The Why, Who and How of Empowering Volunteers — The Ripple Effect of Influence

rippleonwater“If we want to have an impact—a ripple effect impact—we have to quit managing and embrace empowerment.”

In The New Breed we keep stating that empowerment is one of the most essential leadership skills to engage the 21st century volunteer.  People often ask me three questions:

  • Why?  Why is empowerment an essential?
  • Who?  Do we empower all our volunteers?
  • How?  How do we empower volunteers and still control the outcome?

The Why—Influencer vs. manager

Why would you want to turn a bunch of empowered, independent, critical thinking, decision-making, volunteers loose in your organizations? It is scary. When we talk about empowerment, it sounds out of control.  And that is a key word—control.  We are afraid of losing control.

But if we want to have an impact—a ripple effect impact—we have to quit managing and embrace empowerment, even though it is threatening.  When I manage I limit my impact to myself and those I manage.  Why would I want to be such a control freak that I would want to limit the potential of our mission to me?  What we are talking about is the power of influence rather than the limitations of manager.

Today leadership is not a position—manager. It is influence. The people who are influencing others are not required to be under the direct control or chain of command of the leader. Leaders influence down, across, and up. In other words, leaders lead (influence) subordinates, colleagues, team members and superiors. This is why we now understand that leadership can and does happen at every level within an organization. When I empower people of influence, I expand my level of influence far beyond my wildest expectations.

Are you still called a volunteer manager?  Management is so last century.  Yet we unfortunately still use the term “volunteer manager” for our position titles.  In the 1990s when I was teaching leadership development workshops in the private and public sectors, a director of training and development met me at the door and said, “Do not use the word manage in your workshop.  We manage programs, budgets, contracts, projects, processes and time. But we lead people. As leaders, our focus is on coaching, guiding, mentoring or engaging people and managing all that other stuff. You were hired to teach these leaders how to lead—not manage.”

Many of these managers that I was training in the 90s are now the volunteers whom we are engaging.  And they don’t want to be managed.  Leading volunteers is about allowing the knowledge workers of the new millennium to use the critical thinking, problem solving and process improvement skills that they use in their every day jobs.  We need to give our volunteers the opportunity to apply these skills and have input on decisions.

But do we empower everyone?  A good question.

The Who — the DTR of dating

Let’s face it, some people don’t want to be empowered  They want an empowered leader to tell them what to do such as answer the phone, greet visitors, paint a wall, dig a ditch, or stock shelves.  And these volunteers are essential. But even they don’t want to be managed like stuff. They want to be affirmed, listened to, encouraged, and given the opportunity to make decisions, which is all part of effective leadership.

Some volunteers, for example, will want to be given the freedom to stock the shelves their way.  They don’t want you to tell them how to do it.  And given the opportunity, that one-time, episodic volunteer can mess up all of your shelves. Not all influencers are a good influence. Therefore we need to pick carefully who we are going to empower to be the kind of influence we want.  And we do this by the dating method of volunteer recruitment.  For those of you who are new to The New Breed method of recruiting see “Recruiting is Like Dating.

To take the dating principle of recruiting to another dimension, think DTR.  When a couple has been dating for some time, there comes a time when one person says to the other, “It’s time we DTR.”  When one person makes that statement, the whole relationship changes. In dating the DTR is the “Define the Relationshipstage of a growing commitment.  Those words can end the relationship or move it to a new level. Just like dating, there comes a time in the volunteer relationship when we need to determine if we want to continue the relationship with the volunteer and the volunteer needs to determine if they want to continue a relationship with us.  It’s a two way street that takes time.

The purpose of the DTR is to move the episodic volunteer to a higher level of commitment where the volunteer will come back week after week, month after month and even year after year to take on a high capacity leadership role. Since many of you plan one-time events, I encourage you to use that time to notice who the influencers are.  They are the leaders.  Work beside them.  Get to know them. See if you want a second, third, fourth date and finally DTR where you can empower these people of influence.

When we DTR of the volunteers who we want influence the people we serve and other volunteers, how do we make all of this work?

