Why Your Volunteer Leader Network Isn’t Working

Transformative Volunteering, Trends & Best Practices, Volunteer Leader Networks

The number one question we get from clients is, “How do we make our employee volunteer programs scalable, measurable, and meaningful?”

Our answer: Employee Volunteer Leader Networks! These networks are one of our favorite things to discuss and was the focus of our final RealTalk Webinar of the year (access the full recording here).

Empowering and equipping employees to lead transformative volunteering experiences at your company:

  • Taps into the power of collective purpose
  • Decentralizes management of these critical community engagement efforts, putting ownership of community engagement where it belongs: in the hands of your employees
  • Liberates Social Impact teams from the unattainable pursuit of organizing company-wide volunteer activations, freeing their time to focus on strategic direction


Realized Worth’s Transactional vs. Transformative Volunteering Framework is the basis for how the most effective corporate programs approach social impact. Dive deeper into creating transformative volunteering experiences.

But these internal people networks who support volunteering at your company can only function optimally if they’re done right – meaning they’re strategically designed and are grounded in leadership development principles.

There are a wide variety of governance structures these Volunteer Leader Networks can take. In the image below, you’ll see several examples of models we’ve used and observed with clients (our RealTalk webinar recording goes into more detail about pros and cons of each and how to select the right configuration).

The “right” model for your company depends on the maturity of your programs, the readiness for change within the business, and with your team’s capacity to train, manage and nurture this people network.

No matter which structure you select, be sure every role within the network has clarity and autonomy. Everyone in your network needs to understand the purpose of their role and what’s expected of them (and yes, this should be formally documented in a role description!). At the end of the day, leading a Volunteer Leader Network boils down to being an intentional people manager, skilled at creating an ecosystem where individuals are intrinsically motivated to participate at their highest level of contribution. It’s simple, yes, but far from easy!

Let’s take a look at the most common challenges we’ve observed as companies work to build or scale their Volunteer Leader Networks.

Challenge #1: Employee Leaders are “Voluntold”

Having the right people in each role of your network is critical. But one common practice that’s destined to tank your efforts is asking leaders to designate someone to “get it done”. Commonly, an EA or HR Manager is “Voluntold” they’ll be participating in the network, without regard to their interest or qualifications (not to say EAs and HR Managers can’t make fabulous employee volunteer leaders – they certainly can – but their title alone should not dictate involvement!).

So slow down. Fill your network with people who have experience working with communities, who are includers, who love the way volunteering and giving benefits them. (Our Social REV platform has plenty of tools to help you conduct a robust recruitment effort).

Fire the people in your network that aren’t doing anything – or kindly give them the opportunity to step down. If this work matters enough – if it’s really meant to drive social movements, and help communities thrive – then it must matter enough to get the right people in place. These are not helpers. These are gatekeepers to transformation. Their role is significant.

Challenge #2: You make being an employee volunteer leader “easy”.

What’s the number one reason employees say they don’t volunteer? They don’t have time.

So, naturally, we ask ourselves, “How can we make it easier to participate?” Meaning, how can we ask for less effort, so participation doesn’t take so much time.

While it is important to remove the ‘friction points’ that demotivate employees when considering whether to sign up to volunteer, reducing potential barriers to getting involved does not speak to the single most important factor in increasing people’s motivation.

The key element in creating highly motivating experiences are identity and effort which lead to meaningful engagement. (Find out what happens when you make volunteering too easy here.)

The IKEA Effect’ research revealed that we are strongly motivated by identity, the need for recognition, a sense of accomplishment and feeling of creation.”  In short, we love what we create ourselves. You can apply this approach to your networks by asking yourself:

  • How much are we inviting employees to tie their identity to what we’re trying to achieve through employee volunteering activities?
  • Do we allow employees to make that experience their own? Or do employees just feel like they’re helping the company, but not really discovering their own reasons to see these activities as an expression of their own individual value?
  • Have we packaged employee volunteering opportunities so tightly in our effort to make them “easy” that we’ve removed the opportunity for employees to add their own value to the mix?
  • Do we ever ask employees:  how do YOU value your contributions to these employee volunteering events? Is there any time to reflect on what ‘we’ve created together’? Or when it’s over, do employees just leave, left to their own devices to understand the meaning and impact of their efforts, or not?
  • How much responsibility can I, as a manager of the program, give away to other trained and experienced leaders?

Challenge #3: The focus is participation, not network nurturing.

