Engage volunteers* with ease (whether you pay them or not)

Group Of Women Working Together seated around table

You walk into a meeting.

Now you know, from your own experience, that people will probably leave this meeting with assignments — tasks or roles they are responsible for in order for the group to achieve its purpose.

Meetings like this tend to fall along a spectrum of effectiveness.

  • At one extreme, everyone is assigned a task, whether they want it or not, and everyone leaves with a sense that they have to put their nose to the grindstone to get it done.
  • At the other extreme, the roles and tasks are so poorly conceived that nobody quite knows what is needed, so another meeting is set “for us to figure out what we have to do.”

Both meetings wind up feeling like they were designed for someone else, but not for you.

When you are in the driver’s seat, you can do things differently! Whether your volunteers are paid* or unpaid, you want to motivate them to get the work done!

Here’s a great way to do just that.

First, plan ahead and get REALLY CLEAR. Even if you believe everyone who shows up to your meeting is clear about why they are there, you would be surprised at how broad their intentions and unclear their ideas about how they might be involved following the meeting.

PREPARE for clarity: Before the meeting, take some time to map out the general tasks that will need to be done.

Define the roles and tasks. What will need to be done? How many people are needed for each task? Could one role be split between two or more people? How much commitment will each role take? Be clear on these so your volunteers will know what they are stepping up for.

When you are describing the roles, be very clear about expectations. What would they have to accomplish to succeed? What would they have to do first to succeed at those things?

INVITE: Why are we doing this? The invitation to the meeting is important. Be sure to invite people with an awareness of the purpose of the meeting. Be clear about the issues you want to discuss and explore. If you are inviting someone because they have agreed to a role (or you believe they have), send them a detailed role description ahead of time.

INTRODUCE: Ask introductions to be short and yet encompass both what is basic (name, title) and what is unusual (a fun fact) Seat participants in a circle and ask that each answer the questions. (If your group is too large to allow time for this, form smaller circles so they can hear and contribute to the answers of the people in their own circle.)

POSSIBILITY: What were you hoping to receive when you joined this group/organization?  Answer the question first, yourself. Your level of vulnerability will set the tone for the rest of the participants.

What would you most like for this group to be like?  A question like this helps you as the facilitator to bring their assumptions and intentions to the surface. Answer the question first (with a heart of compassion for yourself and others), then ask each person in the circle to answer in turn.

Note: This question works only if you are open to co-creation in the group’s design and outcomes. If you are, the reward will be higher engagement! If you only want one outcome, skip this conversation and accept that engagement will be lower than it could be with a co-created design.

OWNERSHIP: What are your strengths? What are you doing when you are at your best? In order to create the group you most want, what gifts could you contribute? These questions encourage each participant to look inside themselves, to reflect on their gifts and capabilities. This is important, because the work will get done much faster and more easily if each person is using their own strengths to do what comes most naturally.

Encourage them to make a note in a journal or notebook about their answers to this question. You might encourage them to share their answers with a partner, which increases accountability, but it is not important that they answer this question in the circle. (In fact, answering in the circle could lead to distracting side conversations that are irrelevant to your purpose, so it’s best to skip circle sharing of this one.)

COMMITMENT: Finally, share the tasks and roles you’ve defined that require volunteers. Let everyone know what needs to be done and what level of commitment is being asked for each role/task. Then ask everyone in the circle to respond to how they can help to create the group/outcomes they have said they most want.

One last pointer: Get out of the way. Since you facilitated the conversation, you will be considered as the leader of the group, and those who have stepped forward to accept roles may think of you as the “boss” for the project. If this is a role you intend to keep, focus your efforts on supporting their actions and asking questions to help them think through challenges.

Offer LOTS of specific, positive feedback, but be cautious about intervening with suggestions and corrections. Each time you do this, you are encouraging the volunteer to come back to you for decisions and approvals, which will add to the time you are putting into the project.

Stay mentally involved enough to offer positive feedback, but support others in solving their own problems, and you won’t wind up with more responsibility than you wanted.

*Paid volunteers work for your company, but you may want them to step forward voluntarily to take on new or additional tasks. This format works in such a situation.


Hi! I coach purpose-driven, socially responsible, soulful leaders to discover their destiny and own their power with humor, courage and compassion.

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