Failures of Volunteer Leaders

A while ago I wrote about how grateful I was that a valued employee was brave enough to tell me that he didn’t think I was doing a very good job (The Crone in the Corner Office, July 14, 2016: “Hearing Loss at the Top of the Mountain.”).  Many readers wrote to me privately since that essay appeared, asking for advice on giving their boss feedback.  Oh, the awful boss stories I’ve heard, leading me to write again about how we must take responsibility for ourselves and our own issues (The Crone in the Corner Office, September 8, 2016: “Does Your Boss Need Therapy, Coaching, Miss Manners or Meds? How About You?”).

Clearly, I have grossly underestimated the degree of hearing loss among people in positions of responsibility!  And they are not just our managers at for-profit companies.  These leaders run our PTAs and other volunteer organizations; they are officers in industry associations, clergy and lay people in our houses of worship and they head our school boards, our youth sports programs, our scout programs and I could go on and on.  When these kinds of people fail at leadership the consequences may be far-reaching: organizations can lose donors, members lose motivation and energy to work hard for the organization’s goals and become more passive. Our organizations lose their way.

I’ve also found that many people who are in leadership positions within volunteer organizations silently hold the belief that they are unappreciated and that no one knows how much they are giving in time, talent, expertise and energy (and sometimes money) and critical feedback about their leadership style is the last straw!  “If you don’t like how I’m doing it, do it yourself, “ sending the organization into chaos.

On the flip side the other volunteers have no desire to invite more chaos into the process.  They didn’t sign up for this and they have NO intention of confronting the individual who is a poor leader.  Easier to just back away.

A number of years ago, within the space of three days, I had foot surgery, my mother, who lived with us, had to go into a nursing home and the British owners of our company announced it was up for sale.  Mom was scared.  I couldn’t walk and couldn’t visit her.  I was feeling insecure and uncertain about what was happening in the office.  My poor husband was going to see my mother multiple times a day while trying to take care of me.  I called my church to ask if someone could visit my mom.  The minister was new and we had only met a few times but I had been an active member and Sunday school teacher for more than a decade.  No one ever called me back.

But I didn’t give up so easily.  When my mother died, I suggested that in lieu of flowers people could make contributions to one of the charities my church supported.  I followed up and asked for a list of donors.  It took 9 phone calls to get that list so that I could write thank you notes.

I’ve never been back to that church.  It was easier to back away than confront the failure in leadership.

Below are nine things that leaders of volunteer organizations should think about before they take on the responsibility of leadership.

1.   These kinds of positions always take much more time than you think they will.  They smallest organizations require a great deal of work.  If your “recruiter” says they need 4 hours a months that probably means 4 hours a week.  It will still be a great experience for you but plan accordingly.

2.   Members of organizations need to be treated with respect and honored for their commitment.  I know you’ve heard this story about “how we used to do things” ten times; be exceedingly polite as you steer the conversation in a different direction.

3.   Respect everyone’s time.  Come to meetings prepared, knowledgeable about the issues and learn how to run meetings in a way that keeps them moving but respects the people who are contributing.

4.   Listen. Really listen to what people are saying.  Don’t interrupt.

5.   Members are involved in this organization because it speaks to them or their values. Only take this position if you can honestly say the organization is bigger and more important than you!  Learn how to be a servant leader –and yes, there is such a term in the management and leadership literature.

6.   Remember that you are a volunteer leader and that title of “president” or  “chairperson” or “head” doesn’t make you omniscient. Ask for advice and counsel.  We are all here for the good of the organization.

7.   Don’t volunteer for a leadership position unless you are really organized.  We’ve all suffered with leaders who don’t return our calls, answer our emails or can never find anything.

8.   Before you say yes to a leadership position, make a list, for your eyes only, of the reasons you would take a leadership position in this organization.  Be honest.  If your reasons include enhancing your resume or getting your name more widely recognized in a field or making particular contacts, please say no to the “opportunity.”

9.   Finally, do this task because you believe in the cause.  Please don’t be a martyred leader, complaining about how overworked and underappreciated you are.  Please don’t threaten to give the gavel to someone else if they offer any feedback.  In fact, seek out feedback and listen.  It will serve you in the long run!

Our volunteer organizations are so important to many aspects of our lives.  They deserve good leadership.


“A noble leader answers not to the trumpet calls of self promotion, but to the hushed whispers of necessity.”                           ― Mollie Marti