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Communicating with Volunteers

26 May

Volunteers want to be a part of something great. To nurture them and support them, you want to set them up for success as much as possible with every interaction you have with them. They trust you, the leader, to equip them with all the tools they need to succeed and if that trust is eroded, over time your team will evaporate.

A key area where leaders have the ability to either create trust or destroy trust is through how they communicate. Today’s post will be a case study – we’ll break it down and learn how to do it better.

My child’s small group was invited to participate in a service project today.  There were a number of missteps in the leader’s communication to us (child and parent) that lead to a real break of trust.

First communication

 What happened: the first I heard of this project was when the group leader found me at work on Thursday and asked, with no preamble, “is your child coming?”.  I had no idea what he was talking about, so he clarified – explaining that there was a service project and that he’d sent out notices via Facebook and hadn’t heard back from my child.

Why this was ineffective: My child does not use Facebook. That has been explained multiple times to this group leader. No email was sent out, nor was a phone call made. Had I not ‘run into’ this person, I wouldn’t have even had the 2 days notice I did get.

What should have happened: Notification/invite should have gone out in a forum that the leader could be confident was seen/heard.  I have over 100 people in my teams and most of them respond well to email, but there are a few who don’t use it. I have a list of them and make those phone calls each time. Know your people! Are you leading teens? Use text messages! As a leader you should be meeting them where they are.


What happened:  After I had spoken to my child to confirm participation, I had the child email the leader asking for details including where he should meet the group and what time.  He never received a response until Friday night at 10 pm, he got a text message that said “U coming 2morrow?”  The child responded with affirmative and once more requested an address and time.

Why this was ineffective: waiting until just a few hours before the project to give details and gather confirmation really makes you look disorganized.  Even if you are a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ planner, as a leader you must meet people where they are. Most plan ahead. Change your style to accommodate theirs.

What should have happened: I should have received and email or phone call at least a day in advance with the details of the project. A week is better.  And a text message is a poor medium for this sort of thing. It involves directions that need to printed so they can be referred to.


What happened: He was sent (at 10pm on Friday night) a text (and an email which I discovered Sat morning) which said the following:

9am @ Landmark Community Church
In back.

N. Chrysler Dr. (I-75 service drive) South of I-696 east side of I-75
North of 9 mile

Because of the lack of an actual address, I had to look up the church to find a good address. I mapped out a route on Friday night to time things, and learned that it was 30 minutes away. So we left at 8:30, me groggy with sleep and still in my pajamas. We arrived and as I dropped the child off, something in me said to wait for a few moments.  This did not look like a service project and I wanted to verify that the child had found his group before driving home. Turns out, this was only the location of the registration. I had to come inside (PJs and all) and fill out a permission form for my child to participate. There, I discovered that there were Spring Serve T-shirts for sale $5 cash and that my child would likely be painting and would need a lunch.

Why this was ineffective:

  • It was hard to find – giving cross streets instead of an actual address is not very effective in these days where almost everyone uses a GPS.  If you want to give additional details like this, do so! But always, always include a real live, postal address.  If sending via text message, be sure to include a zip code. Most smart phones will recognize that as an address and allow you to simply click on it which will open it in your gps/mapping program. Go the extra mile to make it easy for your volunteers!
  • We were late – had we known that there was registration before the project, we would have arrived early enough to take care of that. So already the child is not feeling successful because he’s late.
  • He was dressed inappropriately.  Actually, we both were. Had I known I’d be coming in, filling out forms and meeting people, I certainly would have gotten dressed.  Had we known that there would be painting, he would have worn different clothes. Mama is NOT happy that he’s likely to get his only decent pair of jeans ruined today.
  • He did not have the proper equipment.  He would have loved a T-shirt to be part of the team and as both a memento and something else to wear. But we were not given the information that these were available for a fee and I had no cash.  So now, he’s late, poorly dressed, and disappointed.  Also, we were not given any information about an end time or lunch, so he’ll be desperately hungry unless I drive back out and bring him something.

What should have happened:  All the information should be included in the communication. You cannot over communicate. If you give people information they don’t want or need, they can disregard it.  You don’t get to decide what information people need, they do.  You are the leader. It’s your job to think through every detail and provide that to them. Remember – the easier you make things for them the better your result will be.

