How to Equip, Delegate, and Empower Volunteers

When leading volunteers how do you know whether you should equip, delegate, or empower them? What is the difference between equipping, delegation, and empowerment?

How to Delegate, Empower, and Equip Volunteers

In today’s post I share why you should equip all volunteers, delegate to most volunteers, and empower only a few.

I. Equipping

A. Definition

1. Equipping is ensuring volunteers have what they need to succeed.

A) This includes training both before the work begins and ongoing training over time.

B) This includes tools:

-a desk
-and other resources (food, water, to-do list, clear instructions, etc.)

B. A 5 Step Equipping Process by John Maxwell:

1. Tell people what you want them to do.
This paints of picture of the end result which you expect.

2. Show them what good performance looks like.
This is you providing a visible demonstration of the work being done and a picture of what it will look like when completed. 

3. Let them do it.
This allows people to learn through interaction and personal experience. 

4. Observe their performance.
This is where you watch the work and provide feedback on what is being done well and what can be improved.

5. Praise progress.
This is where you tell people what you are looking for by praising them for a job well done because what gets rewarded gets repeated [ref](John C. Maxwell, “Look Out Below! Searching for a Better Way to Delegate” in Maximum Impact Club).[/ref].

C. Example

One of the best examples of equipping is the nonprofit organization Our Calling.

Our Calling is a discipleship ministry to homeless individuals in Dallas, TX. One of the main ministries of Our Calling is sending volunteers out into the community to interact with homeless individuals in order to develop relationships, meet basic needs, and talk about Jesus Christ.

Our calling equips their volunteers by collecting data on all of their clients into iPads and then giving that information to volunteers to use as those volunteers interact with homeless clients. Every time a homeless individual shares a prayer request, receives services, or shares personal information, that information is placed into Our Calling’s iPad client information database.

The power of this system comes into play by equipping every volunteer with information on clients. When volunteers go out to interact with homeless individuals those volunteers take the Our Calling iPad and have a tremendous amount of information on the clients they might interact with. Those volunteers are able to pull up information on the last interaction with that client, what services were provided, where the client is in her faith journey, etc.

In this way, Our Calling equips volunteers with important information and therefore increases the chance of volunteers successfully serving clients.

II. Delegation

A. Definition

1. Delegation is what must be done and how it must be done, but you (the one to whom the work is delegated) are the one who must get it done.

2. The one responsible to get the work done has no authority about how the work is supposed to be done but the person is responsible to get the work done.

B. Quotes on Delegation

The final responsibility is yours. If those to whom you delegate do fail, it is your failure more than theirs.
Andrew Le Peau, Paths of Leadership, p. 68

Talk to me first, and then determine the next move. . . Delegated volunteers must ask. They’re not empowered to act on their own.
MacKee, The New Breed, p. 122

Delegation is getting results through people while growing them in the process.
Mark Sanborn, Time Management audio program

Empowerment and Delegation

III. Empowerment

A. Definition

1. Empowerment is what must be done regardless of how it is done.

2. The one responsible to get the work done has authority about how the work is supposed to be done and is responsible to get the work done.

B. Quotes on Empowerment

Make the next move, and then tell me about it. . . Empowered volunteers don’t have to ask. They make decisions, solve problems, and create solutions without running every question up the chain of command.
MacKee, The New Breed, p. 122

Empowerment is the intentional transfer of authority to an emerging leader within specified boundaries from an established leader who maintains responsibility for the ministry.
Aubrey Malphurs and Will Mancini, Building Leaders, p. 40

C. Empowerment Moves in 2 Directions

1. Empowerment Based on Your Initiative

A) Identify credible and reliable volunteers.

Empowering volunteers based on your initiative means that you seek out the people who you want to volunteer and you ask them to become volunteers. In this method you are taking the lead and being selective in who you want.

B) Give them authority and responsibility.

As Americans we love it when we are given authority to do our work in the manner we choose. When you seek out volunteers and empower them you are giving them the authority to conduct the work in the way that the volunteers want. Along with that authority also comes the responsibility for the volunteers to ensure that the work gets done.

Satisfaction of autonomy needs during volunteer work is directly and positively associated with volunteers’ job satisfaction.
Boezeman and Ellemers, “Volunteers’ Intrinsic Need Satisfaction,” p. 908

We predicated and found the satisfaction of autonomy and relatedness needs to be more relevant to job satisfaction and intentions of remaining with the organization than satisfaction of competence needs.
Boezeman and Ellemers, “Volunteers’ Intrinsic Need Satisfaction,” p. 911

C) The 6 Rules of Empowerment (Mackee, The New Breed, pp. 120-130)

1) Don’t take the football-give it away.
2) Label each handoff as either delegation or empowerment.
3) Secure the handoff.
4) Break down tasks into manageable goals.
5) Don’t take the football if you can’t do anything about it.
6) Develop good handoff skills to avoid disaster.