If you want your Network to be a place that employees want to be, you must treat them as the communities they are.

Here’s the thing about communities – they’re people-centric: “Members of a community have a sense of trust, belonging, safety, and caring for each other. They have an individual and collective sense that they can, as part of that community, influence their environments and each other.”

Community is not a place, a building, or an organization. Community is both a feeling and a set of relationships among people.

So, how can you nurture your network? How do you create and cultivate a community of volunteer leaders? By creating a feeling of belonging, safety, trust, mutual care, connection, and collaboration, all with a shared future in mind (more on this concept here).

Challenge #4: Your network communication systems aren’t working.

For all the effort you put into writing the best email, sending out the freshest updates, printing posters, even having your CEO talk about volunteering – how many people at your company still aren’t aware your program exists?

Communications are necessary, for sure! But they’re never the first or most important thing in creating that buzz you want about your program. Effective awareness-building efforts comes right back to people. Get the right people in place – Champions who represent the identity of your culture. Don’t make it nice and neat – make it weird or make it precise or somehow unique – whatever represents your culture. And then use communications – to extend that identity and share your unique story.

With that people-centric principle guiding every move, here are a few tactic-specific questions that may help guide your work:

  • Digital communication: Where and how is your volunteer leader network connecting in digital spaces? Are leaders given permission to contribute freely and support one another in these channels?
  • Storytelling: How are you equipping volunteer leaders to share stories in an intentional way? What type of content tends to get the most engagement? How can you incentivize more Employee Volunteer Leaders to lean in?
  • Communication with managers and leaders: How are you making it easy for Employee Volunteer Leaders to bring managers and leaders into the loop – to understand, advocate for, model and celebrate community engagement? What training or templates are you providing to equip them?

Dive deeper into Communications with these 6 principles.

Challenge #5: You Neglect Leadership Development

Employee Volunteer Leadership is a fertile ground to practice excellent management.

We know from Gallup research that people who stay with their companies, stay because of their managers. And people generally leave for the same reason.

We also know that the best managers are deeply, obsessively focused on the well-being and development of their people. The best managers have high empathy. They know how to empower their people and how to recognize what people need at different stages of their development journey.

And this is our standard for Employee Volunteer Leader Networks. We view them as management training systems. Ideally, your Employee Volunteer Leader Network is known for producing the best and most effective managers at your company.

Be sure to:

  • Teach your Employee Volunteer Leaders the stages of the volunteer journey, how to recognize where people are, and how to meet each participant at their highest level of contribution.
  • Provide tools and templates that will allow them to practice and integrate this skill into their leadership style (you’ll find all you need in Social REV).
  • Train your Employee Volunteer Leaders! Show your leaders what it looks like to practice these skills during volunteer activities. As employees participate in volunteering and giving programs, Employee Volunteer Leaders practice their skills by observing participants and guiding their growth.
  • Create a Leadership Development Pathway for your Employee Volunteer Leaders. Do your leaders understand how they can progress as a leader in your network? Make that path clear to them and document the skills and activities they can practice at each stage to intentionally guide their growth. Encourage your Leaders to document their progress in their Individual Development Plan.
  • Communicate the value of this role to people managers so they can be intentional about supporting participating employees in their progress.

Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be!

We understand you’re busy, probably grossly under-resourced and over-committed. Is there one thing you can take from the above and use it to build or scale your network? Just start there.

Take it slow and be sure you have the right people in place. Remember to appeal to intrinsic motivations, use communication tactics as an extension of – not a replacement for – human relationships and focus your programs on leadership development and who these people will eventually become in your company.

But most importantly? Focus on why this really matters.

Remember that all of us – corporate social impact professionals and our non-profit partners – are in this space for one collective outcome, which is creating an environment where mindset shift can happen.

As we volunteer, as we engage with communities and with people and issues outside our daily norms, we have an opportunity to learn new ways to see others and develop empathy through our experiences. Experiences with the perceived “other” is what changes us and it’s what ultimately has the power to change the world. Our purpose in this work is no less important than that – mindset shift that drives social movements that changes the world for the better.

Megan Strand

Director of Strategic Consulting

Recent Blogs:

Realized Worth helps you take a transformative approach to volunteering. We work with companies to create scalable and measurable volunteering programs that empower and engage employees, focus on empathy and inclusivity, and align with your most important business objectives. Talk to us today to learn more!

Transformative VolunteeringTrends & Best PracticesVolunteer Leader Networks

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