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amazing things via volunteers

© WILL POOLE, Social Technologist; Managing Partner at Unitus Seed Fund.

In my corporate career I had hundreds, and at times thousands, of people working in organizations I led.  Since making my transition to being a venture investor, social technologist, and board member, I’ve had exactly zero people working for me.  But I’ve still be able to accomplish amazing things, especially in my nonprofit endeavors, by leading volunteers to achieve extraordinary results.  Whether recruiting students in the UW Foster School of Business or the Masters in Communications in Digital Media, or CxO’s of public companies, or everyday-busy professionals, I’ve found that great results are achieved in many of the same ways as they are when you’re leading an organization of highly-paid professionals who work for you.  They’re more the same than they’re different. Here are five things I’ve learned over the years.

  1. Attract mission-driven people.  If you articulate a vision clearly – one that people really care about – you can get them excited about going on an arduous mission to achieve that vision.  If your vision and mission are not clearly articulated, you risk getting people signed up for the wrong reason or not getting them fully committed.
  2. Define roles clearly.  Everyone wants to know where they fit in and what specific role they play in achieving the mission.  They want boundaries and clarity. And they want to know what roles others play and how they all work together.  Nobody likes overlapping roles or conflict within an organization, regardless of whether they are volunteering or getting paid the big bucks.
  3. Be accountable and ask for accountability in return.  With volunteers and employees, there are few things more important than having clear accountability.  You must lead by example, showing unwavering accountability to your role, and ask others to follow with the same.  My ask  is simple: please tell me what you want to do, what you can absolutely commit to doing, and then do at least that. I often add the concept that “If you will not be able to do what you said you’ll do, I ask that you do your absolute best to find someone else to do it.”
  4. Make realistic asks. In all cases, you need to ask someone to do something that you are reasonably confident they can get done, hopefully while stretching and growing.  One learning that’s specific to volunteer leadership is in making modest, defined asks that have boundaries and endpoints.  Not that all volunteer engagements need to be that way, but when attracting busy professionals to such roles, the time commitment and term of engagement should be clear, reasonable, and not too far into the future.
  5. Give feedback and credit, early and often.  Everyone wants to be recognized for their efforts.  You don’t have to wait until the end of a project or program or annual checkpoint to provide feedback.  More is better.  And with volunteers, always go the extra mile to thank and recognize them and their accomplishments.


On October 18th, we concluded SVP’s second-annual Social Innovation Fast Pitch program. I had the privilege of leading more than 150 volunteers who contributed to the program over the course of nearly six months.  Some worked only a handful of hours in total, some worked many hundreds of hours.  But they all did what they said they’d do, and they made it possible for an extraordinary group of 26 social innovators to tell their story in front of 700+ people in Seattle’s Fisher Pavilion, and for them to receive more than 20 cash awards and investments.  And all 700+ of us shared in the satisfaction of helping others along their mission to achieve amazing things for our community.

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This entry was posted on October 22, 2012 by in guest bloggers, leadership and tagged , , , , .

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