we fundamentally think and feel about ourselves.

When we work in an environment that does not correspond with our value – because salaries are low, or working conditions are shabby, or long hours for little compensation are the norm – we begin to internalize our experience as proof that we are “not enough.”

As volunteer managers, we may be especially prone to this mindset, because oftentimes we are also addressing the perception that volunteers are “free,” and it’s harder to measure the value of something without a dollar sign attached.

The problem with “I’m not enough” is that it affects the decisions we make for our programs and for ourselves as professionals.

Here are some examples:

  • You see yourself as someone who can only operate within a less significant supporting role, because others are in a better position to make important decisions
  • You believe that your skills count for less than co-workers who provide direct service, and so you downplay the need for a competitive salary
  • You hesitate to ask for support from program staff when you need it – because you see your role as less important

All of these statements fall into the category of limiting beliefs, meaning things that we tell ourselves are true, but which on closer reflection are not true at all.

If you find that any part of this argument resonates for you, and you want to turn your situation around, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Observe the value messages that you send to yourself on the job. Be on the lookout for those moments when you find yourself making do with something that is not serving you very well. Have you convinced yourself, one way or the other, that a better outcome is unlikely for you?
  2. When you pick up on one of those messages, observe how it makes you feel. If you notice your energy sinking or even find your gut tightening up, those are signs that you are telling yourself a limiting belief.
  3. Intentionally reframe those beliefs into a positive statement that is motivating.

For example:

  • “I’m better at supporting that leading” might be reframed as “Maybe it’s time to see where my skills will take me.”
  • “I have to accept a low salary” might shift to “I will start at this salary, advocate for the compensation I deserve, and know that other options are out there for me.”
  • “Shabby working conditions are a part of nonprofit life” may become “I choose to remain in this job to learn new skills, but in time I will find a nonprofit that offers better working conditions – I know they are out there.”

I blog a lot about the need for volunteer managers to advocate for themselves and advance their programs. I train a lot on how to achieve buy-in and exert greater influence. But we cannot take advantage of any leadership training until we examine the messages we tell ourselves about our abilities.

As with most things in life, the change begins within us – not in our surroundings.


Volunteer Managers: shift into a leadership mindset! My September 12 webinar shows you how to bring others on board with your important ideas.

Check out ‘Achieving Buy-In for Your Volunteer Program’ at


  • Excellent post Elisa and a great beginning to thinking about what 2018 will bring for volunteer managers. Outside factors, such as salary, other opinions, and lack of resources can weigh down the value we place on ourselves and our contributions. Hopefully, this year will see major shifts in how volunteer managers are perceived, valued and compensated. It has to happen, or all good volunteer managers will go elsewhere.

  • Elisa, your blog posts always use female pronouns when referring to volunteer managers – “the disparity between a volunteer manager’s value and her salary” Don’t forget, there are a lot of men in the profession as well!

    • Hector, you are absolutely right. There are a lot of talented, committed men in volunteer engagement. I use the “she” pronoun for pragmatic reasons, because the majority of professionals in our field are women, and because “he or she” is wordy. Thanks for weighing in – it’s not a perfect solution.

  • Granted, not all Volunteer Engagement managers are female, but those who are might benefit from these initiatives led by the American Association of University Women and others
    Start Smart and Work Smart

  • OK – So I am going to play devil’s advocate a little on this one. While I would love to live in the universe where non profit employees are paid at the same rate that hedge fund managers are, I think if one elects to work in a non-profit, one does need to have realistic expectations about what that may mean. I can’t speak for non-profits across the country, but this year has been incredibly tough in CT. We went many months without a budget and non-profits weren’t getting paid for state contracts. A few agencies closed altogether, many programs closed and long time staff lost positions due to funding cuts. I know my agency values the work of our volunteers and the contributions of our volunteer program, but a huge salary increase just isn’t in the cards in this fiscal environment.

    Having said that, I think we should also recognize that there are many ways in which agencies can devote resources to its volunteer program other than brand new office furniture or fancy coffee machine. The agency should consider the role of volunteer coordinator a leadership role in the agency, the contributions of the volunteer program should be recognized and appreciated and staff should be receptive to the skills and talents that volunteers bring to the table.

    This is a really important discussion we are having as a profession and I am so grateful for Twenty Hats as well as volunteerplaintalk to bringing them up. I am obviously pretty passionate about the need for a well trained, dedicated volunteer coordinator and the importance of agency support for that role, or I wouldn’t be responding to so many of these great blogs right now.

    I would just add that I believe this discussion about the importance of the volunteer manager’s role should also be placed into a larger context of how non-profits are funded and supported in general. Part of that discussion seems like it needs to include how much “overhead” it really takes to achieve programmatic results and what a tight margin many of us operate on right now.

    • Thanks, Laura. You are right that the nonprofit salary question goes way just the volunteer manager’s role. Nonprofits are challenged in general with providing their staff with competitive wages due to tight budgets. In this post, my point is that volunteer managers may be more prone to interpreting their salary or status as a sign that they are less valuable. We know what is not the case — it’s sometimes a question of how we internalize our experience.

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