Volunteers present unique challenges to nonprofit leaders but with the right approach they also offer countless benefits. Therese Markou speaks from experience – and her heart.


As anyone who has ever been in a management position will tell you, being an effective leader is difficult. This is true whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 listed company or a supervisor at a local retail store. Perhaps it’s even truer when you are managing that particular type of worker who keeps nonprofit organisations rolling along in pursuit of their mission: volunteers.

With no pay to take home, and no true contractual duty to show up and give 110% every shift, volunteers present a unique challenge to nonprofit leaders. There of their own volition, they can often outshine paid staff in terms of their passion and dedication, however without the sense of obligation that comes with remuneration and an employment agreement, this passion can easily go off track and inflict serious damage to your organisation’s brand. Helping volunteers feel supported and valued, while also ensuring they abide by organisational policies, is a task that requires finesse, strong communication skills and a deep-rooted understanding of why people volunteer.

As a long-term volunteer myself, who has offered my skills and time to various organisations over a period of more than two decades, I have always tried to keep the perspective of a volunteer over my career, even as I progressed to paid management roles.

A fateful day that shaped a career

Throughout my life, I have volunteered as a frontline worker for charities, on nonprofit committees and boards, as a foster carer of children and more. My dedication to the nonprofit sector deepened in the aftermath of a deadly car crash. The crash, which was caused by a fatigued driver, took the life of my 11-year-old daughter and left me with serious, long-lasting injuries. The brave, dedicated response from the volunteers at the NSW Volunteer Rescue Association (VRA) and NSW SES that day touched me, and I have never forgotten the massive impact they had on my life.

This unexpected interaction with these nonprofit organisations shaped my career, leading me to begin volunteering at the SES myself, before rising to become CEO of the NSW SES Volunteers Association. My motivation, years on, is still to be able to help and support people in their time of need, just like I was helped on that fateful day in 2003.

The attributes required to manage volunteers

While every volunteer will have a different story, almost all will be driven by the same altruistic desire to make a positive impact on the world around them. Others will also be seeking friendship or a new hobby, and some (particularly younger volunteers) will be hoping to develop career-related skills or work experience. With some thought, planning and small expense (which will undoubtedly pay itself off!), any nonprofit can meet the core needs of their volunteers and keep them engaged.

Leading a volunteer workforce certainly has its many challenges, particularly when dealing with different personalities and agendas on a daily basis while balancing the demands of the role.

What I have learned is to be resilient and work through challenges in a calm and focused way, minimising emotional responses, and thinking clearly on what you need to do to get through. Having the fortitude to survive and continue on is a valuable attribute and certainly comes in handy when unexpected stuff happens that you did not account for. So building resilience is key to assisting you in gaining control, which in turn will lead to better decision-making in times of extreme stress and unexpected situations.

Sometimes volunteers are often a second thought for managers caught up in their day-to-day operations and dealing with direct reports, however acknowledging and engaging volunteers in the workplace will certainly help foster a supportive culture in delivering better outcomes for the organisation to deliver on its mission objectives.

Both benefits and major risks

Having a satisfied volunteer workforce has countless benefits, while putting non-paid workers offside can present major risks to an organisation. Disgruntled volunteers are less likely to perform to an acceptable standard, can stir up conflict and toxicity among both fellow volunteers and paid staff, and can unleash serious reputational damage to your organisation’s brand.

Here at Animal Welfare League NSW (AWL NSW), in my position as CEO, I have made it a top priority to ensure that our volunteers feel appreciated, have a positive work environment, and clearly understand our mission and how they contribute to it.

To achieve this, myself and other key leadership figures have made an effort to attend the AGMs of all 15 of our volunteer branches, travelling across the state to hear about their concerns, challenges and achievements.

Although AWL NSW has paid staff who operate from our head office and Sydney-based shelters, it is the people at our volunteer branches who deliver our services to regional parts of the state. They care for and rehome animals, assist people with pet care and administer our important subsidised desexing scheme.

For many people in New South Wales, their local AWL NSW branch is the only point of contact they have with our organisation, and we need to be sure that our volunteers are representing us in the best light possible.

We found that by visiting the branches directly, and providing a ‘face’ to management and a sympathetic ear to listen to their needs, we were truly able to connect with our volunteers and discover areas that required improvement. We were also able to demonstrate just how much we value their work, and congratulate them in person for their achievements. Some of our volunteers have been with us for decades (one lady recently celebrated 40 years with AWL NSW!) and, of course, it is vitally important to show that we recognise how crucial their contribution is to our critical work in animal welfare.

Setting standards and bringing people together

As well as putting faces to names and learning the amazing stories of our branch network, we have also been working on updating our branch manual, which includes clearly laid out procedures and policies to equip our regional volunteers with the tools to assist and support them in their volunteering roles. This is important as it reduces confusion, allows for more efficient work flow and ensures that branch volunteers understand their legal obligations.

I would advise any nonprofit leader who has a volunteer workforce to be sure this workforce understands the standards they are expected to meet, and their duties in terms of legislation such as the Fair Work Act and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act. The price of failing to clearly communicate these standards is very high, and can expose your organisation to risk and leave volunteers unsure about the scope of their role.

Another recent initiative we have undertaken at AWL NSW is an annual branch conference to bring together representatives from each of our branches to share experiences, tips and achievements. This has allowed our executive management team to give relevant presentations about finance, compliance, veterinary care, fundraising, social media and animal welfare. It has also given volunteers a chance to ask questions and work on problem solving common issues together.

Beyond the practical nature of this event, it offers a wonderful way to network, have fun and show our gratitude towards our volunteers by holding a professional event solely for them.

While some of the challenges I face with volunteers at AWL NSW are industry specific, the majority of them are universal across the nonprofit sector. It may be tempting to allow volunteers to slip under the radar, but with the charity market more competitive than ever, it is important to ensure that your organisation is recruiting the right volunteers, training them adequately, providing support and recognition, and responding to any grievances in a timely manner.

Volunteers make up such a large part of the nonprofit workforce, and a savvy CEO cannot afford to ignore them – true leadership must apply to both paid and non-paid staff. In that vein, perhaps it is time to ask not what your volunteers can do for you, but what you can do for your volunteers.

To your success!


Therese Markou

Therese is the CEO of Animal Welfare League NSW, and has extensive experience in the nonprofit industry. She also mentors nonprofit leaders, and is offering a complimentary copy of her book Mission Accomplished at her website ceomissionaccomplished.com.au.


This fundraising leadership article has been sponsored by not-for-profit performance improvement specialists, Advanced Solutions International (ASI).[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]


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