We have all been there. That fateful day when a key leader in the group announces that they are stepping down from the position, and a new person needs to be found to take over. Often this results in panic among the group, and a dramatic search for a new person to fill the role begins. Unfortunately, this is the wrong time to be looking for a person. Finding the replacement for this position should have happened months before. Even before you knew you were going to need to recruit a new volunteer.
Recruiting adult leadership is often one of the hardest activities for a youth organization. There are many reasons for this, but often the approach to seeking and nurturing volunteers is at the heart of the difficulty. To help groups over their recruiting problems I have developed a list of Do’s and Don’ts.
DO – Start Early
Look for recruits for a position before they are needed. Having someone already prepared to take over a position when it is not needed is a blessing for those times when the leadership transition occurs. Identify potential candidates early and get them trained and ready to take over before the need arises.
I read a story recently about a leader who made her pregnant daughters promise to be volunteer leaders once their children were old enough to join the group. While this might be extreme, you do want to plant the seed of leadership in all of the adults in the group early on.
DO – Start Small
Asking someone to take on a major role in the group when their child has first joined can be intimidating to a new member. Instead, ask the new adults to assist someone else in their duties. Start small, perhaps assisting with a single event. Allowing someone to participate without the fear of responsibility provides a venue for success. A true leader can grow out of these small roles.
DON’T – Broadcast Your Need
Standing up in front of a large crowd and asking for ‘someone to do something’ is never very effective. Occasionally you will find a volunteer who will step forward, but often human nature leads us all to believe that there is someone else in the room more qualified or more enthusiastic about a role than us. So we let them step up rather than volunteer ourselves.
I have done this enough times to know that it is not very effective. Me: “Can someone with financial experience please help us out by being our group treasurer?” Group: [Sound of crickets chirping in the still night.] Sigh.
DO – Identify the Right Roles for the Right People
Get to know the adults who participate at the meetings. Talk to them about their interests, hobbies, and skills. Discover the characteristics of each person and begin thinking about how they would best contribute to the group. Some people thrive on public exposure; others are better suited for behind-the-scenes work. Understanding who will fit where can help you build your volunteer team recruiting list.
Looking for the right spark in people can often be a challenge. I had one dad in our group who was very reluctant to participate. Especially in anything that involved getting out in front of people. But this person had a great sense of humor and an ability to laugh at himself. Even though he could not see it, I knew that this person would be great working with the children. Eventually he agreed, starting with small supporting tasks and adding additional capabilities as he went along. Now, he is a key leader in two different groups and they are benefiting from his enthusiasm and skills. I found out much later that he was terrified of anything where he had to speak out in front of people, but he was not only able to overcome this through his role in the group, it also helped him in his personal and professional lives.
The success of another leader I know was summed up by what his wife said. “I raise four children in my home. Three of them are my sons and the other one is my husband who is really just an 8-year-old in a bigger body.”
DO – Ask Privately
The most effective method of recruiting volunteers that I have found is to approach them along with one other leader. Before approaching the recruit, discuss with your colleague which role would be a good fit for the person and what skills they possess that validate your decision. Sit down with the recruit in a neutral, quiet place and share what you know about their skills and how those would help them be successful at the role. Don’t stop asking until you get agreement to participate or a satisfying answer why they are not actually right for the job. If you do get a satisfying denial, ask what job that they think they can do to help the group move forward.
Don’t – Stick with the Conventional Choices
Look beyond the obvious leadership recruits. Besides parents, you could look for volunteers from other groups of people like grandparents, college-aged adults, and people already engaged in the community.
One of the best leaders I have ever met was a reluctant grandmother volunteer of two boys. Her daughter had volunteered to be the adult leader for her son’s group and then abruptly broke both her arms in an accident. While she was out of commission the group floundered for a while until the leader’s mother stepped in to help out. At first she was going to participate for 6 months and turn the reins back over to her daughter. When the end of the 6 months approached, she decided that she would continue to the end of the year. Before the next session started, she agreed to be the leader for the group for another year. “But, you will need to find a new leader for the next year,” she said. Before that year’s session ended, she was already planning what she would be doing with the group for the following year. After that, leaders were expected to camp with the group. She was not up for that activity and started looking for a replacement leader. I had recommended several potential candidates, but she was not sure if any of them could do the job to her satisfaction. Finally she came to me and asked, “How much camping is required?” I explained that two weekend campouts were expected. Her response: “Okay, I can do that.” She ended up following those boys all the way through their time in the group, becoming the fundraising chairperson, and promising to start again with a new group of children the next year even though she wouldn’t have any more grandchildren participating. Full of ideas and enthusiasm, she was a great asset to our team.
Do – Support and Encourage
Your job as a recruiter is not done once you find someone willing to take on the role. Make sure that you continue to support them in their new role so that they can be successful. Be sure to publicly acknowledge their contribution to the group and privately congratulate them on their successes, no matter how small. Remember, just stepping forward to lend a hand is a success. A kind word and some genuine encouragement can go a long way in converting a reluctant assistant into a confident leader.
DO – Look for Your Replacement Right Away
Ask each leader, once they are comfortable with their position, to begin to find the next person who could take over for them. Identifying the next recruit and sharing the job responsibilities with others establishes a precedent for an ongoing leadership transition.
As a leader I often tried to identify whether I was doing a good job. Although the size of the group, whether the group is achieving its mission, and if every one is enjoying participating are the obvious examples of success, I realized that there is another very important criterion. Will the group continue to work well together if I am no longer part of the equation? Building a team and knowing that your role will be taken care of going forward even if you are not there is very rewarding. It provides a degree of continuity that helps you to know that you are leaving a legacy.
DON’T – Toss Out A Title and Leave
Once you get a volunteer, make sure that they are successful. Give them the proper training and support needed in order to help them be great at the role. Too often we forget how difficult it was when we first started in a role and neglect to help others with the learning curve. If there is no formal training available for your group, create some. Make a list of things that a leader should know and provide information for each of those.
DO – Consider Alternative Solutions
When my son first joined one group in mid-year they had not found someone who was willing to lead the group. Instead, all the parents of that particular group of children decided to share in the responsibility. Every month a different parent would be the host for the group meetings. It worked. They coordinated the different activities for the year in advance and the children did not notice any difference from the other groups. When it came my turn to host the meetings, I had so much fun doing it that I offered to take over the entire responsibility for the next year. Sometimes letting everyone have a taste of what the role entails is enough to allow one person to step forward and accept the job.
I hope you and your group are helped by these tactics that have enabled the recruitment of great leadership teams. Bringing on adults who know nothing about the program but have a willingness to learn on the job can be a rewarding experience. Be sure to acknowledge and encourage their successes, no matter how small, and look for the next incremental opportunity to increase their involvement.