These three steps from an organizational change expert will help you speed the process for your volunteer program.

Ball Rolling Framed - Twenty HatsRemember “Nora” the volunteer manager? She was the one I introduced last week, who was responsible for everything volunteer-related, even though she was not the only staffer to interact with the volunteers.

The burden of responsibility for recruiting and retaining enough volunteers to meet demand was causing Nora considerable stress and leading her to question her abilities. But the real problem was that this volunteer manager worked within an organizational structure where the decision-making and the responsibility for volunteer results was not shared among the entire staff. It was a lopsided organizational system.

In a situation like this, someone like Nora has a choice to make:

  • Either accept her position as-is and make the best of it (or find a more gratifying job)

or —

  • Step forward and initiate the change that will lead to more staff engagement.

Re-organizing a system seems like a move that needs to come from the top down. It can feel very daunting to initiate that kind of change from a mid-level position. But research shows that successful organizations remain successful due to the influence of mid-level managers.

In Nora’s case, I turned to a colleague for advice. Nancy Stockbridge is an organizational consultant who knows a lot about change management.  I met Nancy while she was helping Meals on Wheels America prepare for an anticipated influx of volunteers from an Ad Council campaign that just launched. Sometimes abundance brings its own organizational demands.

Nancy’s response to Nora’s situation was all around buy-in: “Ultimately, the goal is to get all of the players on board.” To do that, she suggested three steps to get the ball rolling.

First, Ask Questions.

Fully examine the history. “Understand how the program came to be organized this way in the first place. There may be prior reasons for putting one person in solely in charge of volunteer onboarding and assigning that are not relevant any longer.”

In Nora’s case, perhaps her predecessor was a control freak who wanted the final word on volunteer decisions.  Or perhaps the budget got cut and one person was charged with the responsibilities of many.

Whatever the backstory, knowing how the position evolved gives everyone a better perspective to start discussing change.

Second, Start Listening.

Getting people on board with change is “about listening and getting others’ ideas on how to make it better.”  Find out how the rest of the staff feels about having more of a say in the volunteer decision-making process.  Ask co-workers how they see their role and what they suggest to improve the situation. It’s possible that others would like to have more of a say when it comes to volunteers and have not been given the opportunity.

Third, Cultivate Ownership.

Look for ways in which the staff can become invested with volunteers. Often the simplest way to start is by asking for input around one of the more fun parts of the process. I have seen volunteer managers create greater engagement simply by asking for staff opinions (see advice #1).  One of my clients got the ball rolling by asking the staff to help her define their Ideal Volunteer.

This process only works if Nora stands up for her own needs and describes the consequences of the current organization on herself, the volunteers, and the clients. Ultimately, the goal is to do what’s in everyone’s best interest. And that’s an idea everyone can get on board with.


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When it comes to volunteers, it’s possible to increase staff decision-making & engagement with these 3 steps,