Preventing the Disappearing Volunteer

Laura Dallas Burford is the founder of LAD Enterprizes, a management consulting firm that partners with consultants as well as internal and external consulting organizations to successfully build the operational and delivery aspects of their practices. Laura appreciates feedback on her articles and can be reached at She is the author of Project Management for Flat Organizations.

While presenting “Ensure the Success of Your Next Project” at a nonprofit conference, an attendee asked, “We assign our volunteers work, but they miss the deadlines. We also struggle to retain them once the project is complete. Any suggestions?” A lively conversation ensued prompting me to write this article.

No project manager assigns project work to a volunteer hoping that the volunteer becomes so dissatisfied and disillusioned that he or she does not complete the assigned project work or--worse yet--disappears, no longer supporting the organization. Nonprofit organizations want the volunteer experience to be satisfying, but very few project managers have been trained to manage and lead volunteers. Project management methodologies do not discuss the relationship between project management and volunteer management. Books written about building teams rarely discuss volunteers.

To enhance your management and leadership skills as a nonprofit project manager, take the time to understand the reasons that can affect a person's volunteer behavior or cause dissatisfaction and disillusionment before assigning volunteers project work.

The Volunteer’s Motive
The key difference between volunteers and staff is the volunteers “voluntarily” perform a service. Staff are paid and obligated to perform the work; they are motivated by…

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"I never thought much of the courage of a lion-tamer. Inside the cage he is at least safe from people."

- George Bernard Shaw