Leading Volunteers Through Change

Volunteer Change Management

volunteer change management

Leading volunteers through change is not easy. Those offering their time and talents to an organization tend to get used to how things are done and may not like any suggested change. Those leading volunteers may fear rocking the boat, where a suggested change may encourage a volunteer to rethink the time they spend with your organization overall. Below are 4 questions you can ask when considering change.

The first two questions come from a technique called force field analysis by Kurt Lewin. This technique assumes every leadership situation contains driving and restraining forces. Driving forces represent positive support, pushing for change. Restraining forces are those working against any proposed change.

1. What forces do you have going for the change?

Before making a significant change, consider what you have going for you. Do you have the support of leadership? Do you have the support of your co-workers? Do you have the support of key volunteers and other stakeholders? If organizational leadership and key volunteers support your proposed change, then you may have the ability to overcome any restraining forces, or those who won’t like your proposed change.

As you begin, you will need get others on the bus. Change expert John Kotter calls this “creating a guiding coalition” (2012). The more people you win over to your idea, the higher the chance it will succeed. Check out The Secret to Gathering a Group (to do anything).

2. What forces do you have going against the change?

Inevitably, some people will be against your proposed change. The bigger the change, the more likely you will confront forces questioning the need for and feasibility of your proposal. The more naysayers you face, the harder it will be to see your change succeed long-term. In fact, if there are more forces against your proposed change than those for it, the time may not be right to make the change. Instead, you may need to do the work to win over leadership and key volunteers one at a time until the forces for your change and greater than those against it.

Change is difficult for most people. We prefer to hold on to the challenges we know and understand rather than giving them up for something new and unknown. As leaders we need to cast a clear vision to our volunteers, helping them see the benefit of the proposed change. We need to help them see the benefit for both the organization and them as volunteers.

3. What authority do you have to make the proposed change?

Do you have the actual organizational authority to make the change? If not, your first challenge will be to win over the person in authority to make your desired change. If you do have the authority to make the change, there are other types of authority to consider.

You may have organizational authority, but to what extent do others believe in your leadership? To what extent have you earned trust with your volunteers? Trust builds like coins in a jar over time. The more coins you have in your leadership trust jar, the greater the ability you have to make your proposed change.

Making a change can be a bit of a bet. You’re cashing in and betting trust coins you’ve built up over time that your proposed change will work. If it works well, you’ll earn more coins. However, if it doesn’t, you will lose some of the trust coins you’ve built up. This is ok as long as you still have enough trust coins left in the jar. If you go “all in” on a proposed change and it fails, your leadership position within an organization may take a big hit.

For this reason, when a volunteer administrator is new to a position, it’s advisable to earn trust with your volunteer team, co-workers, and other stakeholders before making significant changes.

4. Are the benefits worth the battle?

Is your proposed change worth it? There is a potential cost to every change we make as volunteer administrators. The bigger the change the higher potential that we may lose volunteers over it. Change sometimes gives volunteers an opportunity to leave their role. I would suggest the further a volunteer is from connecting with the mission, the more likely they will be to quit over smaller concerns.

You will not be able to win everyone over to every proposed change. Some may not believe the change will be beneficial until they see it in action. Others may never like the change and wistfully remember the good ole’ days. However, if the change is beneficial for the organization long-term, it may still be worth some volunteer loss. Over time, some volunteers who initially leave may come back after hearing the new changes weren’t as bad as they were fearing.

A real-life example

I remember when I took over the children’s ministry at our church. At the time there were 15 or so teenagers hanging around the service, wandering around our children’s ministry area during the service. I had no idea who was helping and who was wandering. As I took over I knew something needed to change immediately. Before making any changes I discussed the situation with church leadership, the youth leader and key volunteers. We even had a meeting for youth parents to discuss the new changes. Most parents and church leadership saw the issue and were on board for change. I was not suggesting that teenagers couldn’t help, only that they needed to get on a schedule and be given clear volunteers roles to help.

As I pulled the trigger on this change, church leadership did receive blowback. Some parents and youth were upset and concerned that their teenager wasn’t able to “help” anymore. Some parents felt their teen wasn’t ready to attend the main church service. With the full support of church leadership I felt confident to cast a new vision for these parents for a new way of thinking about the main church service and volunteering in kid’s ministry.

This change was challenging. It took energy and I had to have multiple conversations with concerned parents. A few parents threatened to leave. Eventually, the change stuck and no one missed the way things were done before. As a result our church’s kid’s ministry became a much safer place for children to learn and grow.

Putting it all together

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Implementing change can be challenging. It takes energy and time to cast a vision and win others over to your vision for a new reality. It can feel easier to keep things going as they are and not rock the boat. You probably have key volunteers you value keeping over any potential change.

However, some changes are worth it. Change is a part of leadership. As a volunteer leader, your job is to dream of a better future and move your team toward making that dream a reality. The organization you serve and population you help deserves your leadership. Over time, earn trust, build support, and consistently innovate. Do not merely maintain what is out of fear and miss out on what could be.

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