The 2 “Football Basics” of Volunteer Engagement

footballFall is different things to different people. To parents it’s back to school. To me the lazy days of summer are over, and I have kick off my sandals and start wearing shoes again. To my son Jonathan and his wife Lori… it’s football!

If you live in America, it’s hard to avoid the excitement about this game. Entire nights of television (like tonight) are dedicated to the sport. So what can we, as directors of volunteers in the beginning of a new season, learn from football to kickoff a successful volunteer season?

For those of us who are older boomers, we remember the first years of the Super Bowls when Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls—after all the trophy is called the Vince Lombardi trophy. According to David Maraniss in his best-selling book, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi, Coach Lombardi handled the devastating loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960 NFL championship game by getting back to basics.  When the team met the next July for training camp, Lombardi stood before his team holding the pigskin in his right hand and said,

Gentlemen, this is a football. football1

And as a result of emphasizing the basics, Lombardi’s team became the best in the league at the tasks everyone else took for granted—blocking and tackling.

If I were to stand up in front of my leaders who are in charge of engaging volunteers, what would I hold up to emphasize volunteer basics?  Just as Lombardi’s team became the best in the league at the tasks that everyone else took for granted—blocking and tackling— in our world our volunteer teams can become the best at the tasks that everyone else is taking for granted.  What are they?

In volunteer leadership there are two basics that we often take for granted—asking and affirming. No matter what generation, what professional skills they have, or how busy they are, the basics are classic and they have not changed. Even the New Breed of Volunteer responds to the basics. In our drive to be creative and use all the social media tools to engage volunteers, we often forget that there are some basics that volunteer managers are neglecting. Are these two fundamentals in your playbook?  Do you teach them and emphasize them?

And the most important question is:

Are you just taking these basic tasks—asking and affirming— for granted and assuming that everyone is exercising them with great skill?

Basic one:  Asking
Last summer I was having coffee at Panera with a senior in college.  As we were visiting, two directors of volunteers for a local youth program saw us and stopped by our table. As we visited, they began to talk about how people were so busy that they just weren’t volunteering.  The two leaders were panicked as they desperately needed volunteers.  I asked them what method they had used, and they talked about their marketing campaign and a creative video they had made to show the need and opportunities to make an impact in the lives of youth.

As they walked away, the student said to me, “Why didn’t they ask me? I love to work with youth.”

So I asked her, ‘Why didn’t you volunteer?”

She replied, “What if they didn’t want me?’’

I understood her feeling. These two women did not understand that announcements often don’t get volunteers— or the people you want.  Announcements only awaken passion and cause a person to think, “I could do that.”  But many people won’t volunteer.


The New Breed volunteer will always wonder if they are really wanted if not asked.  But when you ask someone to be a volunteer, you are valuing that person and saying to them, “Your skills, time, and positive attitude would be a huge help on our team.”

Basic two:  Affirming
This summer Ashley, a sophomore in college, worked with high-risk youth. I was invited by the sponsoring organization to an appreciation dessert for these college students who spent their summer working with young people. My wife Susie and I cut our vacation short to attend that dessert—after all, Ashley is our granddaughter.

The executive director called the six students up in front of the group one at a time, and the paid staff told specific stories about what each student had contributed that summer. Then the executive director handed each one a thank you card with a $50 Amazon gift card.

You should have seen the energy and excitement in that room. Ashley and her family were so proud to be a part of the organization.

I was reminded of how effective feedback is to volunteers.  It doesn’t have to be a meeting, a dessert or a gift certificate (although that is cool), but a personal thank you is as basic as it gets.

Legendary coaches focus on basics
Lombardi emphasized blocking and tackling.  Basketball coach John Wooden of the UCLA Bruins even went so far as to teach his players how to put on their socks and tie their shoes. Pat Summit, coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, said, “Keep it simple — don’t try to teach to many things. It’s not what you teach…it’s what you emphasize.”  She emphasized basics like pressure defense, rebounding, and taking care of the ball.

Obviously there is a lot more to winning football games than just blocking and tackling, and there is much more to developing a winning volunteer team than just asking and affirming.  And I’m not suggesting that we coach our volunteer teams emulating Lombardi’s hard-edge style and grueling training regimens; however, I am urging you not to take for granted these basic tasks—asking and affirming.

In our book,  The New Breed, we show how to use them with the New Breed of Volunteers.  For example, to get an idea of the how we demonstrate asking in the book, see “The Seven Deadly Sins of Recruiting.”  Volunteer leaders and coaches who commit those sins are neglecting the basics.

So as Lombardi’s team became the best in the league at the tasks everyone else took for granted, blocking and tackling, let me challenge you to . . .

Become the best at the tasks that volunteer managers so often take for granted—asking and affirming.

This entry was posted in Leadership, Marketing, Recruiting, The New Breed of Volunteer, Volunteer Engagement, volunteer management, Volunteer Retension. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The 2 “Football Basics” of Volunteer Engagement

  1. Glenda Hunt says:

    Awesome, even simple advice but effective! I always say, “just ask.” Your words say to me, now enhance those affirmation skills! Thank you.

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