2. Empowerment Based on the Volunteer’s Initiative

A) Be open when people come to you with ideas and suggestions.

In my book I discuss the issue of being open to volunteers coming to you with ideas or suggestions. As the book was targeted to a new and starting nonprofit organization I shared this view, “When leading people who are working as a team, it’s ok to give them ownership. Once a woman wanted to do a car wash to raise funds for A Day of Hope.  So I told her I would help her get some signs, car wash equipment, and recruit volunteers, but the ultimate responsibility was on her since she wanted to do the car wash.  I gave her ownership of that car wash and she successfully led the car wash under her own leadership” (Christopher Scott, A Day of Hope: Leading Volunteers to Make a Difference in Your Community, 84-85).

B) Questions to ask of yourself and the potential volunteer.

Anyone that has worked with volunteers for a length of time knows that volunteers often have good hearts and ideas about ways to serve. Even though those ideas might seem new to the volunteers sharing them often those ideas are not new to you or the nonprofit organization. Or, sometimes the ideas do not match the values and mission of the nonprofit, and other times the ideas might not match up with the morals and integrity which the nonprofit is attempting to keep. Here are seven questions you need to ask yourself when a volunteer comes to you with an idea:

1) Does this match our mission and vision?
2) Does this violate our values as an organization?
3) Is any part of this illegal or immoral?
4) What would our board, donors, or clients think about this?
5) Will this help to complete the work I (or my volunteers) are responsible to complete?
6) Is it worth the extra work/time required of me?
7) If the volunteer begins this project but does not complete it, am I going to be the one who has to complete it?

The best example of listening to a volunteer’s idea and putting it in action is the Hoops for Hope program started by a young boy for World Vision.

(If you cannot see the video in your email or RSS reader, click here.)

I originally heard Austin speak at a leadership conference in 2008. At that conference he shared that when he first had the idea of how to help orphans he approached the people at World Vision with his idea and they encouraged him to do it. Along they way they gave him some of the resources and help that he needed. In other words, they empowered Austin.

C) For smaller nonprofits, always say “Yes.”

In my book I discuss the issue of being open to volunteers coming with ideas or suggestions. As the book was targeted to a new and starting nonprofit organization I shared this view,

The principle of always saying “yes” is one of my favorites in the entire book. This principle was birthed out of feeling totally burned out and overwhelmed on many occasions.  At times I would feel so tired, burnt out, and beat up that I just couldn’t do any more.  I had nothing left to give.  I realized that the passion I had to serve people far outweighed my ability to help them on my own.  I could only work so much, and if I was going to serve and help as many people as possible, it was going to require more people to help. Out of this experience I slowly adopted the principle that every time someone offered to help me with A Day of Hope, I would say, “Yes” to their offer.  It didn’t matter what it was, who it was, or when they offered to help; my goal was to be able to say, “Yes” to their offer regardless of any other circumstance.  This allowed them to lighten my workload. One of my leadership weaknesses that I’m still working on is learning to delegate more.  In the past I would rarely delegate or allow others to help me.  If they offered to do something I already knew how to do or planned on doing, I would tell them that I had it taken care of.  Little did I realize that every time I told them I didn’t need their help, I was inadvertently telling them they shouldn’t offer to help in the future because I “had it taken care of.” I began to say “yes” to every single offer someone had for A Day of Hope.  If someone offered to do a fundraiser car wash on a Saturday, I would say, “Yes, go for it!”  If someone offered to make us a new website (even though we already had a pretty good one), I would say, “Yes, make something new and let me have a look at it.”  What I’ve found is the more I’ve learned to say, “Yes” to people’s offers to help me, the more they seem to offer. Remember that anytime someone offers to assist your effort to serve people in need, you have to find a way to say, “Yes.”  Find a way to say yes so they can do some good to help you raise funds, gather food, and raise awareness for your project to help people in need.
A Day of Hope: Leading Volunteers to Make a Difference in Your Community, pp 61-62

If your organization is new and no one knows about you, then you will need to say “yes” to more volunteers who come to you with ideas. Because your organization has less momentum and traction in the community you need all the help you can get.

Question: What elements of equipping, delegating, and empowering have I left out? 

By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at