Best Practice

First Communication:

  • Use a form that the volunteers have access to (email, Facebook, txt, phone call). You may have to use multiple mediums to get to everyone, but it’s your responsibility to make sure they do! Don’t ever assume.  Go where they are.
  • Give all the details you have. If some are missing, say so, say what you are still finding out and when you’ll have it to them.

In this case study, I would have liked to have seen this on Monday:

“Gentlemen, I wanted to remind you about our service project coming up this weekend.  Please respond to me by Wednesday if you can come or not. We’ll start at 9am, but I’m not sure about some of the other details yet. I’ll have them by tomorrow and send out more information!” If you have questions, email or text me [insert phone number here].

On Tuesday:

“Here are more details about the project. We’ll be working from 9-2 at a house build in Hazel Park. There’s no telling what we might be asked to do, so wear grubby clothes you don’t mind destroying.  You’ll need to pack a lunch.  Also, I’ll need a signed permission slip from each of you. It’s attached to this email. So far, I’ve heard from Tyler, Jacob, Kevin, and Landon.  I need to hear from the rest of you by tomorrow or I’ll be calling you!”

On Thursay or Friday:

Subject: Reminder about Saturday

When: Saturday, May 26, 12, 9am-2pm

*please arrive before 9 am so you can register and find us, we’d like to start at 9am!*

Where: Landmark Community Church

1234 Main Street

Hazel Park, MI 47653

(link to printable map)

What: Building, landscaping and painting are all possibilities. Wear grubby clothes and if you have work gloves, bring em!

Cost: None, but Spring Serve T-shirts will be available for purchase if you want one for $5

Bring: Lunch, money for shirt (optional), old clothes & permission slip signed by parent (attached)

Bottom line: Volunteers trust you and feel cared for when you set them up for success.  Think about the 5 W’s: Who, what, where, when, why and try your best to answer each one for them.

1 May

““Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

Improve Your Team’s Information Flow

25 Mar

There are two basic models for how information gets to the people who need it: Push and Pull.


The push model is where the owner of the information contacts and shares it with those who need it. The information can be shared corporately (in a meeting) or individually (email, hallway conversation). It places more responsibility on the information owner, as he/she needs to be fairly knowledgable about what each team member does and needs in order to get the right information to the right person on time. It is essential in situations where your team is very small and things are happening in real-time. For example, if I learn that my pastor is going to invite a guest on stage with him in the greeting (which begins in 30 seconds), I quickly determine that this affects audio, lighting and video and use my com system to immediately pass that information along to those people so that they can prepare for this audible.

In a project environment, however, this model has serious shortcomings.

  • It assumes that the information owner passes on the right information. How often have you needed info that someone else had, but they didn’t know you needed it?
  • It assumes that the receiver didn’t miss any details. (“I said that!” “No you didn’t!”)
  • It is hard to keep updated. Making sure everyone has the newest copy of things is problematic. Each time that changes are made, this info must be pushed to everyone who needs it. Again, this can be done verbally or by memos or emails, however your team works. It’s still push.
  • It places a high burden on the information owner to figure out who needs what info and to make sure it gets to the team.
  • It can foster a ‘turf war’ mentality because people are controlling the flow the information that they have.
  • It can easily create feelings of frustration from team members who need information, but can’t get it – either because the information owner is not available (in meetings, on vacation) or the owner may not realize that others need the information.

  • Pull

    Pull is when all project information is put in an central location and then those who need information can go there and retrieve what they need. The location can be physical or virtual, as long as all team members can easily access it. An old school example of this would be a theatre call board. The stage manager would post information by a specific time each day and all cast and crew would check the call board each day. Notices include changed call times, rehearsal room assignments, costuming notes, etc. If it was on the call board, you were responsible for the information. The internet makes this method available to us all and in a project environment is a far superior method for the distribution of information. There are a myriad of tools: Google Groups which is free but has limited features or Basecamp which is fee based but has a great list of features are just two examples. Planning Center (which most of you already use) is an outstanding example of a Pull system. You put the information out there and anyone who needs it has access.

