One CVA’s take on why volunteer engagement is so darned hard

Leaders of Volunteers – what if I told you that managing volunteers was one of the hardest jobs out there? Would you buy that?

I mean, you know it’s a challenging job. But would you categorize it as one of the very hardest?

CVA Jerome Tennille thinks so.

In fact, Jerome believes he’s worked harder trying to manage a volunteer program than he did on some assignments in the military – and he’s not exaggerating.

Jerome served as a Navy intelligence analyst for eight years before moving into the nonprofit sphere. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s been featured before in Twenty Hats.  Jerome is the Senior Manager, Impact Analysis & Assessment for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPs), an organization that provides comfort and care to military families who have lost a loved one serving in the Armed Forces.

But for five and a half years prior to shifting roles, Jerome lead the TAPS volunteer effort, where he built a volunteer program so valued that the organization is now undergoing Service Enterprise certification.

Jerome made his claim about volunteer engagement being so difficult last July at the 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership, when we took part in a peer discussion on volunteer managers moving into executive roles.

It was a striking statement, and one that has nagged at me ever since the Summit. All nonprofit roles are challenging. Many positions carry a huge risk of burnout with them.  But why would managing volunteers take the prize as the most difficult role of all?

To put my curiosity to rest, I met with Jerome for an explanation.

Here’s what he said:

“We’re Fixing While We’re Flying”

For CVA Jerome Tennille, the learning curve in volunteer engagement was steeper than many of his military assignments

“I have a friend who is an entrepreneur, Jerome shared. “I asked her how she is learning her social media while simultaneously running her business. My friend replied, ‘we are fixing and flying at the same time.’

“That’s what volunteer management felt like to me when I first started. There is such a steep learning curve that at first, I felt like I could never meet the expectations of the job.

“When I was in the military, there was a very strict training regimen that you had to go through. And then there was follow-on training, so that by the time you got to your duty station, you already had the tools necessary to do the job.

“In volunteer management, there is no set training or curriculum. You are left to your own devices. For me, I had to understand what the job entailed first and foremost, and then I had to decide, from all the different focus areas, which ones were the highest priority to learn.

“It’s a long list. I’m talking about things like communication, how to work with people, how to understand marketing and email segmentation, social media, traditional marketing, and building relationships.

“Then, on top of all that, you need to learn how to write up job descriptions, and screen volunteers, and match them in roles that are a good fit.

“Each of these skills is a stand-alone profession on its own. But we are expected to learn all of them. And we’re expected to run a viable program while we’re learning all of these skills.”

But Wait, There’s More

I wish I could say that lack of training was the only thing that makes volunteer engagement so difficult, but Jerome mentioned other factors that are probably very familiar to you, things like:

  • Lack of Capacity – not having the funds and the staff to fully meet your program’s needs, and;
  • Lack of Buy-in – not having the support of decision-makers or co-workers to fully engage volunteers

When you combine all of these challenges together, it’s easy to see why talented volunteer managers sometimes get frustrated and leave the field (more on this in a moment).

Clearly, we need to give volunteer managers more training, early-on training, and the opportunity to continue building their skills and honing their leadership abilities.

But beyond the need for greater influence, I hope many readers will see Jerome’s comments as reassuring.

If you’ve been feeling stressed, under-the-gun, and doubting of your abilities, take heart: the problem is not you, it’s the system you work within. Oftentimes, we are expected to excel in an environment that is not supporting our efforts. It’s one of the inevitable outcomes of working within scarcity.

So how to address this problem? It seems like you have to weigh your options:

  • Do you leave the nonprofit world and let others solve this dilemma?
  • Do you accept the status quo, tolerate conditions that might be improved, and wait for your decision-makers to come to your rescue?
  • Or, if you are like Jerome, do you advocate for what you need – through your current role or in a larger one― and slowly but surely re-write the road map for yourself and future volunteer managers?

Clearly, I’m leading you towards my preferred decision. It’s why I spend so much time training and coaching around influencing skills. We may work within a broken system, but it’s up to us to improve the situation.  We’ll get more support from the top down when we learn how to lead from the middle on up.


Want to advocate for the training you need? My Six Principles of Buy-In will help ensure that your voice gets heard. Email me for the handout and worksheet.  – Elisa