HR Should Run Volunteer Organizations

Paul Hebert Employee Coaching, Employee Relations, Engagement and Satisfaction, Good HR, Influence, Organizational Development, Paul Hebert, Performance

I read a quote a long time ago – I think it was from Peter Drucker – that said something along the lines of:

“If you want to really understand management, manage volunteers.”

I find that concept more and more relevant to what today’s managers must do in order to drive performance within their organizations.  While the economy may be a concern and employees are keeping their heads below the log to keep their salary and benefits – at some point that will change and if you don’t set the foundation now – you will be looking at empty cube farms.

I think one way to start preparing for the inevitability is to start viewing your employee base as volunteers and begin working with your management teams to change how they manage.  Once you start thinking about employees as volunteers – the entire relationship between employee and company changes.

Think about it…


  • Are passionate about their work – and want to have impact.
  • Aren’t bound by the same command and control requirements that “employees” have.
  • Can leave when they want if they don’t think things are moving in a direction they like.

Managing volunteers is tough, tough work.  Managing volunteers takes different skills.  In most cases a manager of “employees” can simply say – “do this,” and it gets done.  Managers of volunteers don’t have that luxury.  I think it really changes how you look at motivation and influence if you remove the handcuffs of “employment” from your view of managing performance.  It makes you work harder at aligning your goals and their goals.  And that is a good thing.

Some examples:

  • For volunteers you create mission, passion, drive to achieve specific goals and a shared end-game – people don’t volunteer for squishy missions
  • For volunteers you continually reinforce individual contribution to the overall goal in order to maintain engagement
  • For volunteers you allow greater leeway for personality and individual style – you’re just happy to have a productive member on the team (volunteers are a scarce resource)
  • For volunteers you work harder to find their true value and where they can contribute the most – you don’t force them into roles they aren’t suited for
  • For volunteers you listen to their ideas more (why not – they have the same goal in mind and are as passionate as you are right?)
  • For volunteers you forgive small mistakes in light of the greater good
  • For volunteers you ask for recommendations for more volunteers

Managing volunteers means valuing their individual contributions.

Managing volunteers isn’t about directing effort as much as it is about allowing effort to find its best path. 

As a manager – take a few minutes and ask yourself –

“What would I do different if all my staff could just walk out tomorrow?”