Reclaiming Power in Volunteer Engagement

Picture of a bird flying away from its cage, which is hanging on a picture frame on the wall. (From Shutterstock)

“One of the most common ways people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

Alice Walker

For years, the big funder in town had been bringing by wealthy donors to volunteer in the large community center. The donors often wanted to (and did) serve in the preschool. The problem was that doing so interrupted the routine and structure that were valuable for the kids. These visits benefited the donors but not the preschoolers or the teachers.

Emboldened by Service Enterprise training that emphasized aligning volunteer opportunities with real community needs (which the big funder was underwriting), the executive made a decision: no more one-time volunteers in the preschool. She told the big funder that the agency welcomed volunteers but that it was important that community needs drove volunteer involvement. She provided projects that were designed for one-time volunteers and showcased the agency’s mission (and donor investment) while also meeting a community and organizational need.

Can You Do That?!

Telling this story often leads to a shocked question: Can you do that?!

Absolutely. You can – and should. Agencies carry great responsibility to ensure that volunteers are affirming agency values and the dignity and needs of those being served. This responsibility is one of the ways that agencies exercise their power.

We sometimes get squeamish about the notion of power, particularly in volunteer engagement. One of the most common refrains at volunteer management conferences is that leaders of volunteers don’t have power. But Martin Luther King, Jr. defined power as the “ability to achieve purpose” and bring about change. What is the work of our agencies if it is not to achieve some purpose and effect positive change? How might volunteer engagement be a more potent force if we examined the ways we artificially restrict ourselves? How do we learn to use power in healthy and productive ways?

Reclaiming Power

In a team-building exercise I facilitate, one of the a-ha moments comes when participants discover they are following rules that they have placed on themselves. Once the group members realize they have freedom to make different choices while staying within the parameters of the game, they achieve their goal in more creative ways. In other words, they reclaim the power they already had. Here are a few ideas and guiding questions to begin reclaiming power in volunteer engagement.

Focus on the Power You Do Have Rather than on What You Don’t

We sometimes assume power requires a position of authority – that it somehow resides in whoever holds the senior roles in an organization. However, another way to think of power is who has influence or the ability to make decisions on behalf of a team. Leaders of volunteers make dozens of decisions every single day. Here is just a sample:

  • Who qualifies to be a volunteer
  • Where to recruit volunteers
  • Whose needs drive volunteer roles and selection
  • What to include in volunteer and staff orientation and training
  • How to equip staff to work with volunteers
  • Who facilitates orientation and training
  • Whether there is a debrief at the end of events or projects
  • How to recognize and share gratitude with volunteers
  • What counts as an “outstanding” volunteer
  • How to give feedback to (or let go) of volunteers who are not meeting expectations
  • How to receive feedback about service or volunteerism from participants, volunteers, and/or paid staff
  • What to track and report about volunteers
  • What messages are on the volunteer page of the website or social media

The types of influence you have are as diverse as your to-do list. Regardless of your title or perceived sense of control, you are wielding power day in and day out by virtue of what you do—and just as importantly, what you don’t do.

How do you want to use this power in meaningful ways? How might you share this power with those whose voices are often overlooked?

Take a Risk and Ask for What Your Community Needs

A friend of mine runs a social service agency with a multi-million-dollar budget. A local church reached out to him about hosting a day of service where congregation members could support the community. In the past, the paid staff had invested a large amount of time and effort to create and facilitate similar days of service. Unfortunately, the impact was limited, and my friend was hesitant to repeat the experience.

Rather than decline the offer though, he thought he’d try a new approach. He and the Volunteer Director let the church leaders know that the organization welcomed partnership, but that the nature of the work did not lend itself to an event that could accommodate dozens of volunteers on one day. He shared that what would really be helpful would be a longer-term partnership where church volunteers could commit to smaller projects over the course of the year. To his surprise, the church leaders liked that idea too and were eager to learn more. Suggesting a different approach led to a fruitful partnership for the organization and its participants as well as the church’s congregants.

What would happen if you asked for what your participants or organization need instead of building projects that only address what a volunteer group wants? What would it look like if you designed volunteerism based on what your community needs now rather than what you have done in the past?

