Solving Volunteer EngagementRecently I coordinated a group of volunteers and at the last minute one of the volunteers I was relying on backed out! This left the team scrambling to find coverage. ARGH!!

Do you work with volunteers on your team? Have you had this happen?

In some ways every member of a project team is a volunteer (or volun-told), because the team is together for a short amount of time, then disbands back to their “day job.”

I shared my story with a few friends and they all shook their heads saying, “that’s just the way things are nowadays.”

That’s why I thought this topic would be interesting to explore. I just couldn’t believe that this is the end.

In my years of church committees and boards for sports, I incessantly heard from those who did show up complaining about those who didn’t show up. Quite frankly, the not showing up didn’t bother me as much as the complaining by those who did. Why? This situation should call us to step up as leaders and do something different.

Many of us are faced with the difficult scenario of getting those who volunteer for efforts to actually do the work that we need the volunteers to do. In reflecting on this, an unlikely thought came to mind…

How did Tom Sawyer do it?

In Mark Twain’s book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, there is an endearing and famous story about the time he skipped school and Aunt Polly makes him whitewash the fence the next day for punishment. The ever clever Tom manages to make the work look so enticing, so challenging, that he actually is able to get his friends to pay him for the privilege of painting the fence.

Whoa, wait, what?!?! How do I do that?!?!

To give us all a fair shake, this is not that easy of a task. We are dealing with adults with busy schedules, not boys and girls wandering around St. Petersburg, Missouri with nothing better to do. …BUT…

Let’s look at what we can learn from Tom’s leadership abilities.

After somehow cajoling so many of his friends to do his painting for him, Tom not only amassed a trove of treasures (at least they were treasures to Tom), but the fence has three coats of whitewash. Win, win, WIN!

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

I would like to put a less cynical slant on his philosophical learning. “Make it difficult to attain” in many ways is how we need to see the task of creating value. Tom Sawyer laid out a challenge, a challenge to do something great. To create value!

Light bulb! This is part of our model for enabling joy in work right there! Enabling joy requires connecting, creating value, and contributing it.

Creating value…an irresistible proposition.

The thought is that if a task is easy, then it’s probably not really creating much value!

Another way to put a light on what Tom did was that he didn’t manage the task, he created a vision about how great it is to create a whitewash fence and to participate in the creation of that whitewashing. And guess what, you get to see what you did right away, and, you’re not even going to own the fence when you’re done!

When we as leaders of volunteers have those fence painting jobs, too often we see our volunteers disappear faster than a scared herd of antelope. What scares them off? Let’s look at it through the lens of connect, create, contribute.

  • Connected: They volunteered to be there, so we know they feel connected to the mission somehow. Do they feel connected to those they are working with? Give some introduction and warm-up time to your volunteers working together to get them comfortable.
  • Create Value: Did we portray the things we need volunteers to do as work tasks (like chores) rather than value to be created? People are energized and engaged by seeing an opportunity to make a difference, to do something great, to use their skills, to prove that they can do ‘that thing.’ View the task that way, and communicate it that way to help teammates see the real value.
  • Contribute: This speaks to the need for help. When someone volunteers to be part of something, only to find out that it wasn’t really needed or useful, that’s a huge downer. It doesn’t take much of this to have people start disengaging from volunteering. When the value created is helpful and useful, that makes a volunteer or teammate want to be involved again.

On that Saturday morning in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, after Tom’s first attempt to cajole Jim into painting, Aunt Polly caught him and stopped it. Tom thought it was the end of the world, until it wasn’t! When we channel our Tom Sawyer, albeit in a more honest, well-meaning way, we see the “work” as ways to create value. When we see the ways that this creates value, we can better communicate that to our volunteers.

Let’s practice with a few examples to see how there’s fence painting, value creating nuggets in these situations too.

Example: A volunteer signed up to staff a booth at a conference for the organization…but that means they will miss some of the sessions and be on their feet for a while. They consider backing out to let someone else have the “opportunity.” As a leader, how in the world do I make that sound like a way to create value?

The value is the fundamental purpose of your social outreach. Being at the booth creates the networks, contacts, and image that are the very purpose of being at the conference. We need to show the face of this organization, and we think you are a great face to show.

Example: You’ve got to put together a database of potential issues with the special process the team has developed. Now the team must deal with the issues to make the new process a success. As a leader, how in the world do I make that sound like a way to create value and not just work?

The value provided here is to be sure the foundation is solid before we build upon it. Then, we can take what we’ve created to the next level. We don’t want to see our good work get gobbled up by demons we didn’t think to consider and we want to keep building, so let’s make sure we’re not on a fault line. This gut check could be the critical step in the organization’s growth to prevent issues later.

Solving the Riddle

The next time you need to enlist the help of volunteers, don’t settle for “that’s just the way things are nowadays.” What we see is that the riddle, the one solved by Tom Sawyer, is really not about laziness or lack of desire. When we squash joy by only portraying the task at hand to be ‘work,’ we make doing nothing seem like a better option. People who volunteer rarely want to do nothing. We need to look at what we are doing as leaders that made doing nothing seem like a better option than connecting, creating, and contributing.

Mark Twain weighed in an insight into this in the book as well, saying

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

Obligation is something we have to do, because something forces us. We are not obliged to create value; it is an inborn calling we want to do. Too often, leaders inadvertently put roadblocks in front of that calling.

Take it as an opportunity to be a new kind of leader. Be one that sees the heart of the matter, the ways to trigger intrinsic motivation. How? Look at opportunities to bring out how a volunteer provides value. Give opportunities to make a difference, do something great, use their skills, and see them rise to the challenge like Tom’s friends. When you as a leader view the task that way, and communicate it that way to help teammates see the real value, you are well on your way to having that important fence painted!

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