How to Provide Crystal Clear Instructions when Leading Volunteers

Every week when our volunteer Alan came into the office I would provide work for him to do. Normally I would bring the work to him at his desk when he arrived and provide clear instructions about what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, what to do if he had questions, etc. However, on this day I was particularly busy and simply set work on his desk for him to start doing when he arrived instead of my taking time to walk to his desk and instruct him about what needed to be done.

What I did not know is that a coworker spent an entire day carefully sorting the names and information of donor pledge forms into a special order so that the forms could be processed into the computer. So, when Alan arrived and saw a stack of 200 pieces of paper on his desk (donor pledge forms) he did what he was always instructed to do with paper placed on this desk: separate the the pieces of paper that had printing on one side from the pieces of paper that had printing on both sides.

I had walked over to Alan’s desk to check on him when I noticed that he was sorting out pledge forms and not doing the work I had placed on his desk. Alan had undone about a day’s worth of work that one of our staff had done. Ouch! All of this headache could have been avoided if I had taken time to walk over to Alan’s desk and provide him clear instructions as soon as he had arrived.

How to Always Provide Crystal Clear InstructionsIn today’s post I am going to provide you nine simple steps you can follow to provide crystal clear instructions when leading volunteers at your church or nonprofit organizations.

The shortcut path of just simply handing volunteer Dave an assignment is fraught with pitfalls. One or two “what am I supposed to be doing, exactly” and “who’s in charge here” and poof! Dave falls off the rope bridge into the piranha infested river of “I quit” below.
Meridian, “There Are No Shortcuts

Volunteer managers operate with clarity. We know we will not keep volunteers if messages and instructions are not clear, so we frame every instruction so that it is clear. We know that muddied messages can ruin a volunteer experience and cause the volunteer to quit.
Meridian, “Management 601

I. Know what, how, and when it needs to be done and who can (can’t) do the work.

Don’t communicate just to be understood. Communicate to make sure you won’t be misunderstood.
Mark Sanborn

Start here. When attempting to lead and provide clear instructions you as the leader need to be clear about what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, when it needs to be done, as well as who can and cannot do the work.

A. Know what needs to be done.

1. What should be done first?
2. How many things?

2. In what way/manner?
3. If they do finish, what do they move on to?

B. Know how it needs to be done.

1. Specific process?
2. What is done first?
3. What is done last?
4. Does it matter how it is done?
5. Where do you want the work to be put when it is done?

6. Necessary safety procedures

C. Know when it needs to be done

1. Provide a deadline.
People like to be challendged and like to feel that they are accomplishing something (especially when volunteering their time). So, don’t be afraid to tell the volunteer when you expect the work to be completed.

2. If possible, give volunteers a project that can be and needs to be completed by the end of their volunteer shift.
Giving volunteers a project that they can get done by the end of their volunteer shift motivates them to get the work done and gives them a sense of accomplishment.

D. Know who can and cannot do the work

Knowing who can and cannot do the work that you have for volunteer is difficult. I have learned three things to keep in mind when determining this:

1. Over believe in people.
Even if you are unsure if they can get the work done, provide an opportunity for the volunteers to prove themselves. Many times I have been surprised at the capacity of volunteers to do difficult work even when I thought they could not do it. So, give people a chance and over believe in their ability to get the work done.

2. People can often do more than we think.
Time after time I have been surprised by the work volunteers are able to accomplish. Maybe this is a lesson for me that I do not believe in people as much as I should, but I have found that people are often more capable at doing good quality of work than I originally thought they could.

3. An example with an mentally disabled volunteer.
For more than a year Alan (not his real name) would come to our office twice a week to help with work. He had some type of intellectual disability but I decided I never wanted to know what his disability was because I did not want it to limit what work I gave him or what I thought he could do. Even though Alan was capable of doing most of the work I needed him to do there were some times when he was not able to do the work. As a result I found that I could simply provide a “test run” with Alan for the work. If there was a new project I was going to give to him that I wasn’t sure if he could complete, I would provide him a small sample of the work to see how it turned out. For example, one of the things that we always did for any donor at United Way was to send a hand written thank you note. I was not sure if this was something that Alan could do so I provided him a “test.” I gave him two cards and the text with the cards asking him to write the thank you notes. However, I didn’t give him an envelope or any way to send the card. I simply asked him to write the thank you cards and give them back to me. This was a simple way to test out if Alan could do the work. If he could do the work that would have been great and I would have given him more of the work to do. If he couldn’t do the work that would have been okay too.

