6 Ways to Mobilize More Volunteers

“It seems the old 80/20 rule often rules—20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. But it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Every leader in a growing volunteer organization is constantly faced with the challenge of mobilizing new team members. And it seems the old 80/20 rule often rules—that is, 20 percent of the people are doing 80 percent of the work. Can you relate?

But it doesn’t have to be like that. When we step back to look at the situation, we can see some self-imposed barriers that are actually keeping people from getting involved. Trust me, I know this from experience. Our church has been through lots of seasons—sometimes expanding, sometimes consolidating, but always recognizing the need for more of our most valuable asset: volunteers.

Recently at the church I lead, we had a glimpse of what could be, as we rallied the better part of our church on a single day to go out and serve our community, in lieu of our regular church services. Lots of churches have tried something like this. As I look at great moments like that, I wonder … how could we make that kind of involvement normal?

Here are six ways to improve the engagement level in your organization. If you’re looking to onboard new team members, start here:

1. Switch Roles

Leaders often see themselves as hole-fillers. They have a void in their department, and they need to fill it. So the most natural thing to do is to look for someone who can fill the vacant position in my department, and the sooner, the better. Unfortunately, the scramble often leads to putting the wrong people in place, which leads to burnout and feelings of failure.

If instead we would fill the role of asset manager, we would create a magnetic environment that would be contagious. Why? Because people want to do what they’re good at. And technically, the role of a leader is to call out the best of what’s in a person, and connect their skills and talents with an opportunity.

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Making this switch is scary—and to be practical, you can’t do it all at once. But you can start with the next person you try to place in volunteer role. Simply ask, “What are this person’s strengths? What opportunity would best match those strengths?” And then, set out to make that connection happen, even if it means you “give” the person to another leader with an opportunity better suited for the volunteer.

It won’t take long and word will get out that you are the kind of leader who cares about people and manages their talents well. Soon, you’ll have an abundance of volunteers.

2. Narrow the Focus

Organizations are like furnace filters. Over time they get clogged up with debris and they need to be cleaned out, to restore the flow. That’s why leaders need to periodically evaluate the activities and make sure that what they’re doing is intentional.

One tool to help with this is called “zero based” thinking. Basically, you ask the question, “If we didn’t currently have this program or obligation, would we start it right now?” If your stomach just dropped when you read that question, good! The truth is, less is more.

What if you could narrow the focus of your organization down to two or three things that you could do well and do passionately? Eliminating low-value activities is one way to increase your volunteer ratios. When everyone’s excited about what’s happening and it’s tied to the mission and vision, people step up to help.

CAUTION: WATCH OUT FOR LAND MINES. Realize that in some settings—especially churches—programs can become “sacred” in some people’s eyes. Dismantling those things can be tricky! For more on leading that kind of change, see my previous post “5 Change Killers in Your Church.”

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3. Provide Support

Volunteer support can make or break an organization. Here are a few simple ways to get started:

Job descriptions. I know, it may seem weird to give a volunteer a job description, but the truth is, volunteers want to know how to win. They want to know what’s expected of them and how to score a point. If they don’t have a clear (written) set of expectations, they can’t succeed. Start with a half page. What outcomes are you expecting from this position?

Timelines. People dread undefined work. And timelines are an essential piece of clarity. Simply declare a date range for this position. For instance, if it’s an admin volunteer position, what’s the end date? Six months? One year? Knowing this on the front end will encourage new people to sign up, and it will give those who have been serving for a long time the option to opt out if they need a break. Keep in mind, you can always re-up the position for a second or third round. But having a finish line will help, not hurt your team.