What makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement?

It’s a question I’ve asked many times over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had consistent answers from people. This includes the answers from those familiar with professional credentialing programmes, such as the Certificate in Volunteer Administration (CVA) or the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) we used to have in England.

But it’s a question we should be able to answer, right? We should be able to articulate what makes us good at what we do, especially if we want to influence others around volunteering and the importance of good volunteer management?

I was, therefore, pleased to recently discover this article from the UK’s Canal and River Trust which set out “Seven qualities of a great volunteer manager”. There is little to disagree with in the article, but that also means there is little to distinguish a Volunteer Engagement Professional from any other role.

Which begs a further question: Is what makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement the same as what makes someone a good leader of paid staff, or of anything else?

In trying to answer that, I turned to the Volunteer Management Progress Report(VMPR), a piece of research specifically looking at Volunteer Engagement Professionals, which is conducted annually by Tobi Johnson. The VMPR has been running for seven years now and is perhaps the best source of up-to-date data on the profession.

The 2021 VMPR was the last one to contain comprehensive information on the characteristics of respondent volunteer mangers. Assuming those who respond to the survey are typical of the field, we can determine that good leaders of volunteer engagement are:

  • White (83.8% of respondents)
  • Female (88.1% of respondents)
  • Aged between 45 and 65 years old (mean and median average of respondents)
  • Work full time (80% of respondents)
  • Paid (93% of respondents)
  • Have more than ten years of experience in the field (56% of respondents)

Readers will hopefully realise that I am being facetious by suggesting these characteristics are what makes someone a good volunteer manager. There is, however, no getting away from the fact that they describe the typical Volunteer Engagement Professional. As Tobi put it in her analysis of the 2021 VMPR data (using her native USA for context):

“Research show that 66% of US nonprofit employees are women. While people of color are roughly 40% of the population, 32% of nonprofit employees are people of color, which is double the number of those who work in volunteerism (16%).

“Volunteering data in the US shows that volunteers also look like those who engage them – White (26.4% versus 19.3% of Blacks, 17.9% of Asians, and 5.5% of Latinos/as), educated (65.3% with at least some college education), and women (27.8% versus 21.8% men).”

“Our big questions continue to be – Does a lack of diversity affect who becomes a volunteer? Does this impact which volunteers discover opportunities, and which volunteers invite their friends, thus reinforcing a cycle of sameness?”

Let’s pause for a moment, then.

Does any of this bring us any closer to answering the question, what makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement?

Not definitely, no. But that’s why I titled this article,“Is this the hardest question to answer in volunteer management?” In almost thirty years, I’ve struggled with this question. So have others. And if you’ve ever though about the question, perhaps you can see why.

My aim in writing this article is to challenge all of us to find some sort of coherent and consistent answer. To that end, I want to propose some questions to engage what Hercule Poirot would have called the little grey cells:

  • What exactly do we mean by good in the context of leading volunteer engagement?
    • Is it truly about leadership (doing the right things) or management (doing things well)?
    • Put another way, is it about our ability to engage with people, or manage systems and processes, or both and, if both, what is the correct balance?
    • Do our professional credentials (CVA etc.) adequately reflect this?
    • Does our learning and development activity, sector conferences and events etc. adequately reflect this?
    • Is it about something else altogether?
    • If so, what?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement context specific? In other words, is ‘good’ in sports volunteering different from ‘good’ in health and social care volunteering, or ‘good’ in fundraising?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement different for formal volunteering compared to, say, informal volunteering, community engagement, movement building, mutual aid etc.?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement about serving and reflecting an existing audience of volunteers, or about actively implementing change to address inclusion, diversity, equality, and access issues?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement related to being different from the typical profile of our profession? If it is, then why? Is that because we can be more relevant and engaging to a wider range of potential volunteers?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement about delivering or innovating? Or both? And what is the correct balance if it is both?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement about being steeped in the traditions and knowledge of our field (as laid out in the tried and trusted texts of the profession)? Or is it about being inductive learners, embracing and adapting the practices of others and applying them to our work (e.g. learning from the experts in marketing and customer service to enhance volunteer recruitment)?

What do you think?

What are your reflections on these questions?

What other questions would you ask to help answer this challenging question?

If you had to say it in one sentence, what do you think makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement?

Leave a comment below and let’s get the conversation going.

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2 thoughts on “Is this the hardest question to answer in volunteer management?

  1. Passionate, compassionate, emotionally intelligent, visionary, curious, diligent, motivational, creative, can do attitude, great communicator, sense of humour, stoic, challenging (in a good way),reflective, not afraid to fail, share vulnerability (appropriately) great listener and adaptable.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The more mindful I am, the better I lead. I am more compassionate, peaceful, forgiving and loving. And the more you lead in a mindful way the more people you help, help others.

    Today’s World call out for mindful leaders – not mindless leadership.

    Today’s World calls out for compassionate leadership – not heartless.

    Today’s World calls out for forgiveness – “Forgive each other”.

    Today’s World calls out for loving leadership – hateful leadership brings strife, sadness, worry and fear. We fight wars instead of loving peace.

    Today’s only leader. Is the mindful leader.


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