Step 1 can be seen as a “Preservice Training.” A Preservice Training “helps the new volunteer take a look at self and skills, at the job that needs to be done, and at the organization’s philosophy and services. It may be given individually or in a group setting, depending of course on the timing, the number of volunteers, and the kinds of resources and facilities available” (The Volunteer Community, p. 73). A Preservice Training can include a tour of the organization, site of services, explanation of the structure of the organization, apprenticeship with a staff member, or role playing (Ibid., pp. 73-74).

Clear instructions can also prevent role ambiguity. Role Ambiguity is the uncertainty that arises when a volunteer does not know what is required of him, what demands he needs to satisfy, and how he is expected to behave at work. Research shows that Role Ambiguity in volunteers increases stress, decreases performance, impairs efficiency, and leads to volunteers quitting. (Allen and Mueller, “The Revolving Door,” p. 143).

II. Communicate to the volunteer (the “who”) what, how, and when it needs to be done.

While volunteers are capable people, they still require specific directions and when they do not receive them, the volunteers will eventually quit. Knowing how much effort goes into recruiting volunteers, we have no time for poor directions or faulty treatment. We’ve all had to apologize to a volunteer who has had a bad experience because their assignment was not properly planned out.
Meridian, “There Are No Shortcuts

When evaluating how to communicate this information to volunteers there are two ways to do this.

A. Minimal Process

Share with the volunteers what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and when they need to get the work done:

1. at the beginning when they get there.
2. as you walk to the area the work takes place.
3. as you get to the area.
4. as you do the work to show them.
5. while they are doing the work.

B. Maximum Process

Share with the volunteers what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and when they need to get the work done. You will have many opportunities to do this.

1. When the volunteers arrive in your lobby, tell them:

A) what needs to be done.
B) how it needs to be done.
C) when it needs to be done.

2. While walking to the work area, tell them:

A) what needs to be done.
B) when it needs to be done.

3. At the work location, tell them:

A) what needs to be done.
B) how it needs to be done.

4. While demonstrating how to do the work, tell:

A) how the work needs to be done.

5. While watching the volunteer do the work, tell them:

A) when the work needs to be done.

III. Communicate why it must be done.

Volunteers come to be of help, to know their volunteering has meaning, not only for our clients but to help the burden of overworked staff. Being sent on wild goose chases says to the volunteer, ‘THIS JOB IS NOT THAT IMPORTANT’.” Our volunteers are not prima donnas. They don’t look for special treatment. But they are looking for clarity and meaning. It’s the very least we can give them.
Meridian, “There Are No Shortcuts

Why the work must be done is an extremely important element in the process of instructing volunteers about their tasks and projects. When telling volunteers why the work must be done, be sure to share the following pieces of information.

A. Reasons this is important.

Why does this project matter? What difference will it make? What does it provide to people in need? How did it help to serve people the last time volunteers did this work?

B. What will happen once it is done.

When the volunteers complete the project what happens next? Where does the finished project go? How does that finished project go on to help people who are in need?

C. What will happen if it is not completed.

This is perhaps the strongest motivator for volunteers. Don’t be scared to share with them what will happen if the work doesn’t get done. Who will not be served? What services will not occur as a result of this volunteer work not getting done?

D. Connect this work to the big picture and vision of your organization.

And, as always, you want to connect the work volunteers are doing to the vision and/or mission of your organization. How does this small task play a role in the big picture of the entire organization? Show volunteers why this apparently menial task is vitally important to the services you provide.

IV. Do a sample of the work so that the volunteer can see what needs to be done and how it needs to be done.

It is not enough to simply tell volunteers how to do the work. You must show them how to do it as well. Here’s a simple process I have followed when instructing volunteers about how to do a task.

A. Go through each and every step slowly.

B. Explain what you are doing and why you are doing it.

C. If you think you are going slow enough, go slower.

When working with volunteers it is better to spend extra time up front ensuring the volunteer knows how to do the work than to spend time coming back to redo the work. (Remember my example at the beginning of this post?)

V. Let the volunteer do the work while you watch.

A. This is important because you can provide feedback the volunteer you needs to do the work done correctly.

You are not simply watching. You are instructing, coaching, and encouraging.

1. Watch more than just one.
Almost anyone can get something right the first time. It might have been accidental but he or she got it done right. Be sure to watch the volunteer do the task a couple of times to ensure that the volunteer is doing the work correctly and that she doesn’t have any questions.

2. Let the other volunteers who will be doing the same work watch as well.
If there is a group of volunteers who will all be doing the work together make sure that they watch their fellow volunteer do the work. One of the best ways to instruct in a group setting is to use someone as an example, a peer that the volunteers can follow and emulate.

3. Let the volunteer know that you are watching to make sure you explained everything and that you did not forget something.
This is important. Most people will feel nervous to know that you are watching them. Communicate to the volunteers that you are watching in order to ensure you have correctly instructed the volunteers what needs to be done. Let the volunteers know that you want to make sure that you did everything correctly.

B. It also gives you the feedback you need to improve the program and support volunteers.

An example of a nonprofit using feedback to improve their program and support volunteers is the Global Aid Network (GAIN). A friend of mine used to manage their volunteers which they had spread out across the entire United States. Every month he tried to receive a report from his volunteers. That feedback gave Global Aid Network staff the data they needed to serve volunteers better. Even though only 40-50 percent of the volunteers actually turned in the reports, the Global Aid Network read every report in order to improve their programs and better support volunteers

VI. Provide positive feedback to the volunteer and if necessary give constructive criticism.

A. Praise the volunteer for good work done.

One of the greatest motivating tools we have is a pat on the back. It doesn’t have to be a physical pat – it could be a smile, a nod. Everyone likes to be complimented in one way or another.
John Wooden, “The Quintessential Coach,” Toastmaster, Oct 2010, p. 23

1. Find something! Anything!
You might have to look hard, but be sure to find something positive that you can say to the volunteer. Even if the volunteer is doing the work wrong but she has a smile on her face, you can compliment her on her good attitude. Just find something that you can use to encourage the volunteer.

2. Provide praise quickly.
Good praise and encouragement need to be shared as close to when the task was done as possible. Be sure to share that feedback as soon as you see the volunteer do something correct.

B. Accept responsibility if something was done wrong.

As the leader, you are responsible for the success of your volunteers. When something went wrong, it was ultimately your fault. When something went right, it was ultimately your fault.

You need to convey this when communicating with volunteers.

1. What to not to say to volunteers when something went wrong.

“You misunderstood me.”
“I guess I was not clear.”
“I am sorry if I did not explain this.”

2. What to say to volunteers when something went wrong.

“I am sorry. I did not explain correctly.”

VII. Determine whether you are delegating or empowering this volunteer.

This will be discussed in a future post and linked there when I post it. So please check back or subscribe to my blog by email or RSS.

VIII. Communicate in a way that they can best understand and remember what you have said.

A. 5 Senses of Learning

1. Taste (1 percent of learning is received this way)5 Senses of Learning
2. Touch (1.5 percent)
3. Smell (3.5 percent)
4. Hearing (11 percent)
5. Sight (83 percent) (Donald Regeir, “Audiovisual Support for Your Teaching” in The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching, edited by Kenneth Gangel and Howard Hendricks, p. 196)

B. 2 Challenges

1. Discovering how someone learns
Finding out how people learn is difficult because you might not be able to discover how they learn and volunteers might not even though how they learn.

2. Communicating with groups
If you have a group of volunteers you are trying to provide instructions to this process of teaching them in the way that they learn best becomes difficult.

IX. Be open to volunteers coming to you with additional questions.

Volunteer managers are pretty much required to have an open door policy, which is great for keeping informed but is also a killer of productivity.
Meridian, “Ma! Ma! Ma! Ma! Ma!

Whether you manage volunteers or paid staff you will always have some people that require a little extra time and effort. These are folks who will regularly interrupt your busy work day to ask simple questions, talk through a problem for which they already have a solution, or just hang out with you and “shoot the breeze.”

As a leader of volunteers you need to remember that these people might need a little extra time, and they should be given it. Yes, they are going to interrupt you when you are super busy and trying to get a project completed, but since they are offering their time and attempting to do a good job for you it is important to provide the time for the volunteers if they need it.

A great deal of what we do is a trade-off, and a part of our volunteer’s “pay” is our overlooking of inconvenient things, like the volunteer who interrupts us, the volunteer who needs more of our time, and the volunteer who needs reminding over and over. Should those inconveniences that may look to an outsider like we don’t know how to “control” our volunteers, cause us to lose productive volunteers? I, for one, would rather not lose great volunteers just because they require a little extra of my time.
Meridian, “Ma! Ma! Ma! Ma! Ma!

Question: What are some stories of communication that have gone well and why? How about stories where communication did not go well and why? Is there anything you would add to this communication process/list?

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