Have you ever worked for a not-for-profit organization that relies heavily on volunteers to accomplish its mission? Have you ever been a volunteer yourself? If so, you know just how deeply committed—and highly effective—volunteers can be. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most not-for-profits couldn’t function without their volunteers. During my years at Cleveland Clinic, for example, I was continually amazed at the remarkable service provided to patients and their families by the hospital’s more than 1000 volunteers.
What inspires these people to give up their time? They certainly feel a call to serve; they undoubtedly have a strong sense of purpose. But still, they could always give their time to some other organization. So you have to ask: how does an organization attract volunteers? How does it keep them committed? How does it keep them coming back? And how does a leader’s behavior change when the people he or she leads can always just walk away?
In my experience, not-for-profit organizations go to great lengths to tell their story, and tell it in a way that gives volunteers a gut level connection with the people the organization serves and what it’s trying to accomplish. They recognize their volunteers, tell stories about their contributions to the mission, and celebrate them as heroes.
Organizations that depend on volunteers don’t manage by simply telling them what to do. Instead they manage with a ‘light touch,” explaining what needs to be done and how to do it, and providing ample support to help their volunteers succeed. Leaders in these organizations manage to their volunteers’ strengths, giving them a choice of how to participate and trying to make the work as much fun as possible. And again, most of all they find ways to thank their volunteers and let them know that without their efforts, the organization could not succeed or possibly even survive.
Now there’s no doubt that to a great extent most of us go to work every day because that’s how we pay the bills. Getting paid is a powerful motivator. But is compensation enough? Can money alone create engagement, that “heightened emotional and intellectual connection that an employee has for their job, organization, manager, or co-workers that, in turn, influences them to apply additional discretionary effort to their work.”
There’s a considerable body of research that indicates that money alone can’t buy engagement. And on the flip side, not-for-profit organizations have demonstrated that engagement can be stimulated without money!
So what if we did treat our employees like volunteers? What if we treated them as if they could just leave at any time—which by the way is true for our people whose skills are most in demand, the people we most want and need to retain? How would we change as leaders? How would our organizations change? How would our people respond and what results could we achieve?
A strange idea or a key insight? Let me know your thoughts.