Push Back When Participant Wellbeing and Dignity Are Threatened

Like the church congregants in the above example, volunteers often mean well and have good intentions. However, they may not be aware of the implications of their requests. Groups may not think through safety and privacy issues when they want to work directly with the women in a shelter for families experiencing domestic violence. Volunteers may not realize that their last-minute cancellation for a group project wastes the staff’s time and leaves a hole in the program. But you do.

As much as leaders of volunteers want to be accommodating to those reaching out to serve, it cannot come at the expense of those being served. This can be a tricky message to deliver, but it is critical.

Use these experiences as teachable moments. Educate volunteer prospects about the issues facing participants and how it is essential to put their needs first. Redirect volunteers to appropriate service opportunities in the agency while reinforcing how it will ensure a meaningful and dignified experience for the volunteer and participants. Draw on the agency’s mission and values as a way to align volunteer experiences with participant needs. Be prepared to say ‘no’ or refer the group on to another organization that may be a good fit if there is not a role for them with your agency.

How do we meet volunteers where they are while also addressing harmful expectations they have about service? How can service projects help cultivate community in mutually beneficial ways?

Ask for Forgiveness Instead of Permission

A Volunteer Engagement colleague, Sigrid Struben, had the idea to delegate more tasks for her agency’s annual Nutcracker performance to volunteers. She wanted to promote some of the most reliable and talented volunteers into leadership roles. It felt risky to share responsibility and accountability with the volunteers even though they had always come through in the past. So Sigrid recruited two fellow staff members who saw the potential in volunteers even though the ED could only see limitations. She and her co-conspirators crafted new leadership roles with clear expectations, invited volunteers to step into these roles, and supported them throughout the experience.

Guess what happened? The volunteers outperformed the staff’s expectations – and felt great about being part of the event’s success. Even the ED was pleased. Sigrid did not defy anyone with her actions, she merely saw an opportunity and tried to meet it in a new way. She focused her energy on making her idea successful rather than asking for permission to proceed.

If no one has told you that you cannot try something new, what is stopping you from moving forward? What artificial restrictions have you placed on yourself that you can release?

Share Your Voice and the Voices of Others

Leaders of volunteers serve at the intersection of the community and the agency. It is a rich nexus and excellent vantage point. You hear what’s on the mind of volunteers and the program participants they serve. You glean how the community views the organization and its cause. You witness program and volunteer impact firsthand and hear how volunteers are influencing the mission in positive (and negative) ways. If you don’t share, advocate, and offer recommendations based on your view and expertise, the organization suffers. 

How might you share your unique perspective with others inside and outside of the organization? Whose voices are unheard or discounted? How can you elevate and amplify their perspectives?

But No One Cares about Volunteer Engagement.” Great! Use It to Your Advantage.

There is a hidden opportunity in flying under the agency radar. It offers space to be bold and experiment. You can try new things without having to get layers of approval. That might provide space for a big effort like inviting program participants and volunteers to re-imagine volunteer engagement strategies. You could dig into issues such as: What qualities and roles would participants want volunteers to have? What does success look and feel like to them? Which volunteer value indicators reflect what matters to participants?

You might also expand satisfaction surveys to assess the level of satisfaction that participants and paid staff have with volunteers. What ideas do they have for enhancing service?

Alternatively, you could look beyond agency boundaries and partner with a similar organization to co-create volunteer development opportunities. Cross-pollinating your respective volunteers can deepen their awareness, service, and sense of being a part of something bigger than themselves.

If that’s too big, start smaller. Try out new wording and images on your volunteer recruitment ads and web page. Change the orientation and training to be more accessible and relevant. Invite volunteers to cross train in different roles. Share volunteer impact indicators and stories with a new audience.

Where do you have room to experiment? How can you involve those who do care about volunteerism to get creative?

What Is Ours to Do?

I appreciate that these suggestions can seem like a tall order. Exercising our power muscles often requires a dose of courage and some initial discomfort. One place I find that dose is in a story that the Reverend Dr. Gregory Ellison shares. As a child, he asked his aunt how to change the world. She said that she didn’t know how to change the world, but she knew how to change the three feet around her. It is a good reminder that change starts with us, when we reclaim the power within our own three feet.

Where can you start exercising your power? What is yours to do?


  1. Gretchen Jordan CVA said:

    Sue, love your way of looking at past negative perceptions within the field and turning them into positive actions to change! Thank you for articulating these points so well.

    June 29, 2021
  2. Melinda Wilkes said:

    You are brilliant. Thank you!

    July 10, 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *