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How to turn volunteers into stewards

By Nicole Pokorney

Volunteers are vital for non-profit organizations. Staff need be able to optimize the use of volunteers to maximize their efforts to spread the work and their impact. Traditionally, staff guide the work and vision of an organization. But for true transformation, staff and volunteers must move the mission forward together.

To do that, staff and volunteers must share the vision, along with the energy and passion to transform the volunteers into engaged stewards. The result is enabled volunteers who are equipped to guide youth programs and make fundamental shifts to meet the organization’s evolving needs.

From volunteer to engaged steward

People volunteer for many reasons and are motivated by different things. Research shows that “Job satisfaction is related to achievement, recognition for accomplishment, challenging work, increased responsibility and individual growth and development.” When volunteers lack a sense of connection and purpose, they feel unfulfilled, may no longer support the mission of the organization and may even discontinue their service. Stewardship is a concept that can engage volunteers on a deeper level. Deepening the commitment to service turns the commitment to the larger community rather than the self. 

Changing mental models

A vital step in transforming volunteer systems is to create a change in mental models. Corrigan defines mental models as “frames of reference that define our thinking and how we view the world.” By creating a space for mental models to be questioned and explored, volunteers and staff can develop a shared vision and purpose of the organization. How decisions are made, qualities of volunteer roles, roles of young people and areas of committee focus are a few of the expanses that involve shifting frames of reference for change. 

The transformation process

Through facilitative practices, staff can provide the necessary processes for developing shared purpose and deeper engagement in volunteer teams. Staff play a vital role in developing this atmosphere and culture. As volunteers become engaged stewards of the organization, they reciprocate, creating the space for staff to experience freedom in order to modify their roles and responsibilities to better support the volunteers.

Here’s a general process for empowering volunteers to make the transformational shift:

  1. Develop and engage a core team of existing volunteers.
  2. Create the environment for open, honest dialog.
  3. Identify the business need for reform.
  4. Create a shared vision and purpose of the organization.
  5. Allow new leadership to emerge.
  6. Continue to engage partners and form new partnerships.
There are many activities and experiences staff can use to facilitate the process, such as World CafĂ©, round table visioning, surveys, small group discussions and focus groups. The Extension Center for Community Vitality has two resources, Committees that Work and Facilitation Resources, You might also consider attending these two trainings: The Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations that Matter, both offered by Extension.

What facilitative practices do you use that are effective in transforming volunteer systems?

-- Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator

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