Cultivating Passionate Volunteers and Leaders

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

I recall the first time I volunteered in college. I volunteered at my local church. I was so excited to join a cause and be a part of something that I believed in. It meant a lot to me to be around other people who also really cared about making a difference. I made friends and connections that I would never forget. I am still in touch with some of the people I volunteered with, worked with and served. I think what I enjoyed the most about my experience was being a part of a community.

Giving from the Heart

Since then I have worked for nonprofits for over twenty-five years. I have had the privilege to work with many volunteers along the way and have found their joy and enthusiasm has been my fuel that keeps me energized and connected to the larger cause.

I agree with Marshall Rosenberg that we all have a need to contribute to others well-being. Sometimes, I have found that volunteers may be more connected to this desire to give from the heart than employees. They are excited and filled with anticipation, while employees sometimes get bogged down with the work and see their tasks and responsibilities as mundane. Volunteers can, at times, with their enthusiasm and excitement bring a positive spark to the workforce.

Working with volunteers and engaging them with the work and connecting them to others on the team is a process that can be fun to see unfold but, at times, can be tricky to navigate. Collaborating with others to fulfill a mission or goal is a sacred process. Making something sacred means preparing and creating a safe vessel, a container for others to join. This space is where we trust and build with others what is precious to us. It is the formation of community.

Culture of Empathy

It is important for an organization to practice what it wants to demonstrate to the public or it will suffer for it. “Every employee matters and every employee’s needs matter” is the motto of an organization committed to honoring needs. The same holds true with volunteers. By listening with care to the concerns and needs of individuals, the organization discovers ways to work together to better serve the community.

Mr. Gordan Bethune, retired U.S. airline executive and former CEO of Continental Airlines, said, “I like to think that a lot of managers and executives trying to solve problems miss the forest for the trees by forgetting to look at their people – not at how much they can get from their people or how they can more effectively manage their people. I think they need to look a little more closely at what it’s like for their people to work there every day.”

This goes for volunteers, as well. Sometimes managers can be caught up in the single-minded type of thinking that focuses on attaining effective outcomes or results and an attachment to one strategy to attain those results. Sometimes what can occur is that we become “blinded by the prize.” When we open our hearts to what employees and volunteers are experiencing and listen to their feedback, we demonstrate that we care, and we cultivate a culture of caring.

Of course, we desire to find people who are productive, hard-working and have the ability and skills to continually develop their potential. Yet, it is important to also nurture a climate where everyone’s needs matter and are held collectively. A climate where all parties involved have a voice and where feedback is received from all sides. The downside of not nurturing this culture is long-term losses that involve losing star employees and quality volunteers and high turnover. Loss of staff can lead to further costs and later failures.

Connecting Others to Their Passion

People thrive when they feel safe and supported and are growing and leading. When working with volunteers or staff it is essential to try to discover what they are passionate about. For example, I met a kid who loved playing soccer. Every time I saw him, he had a soccer ball. We got to talking and I encouraged him to start a soccer clinic at his apartment complex. He said he wanted me to do it with him. I said okay and we offered a soccer clinic every year in the summer. Many of the kids who participated in the clinic learned basic soccer skills and went on the play youth soccer in leagues.

The youth leader said, “It is meaningful for me to give back because I was once the kid getting the help. This property has helped me with my homework, provided positive role models and assisted us with our housing. I am grateful and want to give back.”

Another volunteer said about why she volunteered, “The reason I help is really a selfish reason. It feels good to volunteer and help others. I like to share what makes me feel good with others so that they can experience it as well.”

These individuals had one thing in common – they shared the passion they had in their hearts with others. When this happens, it is magical to watch. The world needs us to find our gift or talent, and the world waits expectantly for us to not only find it but to use it to contribute to life.


Eddie Zacapa is the author of Essentials for Cultivating Passionate Volunteers and Leaders: Guidelines for Organizations that Value Connection. He is also the co-founder of Life Enriching Communication, a certified trainer with The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC), and a collaborative trainer with BayNVC. Eddie’s book is available on Amazon and most online booksellers. He offers leadership and volunteer training, NVC coaching and assistance with conflict resolution.