Motivating volunteers to commit

MotivateHas this ever happened to you? You spot a parent at a troop meeting, chat with him or her and decide they’d be a good fit for a particular task you have in mind. After discussing it, they agree to take on the job, and you give some basic direction. Later that month at the committee meeting, they either don’t show up or report that nothing much has been done. We tend to brush it off as “everyone’s busy” and let it go, but as the weeks go by, there really isn’t any further progress. You really hate to bug them – they did volunteer, after all – but something has to move forward.

Sound familiar?

I think we’ve all been in a similar situation, either as the one being asked or the one doing the asking. It helps to think about the times we ourselves have been asked to do something and reflect on what motivated us to do it.

  • Was it because we enjoyed the work?
  • Helping the troop, pack or other organization?
  • Because we feared what would happen if we didn’t?

Those can all be valid reasons, and they can vary from person to person. Not everyone is motivated by the same factors as we are. And as the person in charge, our motivation is almost certainly different from the person we’re asking:

  • Our motivation is that we need a job done, and someone to do it.
  • Their motivation is ?????

That ????? is yours to figure out!

Dan Rockwell, one of my favorite leadership bloggers, reminds us that people commit for their reasons, not yours. People do what they want to do, not necessarily what you want them to do, so it’s your job to help them to understand the benefit that they’ll derive from working on the task at hand. You really do have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and while you should ask yourself what would it take to motivate you to do what you’re asking them to do if someone else asked you to do it, you have to avoid talking to them as you’d like to be talked to.

Rockwell offers seven key questions in his article, and although the aim is to help leaders in business work with subordinates, there are many takeaways for managing volunteers as well. Among them:

  • Does it matter? Of course it matters! You wouldn’t be asking if it didn’t matter. But you need to convince the other person that keeping tabs on troop t-shirts, or chasing missing health forms, is important enough that it warrants their attention.
  • Can I make a meaningful contribution? You certainly think they can; that’s why you selected them for the job. Frame the answer from their perspective. We’re all in this for our kids, so be sure it’s implicit that they can have a positive impact on the organization that serves their child.
  • Do I have the time and the resources? How long is the commitment? These are questions everyone asks when they’re introduced to an opportunity to serve. Most of us lead very busy lives, and it’s said that busy people make the best leaders because they have the skills needed to manage their time and resources. Have a realistic answer for them. “It’s only an hour a week” is the standard response, but something more specific, like “be at the committee meeting and one troop meeting a month to take and fill orders for shirts” really puts it down in black & white.

As with all interpersonal transactions, Rockwell reminds us that to be successful in motivating others, you must absorb yourself more in others – and less in yourself.

Next time there’s a job to do, and you follow Baden-Powell’s advice of don’t do it yourself, stop to think what would motivate you, translate that to asking what would motivate the other person, and approach them from that perspective. You’ll have a lot more success than simply asking for a job to be done – and you’ll end up with happier, better engaged and more motivated volunteers in the process.


This post first appeared on Bobwhite Blather.
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