    The Pull system has is downsides – if you used meetings as team building time, you will need to be more creative as meetings become unnecessary for the exchange of information. It also gives a level of ownership and responsibility to people who may not be accustomed to having it and that may be a learning curve as you move from one method to the other. However, the upsides to a Pull system are many.

  • The burden of information management is equally shared between owners and retrievers. If you own information, you post it. If you need information, you retrieve it.
  • All information is available to all parties. You get to decide what information you need to do your job well.
  • There are less misunderstandings and missed information when it is all posted and all parties can easily review what’s been shared.
  • It is easily updated when there is only one place that fresh information is kept. Everyone is always on the same page.
  • Collaboration is easier when all parties know what’s going on project wide.

  • I would urge you to look at how information flows in your team. If you are still using a push system, consider making the shift to a pull system. It empowers team members, creates less burden on leaders and once fully implemented, will lead you to a more cohesive, highly functional team.

    “You are only as big as your dream & as good as your team.”

    17 Mar

    I’d like to cite that, but it was retweeted so many times I had trouble finding the author. I think it’s brilliant though. You cannot destroy your team to implement your dream, you need both. Good thing to keep in mind. Do you sacrifice people for product?

    Strong Volunteer Teams

    10 Mar

    I was blessed to attend the Gurus of Tech conference last week in Chicago. One of the breakouts I went to was on leading volunteers and was lead by Jill Werst who was a mountain of knowledge. The most pivotal take-away for me was this: your best recruitment tool is investing in your current volunteers. Wow. That really resonates with what I have seen work and fail over 20 years. But how do we invest in our current volunteers?

    Volunteers crave trust, a mission, excellence, and team. If we can create an environment where they have all four, they will thrive. And they will bring their friends who will also thrive. Let’s look at each of these.


    Can your volunteers trust that you will give them the information they need to feel successful? How is your communication process? Confusion and chaos is not the best environment and will scare people off. When there is insecurity, there is high turnover. Do they trust that you will teach them what they need to know so that they feel valuable or are you just throwing them in the deep end of the pool? Do you have documentation? Volunteers LOVE checklists. Do they trust that you will begin and end when you said you would? Nothing breaks trust faster than wasting people’s time.


    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
    -Antoine De Saint-Exupéry

    This is absolutely key to building strong volunteer teams. I spend time teaching my set up team knots. Yes knots! Sound exciting? Not really, eh? But we always go big picture – why is this knot important (it’s adjustable), why does it matter (it saves time later, we are serving someone else by using the right knot), why does THAT matter? Because the less time the staff has to focus on tweaking on Saturday, the more time they can spend on other things and it all impacts the experience that our attenders have. This knot helps bring people to Christ. 🙂 Yes, I go there and we make it a little bit of a joke – just because that’s my personality with my team – but the idea sticks. What you do has epic consequences. When you connect those dots for your team, you develop pride and workmanship that would be missed without it.


    Let’s face it. Nobody wants to be part of a team that sucks. It guarantees dissatisfaction, disappointment, and turnover. Time spent in training and planning pays off in exponential dividends. If your volunteers don’t feel like they are a part of something great, they won’t stay. No one does everything perfectly, but there are two ways to break this down – product and attitude. Product – if your end product is not good quality, you’ll never have a great team. Perhaps that should be your starting point. Building a team without a product is a cart before the horse kind of thing. Attitude – are you praising when things done well? Publicly? Twitter and Facebook are fantastic tools for this. Everyone loves a public ‘attaboy’. Are you making sure that you honor the absentee and never NEVER allow disparaging comments in team? If you shut people down when they complain about other departments, they will know that you have their back when they are complained about. This is related to the trust thing. If you focus on an uplifting attitude – being a place people love to be, you will have achieved half the battle to excellence.


