Are Volunteer Administrators Leaders?

Volunteer Administrators

Amazing individuals oversee volunteers across the country every day. They consistently and creatively contribute to organizational missions through community partnerships and volunteers. They may work full-time, part-time, or are even unpaid. But are volunteer administrators leaders? Is their role valued within organizations as a leadership role?

Volunteer Manager Research

One of the most interesting articles I’ve read on this topic was published in 2016 by Nesbit, Rimes, Christensen, and Brudney. They interviewed 34 volunteer administrators from 20 different locations within a large library system. Their investigation focused on how individuals overseeing volunteers within a library viewed their role. The results were fascinating.

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Inadvertent Leaders

The placement of individuals in the volunteer manager role was found to be “haphazard” rather than planned and purposeful. A few individuals had no idea why they were chosen for the role or what skills the offered made them a good candidate. One volunteer manager felt that volunteer responsibilities were given to whomever had been hired most recently.

The role was not considered a legitimate manager role with no clear role criteria. Almost 85% of those interviewed did not consider managing volunteers as a promotion. Instead, many saw the role as an opportunity to express leadership in order to acquire a “legitimate” management role in the future. The fact that the role was called, “volunteer point persons” instead of any sort of management title didn’t help with perception within the library system.

One final interesting observation involves the use of volunteers. The library system held no clear view of volunteering or the utilization of volunteers. Therefore, the role and responsibilities of volunteers varied from library to library. Some administrators used volunteers to a great extent while others hardly used them at all.

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Why This Matters

Effective volunteer oversight is a matter of art and science. It takes creativity to consider the organizational tasks best suited to volunteers. It takes skill to recruit, train, and retain volunteers. If utilized effectively, volunteers have the ability to improve organizational effectiveness, help save money and increase relationships with potential donors. An effectively run volunteer program also improves an organization’s relationship with the local community.

Assuming that anyone can lead volunteers or considering it a menial task is the same as assuming that anyone has the skill to recruit, train, and lead others. Leadership is a skill that must be learned and developed. If the findings from this study are replicated with other groups, then it reveals how far the field of volunteer administration has to go to be validated as a relevant field.

Suggested Applications

Nonprofits Utilizing Volunteers

  • How do you envision volunteers being utilized within your organization?
  • Do you plan on using volunteers for ongoing tasks, projects, or specific events?
  • Whatever your comfort level- what would it look like to use volunteers more than you were planning?
  • What are the skills needed to proficiently oversee volunteers to accomplish your vision?

Volunteer Administrators

  • Does your organization have a vision for volunteer utilization? If not, come up with one.
  • Do you have the skills necessary to accomplish your organization’s volunteer goals?
  • What skills are you missing to help with sufficient volunteer recruitment and retention?
  • Are you “leading” volunteers toward a desired goal or merely “managing” volunteers that find their way to your desk?


  • Does the organization you’re volunteering for have a designated volunteer administrator?
  • Does it feel like their expectations are clear for your role/task?

The Takeaway

Volunteer leadership does not happen on accident. It’s fascinating that volunteer administrators within a large library system did not consider their role as a true management position nor understand why they were offered the role. When research consistently shows that volunteer retention and recruitment are some of the largest issues facing those charged with volunteer oversight, a potential reason begins to emerge.

Organizations need to develop a clear vision for volunteer use. These organizations also need to choose individuals best suited to accomplish organizational goals for volunteers. As many nonprofits lack clear goals or plans for volunteer use, it should come as no surprise why so many struggle to recruit and retain volunteers. As nonprofits begin to set clear goals for volunteer use, an improved volunteer experience will begin increase volunteer retention and productivity.