May 27


The Volunteer Guide to Leadership

By Sara Canaday

May 27, 2014

career, leadership, management, self-awareness, teams

I’m delighted to introduce you to my friend and colleague David M. Dye. I asked David to share his wisdom via a guest blog because of his experience working with leaders who want to get more done, build teams that care, and meet their goals. He is the President of Trailblaze, Inc, tweets from @davidmdye, and welcomes your LinkedIn invitation. His book, The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say is available on


Joanne handed me an envelope.

Inside was a single page. I unfolded the paper with its neat creases and found a letter, typed (typed!) in three succinct paragraphs.

“David, thank you for the opportunity to volunteer, however, I would like to reevaluate my service at your school…”


I was twenty-four years old and Joanne was one of several volunteers on a team I led. Together we served students in an after-school program. Joanne’s letter basically told me (in very diplomatic language) that I was wasting her time.

Then, in those sparse paragraphs, she gave me a blueprint. A blueprint that would transform my leadership, a key to release team members’ energy and motivation, and a secret weapon to attract top performers. The blueprint will work for you too.

The Trap

Every member of your team is a volunteer – whether you like it or not. You can’t force people to work. You can’t compel creativity. You can’t push problem-solving.

Your employees choose (sometimes unconsciously) how they’ll show up each day, how much energy they will expend, and whether or not they will solve problems or ignore them. Wages and salary don’t directly affect these choices, but leadership, culture, and internal motivations do.

But here is where many leaders fall into a trap.

It’s the same trap I’d fallen into and that Joanne highlighted in her letter. You see, I believed that since everyone on the team was a literal volunteer, I should not set my expectations too high or hassle them about their performance. After all, I needed bodies to help, and if I was hard on them, they’d leave, right?

As a manager you might have found yourself reluctant to hold an employee accountable because you were worried that they’d leave. I’ve even seen nonprofit leaders tolerate abusive board members for fear they’d lose the influence or money that the volunteer provided.

Beware! It’s a trap.

When you let expectations slide, when you tolerate poor performance, when you allow abuse, you are telling everyone on your team that you don’t care.

Imagine a volunteer who contributes their time and energy, works diligently, and always strives to do their best, working alongside someone who is no more than half-hearted in their efforts. What will happen to your hard-working volunteer?

Hint: the same thing happens to a paid employee – they will lose heart, shut down, and possibly leave altogether. And why not? You’ve told them you don’t care about them. Their work doesn’t matter. The mission isn’t important. Not exactly the inspiring leadership you hoped to provide, is it?

Joanne’s Blueprint for Motivation and Success

In her simple, plain-spoken letter, Joanne shared some ideas I could use to set clear expectations for the volunteers and how those expectations would serve the children.

In short, we needed accountability. If nothing changed, she explained, she would find better uses for her time. Can your team find a better use for their time?
Or…are expectations clear, everyone holds each other accountable, and together you accomplish results beyond what any of you could do individually?

Your Turn

Joanne’s letter was a lesson in tough love. It didn’t feel good at the time. But her message changed everything for me. It made me realize that everyone has a choice. That people’s time is precious. That it’s up to me to make their time on my team worthwhile.

When you fail to practice accountability, you devalue the mission, the work, and disrespect your staff. When you hold people accountable for their work and behavior, you communicate that what they’re doing matters. You demonstrate respect and value for your mission, for your work, and for your employees.

Leave us a comment and let us know:

How do you reinforce clear expectations?
How do you communicate the value of your team’s time?

Sara Canaday

About the author

Sara began her journey working full-time while she earned an MBA. As she climbed the ladder of corporate America, she repeatedly observed a surprising phenomenon: the most successful people weren’t necessarily the ones with the highest IQ or best job skills. She recognized instead that career advancement was much more closely linked with how people applied their knowledge and talents — their capacity to collaborate, communicate, and influence others.

Today, Sara is happily fulfilling that commitment as a keynote speaker, author, and executive coach. These venues have given her the opportunity to mentor and support thousands of people in diverse situations, inspiring many of them to move from insight to action with dramatic career results.

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