    One of the most deeply seeded needs God put in us is the need to belong. It doesn’t matter if you are an introvert or an extrovert, when you feel a part of something bigger than yourself, magic happens. Connect with your team regularly in and out of work time. Read their Facebook, ask about their family publicly so that other join that conversation too. Here is the craziest little big thing that has helped our team – names. Learn everyone’s names and make them do it too. When your stage manager calls for the ‘guitar player’ rather than for Jon, when the speaker calls someone “power point guy” rather than Chris…it’s disrespectful and disheartening. Become a culture that uses names, there’s nothing more personal. Use name tags, put the names on production copies, be the example. No one feels a part of a team where the leaders and teammates don’t know each others names. Do whatever it takes – you’ll be stunned what a change in attitude of the team that makes.

    Thank people. This cannot be said enough. Thank them privately and publicly. Thank them thank them thank them. I go around and thank each individual crew and cast member every week with something personal about their performance each week. (“I loved that camera shot on the fade out of the acoustic piece! Nice eye!”) Send them thank you notes periodically, call them once a quarter for no reason but to say “I appreciate your work and commitment.” It’s such an easy thing and it’s vital for people to feel like they are noticed and appreciated. This is especially critical with large teams where people have a tendency to feel lost and unnoticed.

    Trust, mission, excellence and team are the keys to strong teams. Not skills. 🙂 It’s an upside down way to look at things, maybe, but almost anyone can be taught skills, it’s the environment that you create that builds a strong team.

    Off night

    10 Mar

    Tonight was a really rocky night. Rehearsal last night was off and I felt really unprepared. I need to figure out what happened. There were various communication SNAFU’s that can be addresses that added to the last minute feel of everything. Ever have an off night and you can’t really put your finger on why?

    The band seemed more unprepared than usual, or maybe the worship leader kept changing things up on them. I don’t really know what their process is, but I know it didn’t work this week. Even tonight, we didn’t get a full run through because of last minute changes.

    The turn went great though! Rock stars all – our volunteers are the best in the land. It was a complicated turn: 2 chain motors and one chain fall had to be moved, we built 60 feet of truss (in two configurations), hung 12 strips of plexiglass. 15 LED bricks, 6 300’s and 10 smaller LEDs, all cabled and ready for design. 3 of the volunteers have become proficient enough at the tautline hitch that we used so that the line is micro adjustable that the plex took no time at all. This is generally where our snag is on this type of turn – the knots. Education is paying off there.

    The only snag was the getting the tie line – someone from another turn had not coiled them, just jumbled them together. I need to track that down, as it’s not the first time that has happened. There’s an educational opportunity there.

    OT: Why churches should embrace social media

    9 Mar

    I’ve recently had a string of conversations with other Christ followers about the value of social media. In each conversation, I found myself on the defensive – trying to articulate how it was more than just a platform for self-promotion or another input point in an already information crazy world. Through these conversations, I’ve come up with a simple premise: social media is about relationships and relationships are at the very core of what we should be about.

    Let me explain that a little better. I am a single mom with two jobs (I stage manage and I homeschool). This leaves me very little face to face relationship building time with people who are important to me. Through Facebook and Twitter, I am able to not only keep up with what it happening in my friends lives, but open myself up to them. A relationship has to be two ways to work. When I type that I’m feeling discouraged in my profile, 20 people post with encouragement for me. That, my friends, is the hand of God through the people I love. It also gives me insight into these wonderful people and how they think so that at a later date, I can offer them a similar support. One of the arguments I regularly hear is that FB is eroding “real” relationships by allowing us to offload communication to this format. I would argue that the opposite is true. If I read a great book and post about it, I have an instant conversation point with hundreds of people that I never would have called individually to discuss the book. Many of these conversations continue off line! What a blessing!

    Twitter is a little different beast. It allows you to be a part of conversations with people you don’t really know. At a recent conference, all the tweeting attenders were using the hashtag #gurusoftech when posting about their experience. Suddenly I found a host of new colleagues to exchange information with. I am encouraged by their success, taught by their failures and allowed to put my information into the mix. And we are all better for it.

    When talking about FB to a man I deeply respect, he said “I’m just not sure I want to be known like that” and that really stuck in my mind. If we aren’t willing to put ourselves out there and be known, why should anyone value what we have to say, or what we believe in? The relationship is already broken.

    The bottom line is that people don’t really care what you say or do unless they are in relationship with you. Social media allows us to both find and to deepen those relationships.