The How  — Handoff the task without dropping the ball

When Jonathan and I wrote The New Breed, we devoted an entire chapter to the how’s of  empowerment and described in detail how to give choices to our volunteers rather than delegate jobs to them.  We called these choices the “handoffs.”  To demonstrate how to hand off a project, task, problem, or emergency, we used the analogy of a quarterback handing off the football.  One of the most important responsibilities of the quarterback, and the leader, is the skill of the smooth handoff without dropping the ball.  We identified the six rules of the handoff so that the leaders don’t drop the ball, and we illustrated each of the rules with examples of effective handoffs—empowerment.  Here is a quick summary of the six rules.

The six empowerment rules of the effective handoff

  • Rule One  Don’t hog the ball.  Give it away.  It all starts with a willingness to trust another ball carrier.
  • Rule Two:  Label each hand off as either delegation or empowerment
      • Delegation level:  Let’s talk about it before you act.  Use this level with the one-time, one-event driven volunteers who show up to do a task—the classic episodic volunteer.
      • Empowerment level:  Go ahead and act, then tell me about what you did. Use this level with your faithful volunteers that you have coached and you trust the to make decisions that benefit your mission.
    • Rule Three:  Secure the handoff with a check-up appointment.   Always set a time to see how the project is going and how you can help.
    • Rule Four:  Break down the task to manageable goals.  Michael Jordan didn’t think of averaging 32 points a game.  He thought about getting 8 points a quarter.
    • Rule Five:  Don’t take the handoff if you can’t do anything about it.  How many projects clutter up your desk that you never touch? Don’t take them in the first place. To paraphrase Ken Blanchard in his “putting the monkey on your back” metaphor, he says that we must determine if we are going to shoot the monkey or feed it. We probably ought to shoot a bunch of monkeys.
    • Rule Six: Develop good handoff skills to avoid disaster.  Sloppy handoff skills may not be noticed when you only have one or two volunteers. But when your organization grows, those bad habits will catch up with you big time. So master the basics which are the five previous handoff skills.

When you empower your volunteers, you do several things.

    1. First, you give people choices.
    2. Second, you define the boundaries of those choices so that you stay true to your mission.
    3. But most of all you are a leader.  As you empower other leaders, you will create a ripple effect that extends your sphere of influence far beyond what you could do if you merely manage people.

John Quincy Adams, the sixth United States president, caught the essence of empowering leadership when he defined leadership as “what we do whenever our actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more.” This is leadership that influences rather than manages.

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6 Responses to The Why, Who and How of Empowering Volunteers — The Ripple Effect of Influence

  1. Tom, I believe you’ve gone too far here. I’m all for encouraging volunteers to make suggestions that will improve operations, and suggest how their own responsibilities should be defined and carried out. However, from a risk management point of view, even the most veteran, trusted volunteers need to follow whatever procedures the organization has established after asking the threshold question, “What could possibly go wrong?” In my volunteer insurance program, we’ve seen many claims arising from the actions of veteran, trusted volunteers who were left to improvise a task or make a decision that turned out to be wrong. There are fundamental steps any organization can follow, to develop a practical and sustainable risk management system. “Empowerment” needs to be contained within that system, and not allowed overrun it. You mentioned boundaries, but I believe you have downplayed them too much in this article.

  2. Thanks William for your insights from the rick management perspective. And I agree with your concerns about empowerment. I am so often temped to go back to the old 20th century management system–so much safer and easier; however, the New Breed, 21s century volunteer will not be managed. That is why training leaders of volunteers is so essential, and in our workshops we carefully outline the impact factors of empowerment and how to implement them. Tough to cover all of this in a short article on empowerment. We do address your concerns in our book, The New Breed.

  3. Frankie says:

    I once made the mistake of reading all his books – up to and including American Tabloid – over the course of one Summer. Talk about lit indigestion. But American Tabloid really did impress me that much and I wanted more just like it.While I hated The Cold Six Thousand have to confess that Blood's A Rover's a stonking read, with a real plot that keeps you turning the pages.For anyone new to Ellroy, I would say American Ta;9oid&#3lbs the best place to begin – it's his best book by a mile.

  4. I do not understand why need to control volunteers! it is the same people who had gathered at will

  5. Pingback: Volunteering – Why it Matters in the World – CAPTURE COLLECTION

  6. Debora Moritz says:

    I was just struggling with a “new volunteer incentive” program imposed by an organization I work with and this article helped me to pinpoint some of my concerns. I have never been a fan of “command and control” models in volunteerism.

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