Leadership in the Volunteer Community
Long standing professionals often forget for whom they work. They also tend to forget the importance of their role to nurture leadership and volunteerism. They forget the need to apologize to others, to admit they have erred.
by Charles Simon
I have been studying the structure of volunteer organizations and analyzing the leadership of their professionals’ leadership styles for a little more than forty years. I have founded a number of synagogues in Europe and the United States, worked as a congregation rabbi and finally served as the exec director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC) for nearly thirty-five years. My work has been guided by the belief that if one wishes to build a community one must empower and invest in its volunteers.
This isn’t always easy and it runs counter to the way most organizations function. The majority of not-for-profit organizations when they wish to develop a community or a project choose to invest in professionals. This, is a logical means of moving forward but it often overlooks the fact that the professional staff is only one part an equation. The second part of that equation is the volunteer culture. The manner in which professionals interact with their volunteers often determines their continuity and the success of the organization they represent. The success of any not-for-profit organization is dependent upon this volunteer/professional relationship.
A large number of professionals assume that part of their position is to create and articulate a vision but the manner and the strategies that the professional employs to empower others with that vision is rarely taken into account.
In order to create a working meaningful volunteer/professional culture the professional or professionals needs to develop a plan that engages and develops volunteers. Too often this fails to occur and tensions between lay and professional leaderships develop.
I often ask newly ordained rabbis, serving in their first pulpit, to define their leadership style in a simple sentence ending with an adjective and a noun. For example, “I am a dynamic leader.” The results are usually very interesting primarily because they have never been asked to consider this question. When I am asked this question, and I usually am, my response is “I am a servant leader.”
Servant leaders help make their volunteers the best volunteers, the best leaders, they can be. Servant leaders places volunteers in the spotlight, and helps them learn how to motivate others. Servant leaders quietly create the roles models we wish to be emulated. They are the ones who help their professionals make decisions. They are the ones that learn how to lead grace after meals so they can teach others.
In order for this to occur, volunteer leaders require backups and partners and the security that they will never fail, because the professional understands that their lives, like ours, are extremely busy and very complicated. Someone will lose a job, or contract an illness, or have something happen to their family which will limit their ability to serve. At times this means that the volunteer leader might not meet some people’s expectations. They might not perform in a position the way someone else would. It might mean two steps forward one step backward. The servant leader helps leadership understand they are doing the best they can and are learning how to be more effective volunteers and possible leaders if they are properly encouraged. In the volunteer world a culture of friendship means that no one ever fails, they just might not succeed as much as they desired. The professional’s job is to create a culture of friendship and trust coupled with the recognition that everyone has different abilities.
I was recently asked by the leader of one of the great teaching institutions in America, how could I run an organization, the only one in the Conservative Movement that is growing and getting younger, with such a small staff? My answer was simple and straight forward. I empower volunteers to coordinate all of the various portfolios. I help them break down positions with tremendous responsibility into small achievable goals and tasks. I place them in positions where they can succeed and I trust them. I help them learn to share, to ask questions and to request help from others. I work hard at teaching them how to work as a team and to divorce themselves from ownership
Too often lay leaders, upon attaining high office, confuse “inauguration” with “installation”. They speak of their legacies and results. Attitudes like these creates cultures of fear and mistrust. When this occurs, organizational directions can be shifted in different directions at the whim of the president. On the other hand, a culture of friendship reflects a venue where incoming, existing and past leadership works together. They stay on course from administration to administration concentrating on previously determined goals.
In many instances the vision of the professional doesn’t always reflect the needs of the organization. This is one of the great pitfalls in the not-for-profit world. A person can be swept up in the perceived glory of becoming an international figure, a world Jew, when in actuality in order to strengthen the organization a different professional direction is needed.
Long standing professionals often forget for whom they work. They also tend to forget the importance of their role to nurture leadership and volunteerism. They forget the need to apologize to others, to admit they have erred. They forget how important it is to be a servant/leader.
Rabbi Charles Simon has been serving as the Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. He is the author of Building a Successful Volunteer Culture, Jewish Lights and Understanding Haftarot: An Everyperson’s Guide and Intermarriage: Concepts and Strategies for Families and Synagogue Leaders, Outskirts Press.