The Frustrated Volunteer

We heart volunteers!
Churches and ministries invariably use volunteers extensively. They are roped in for almost every area of ministry from audio visual needs to community services to communications to training and beyond.

Volunteers volunteer. They do not get paid. Since they don’t expect to be remunerated financially, how then do we motivate, incentivise and appreciate all that they contribute towards?  We oftentimes hear the term burnout and I believe there are ways to avoid this from happening.

First, let’s understand what frustrates volunteers.

Unclear direction

“Please design a simple flyer for our upcoming conference. I’ll give you the exact details later. Just make it look nice.”

This is not a job brief and it shows poor planning on the part of the event coordinator. Can you imagine how much time will be spent later to clarify the actual needs and details for the “simple flyer”?

First of all, the brief should not be verbal, nor should it be general. Job briefs should be as specific as possible, so that the volunteer can get to work without a shadow of a doubt. It should state the purpose of the project, target audience demographics (age, education level, etc), design and content requirements, person to liaise with from the church and deadline.

Repeated Changes

Invariably, changes will be needed for projects. That is part and parcel of any project. However, volunteers have to oftentimes labour over multiple rounds of changes (that could be avoided) because of several factors.

1. The client (aka project manager and church) doesn’t really know what they want.
2. Details weren’t finalised when the project began.

Too often, volunteers are taken for granted because there is no cost to their services. If there were a cost associated to changes as per a commercial project, I am positive the way projects are executed would be very different.

If I may propose, please respect your volunteers all the more because they are offering their services for free!

Final final revision

Levels of approval

Another thing that adds to frustrations is hierarchy. A project manager from church may be assigned to oversee a project and they work with the volunteers to the best of their capacity but later realise that it’s not quite what was desired by the “management” (aka pastors, elders or church board). This could result in a plethora of change requests because of poor internal communication on the part of the “client”.

Options for the sake of options

“That’s quite nice, but… can you just give us another few options just so that we can be convinced this is the one we want.”

Volunteers are already starved of time and if something is already acceptable, “accept it”!

Work that doesn’t get published based on timelines

We often push volunteers to meet specific deadlines because it’s urgent. After they deliver, they want to see their work realised. If nothing gets done for weeks or months after they rushed to meet the deadline, they would simply feel all their effort in meeting the deadline amounted to nothing.

Ways to appreciate volunteers & keep the motivated

A pat on the back from the “management” – a simple thank you call from the senior pastor to the volunteers will ignite their passion and they’ll truly feel their contribution was significant.

Seeing their work materialise – ensuring the work done is used. Nothing is worse than a volunteer burning the midnight oil only to find their efforts were never shown.

Giving credit where due – when possible, acknowledge volunteers by name. Tell others with pride the names of the people who were involved.

Playing your part – when a volunteer dedicates their effort to a project, the “client” needs to do their part too.

Delivering on promises – if you promise a volunteer something (not necessarily gifts – it could be content for the project), make sure you don’t inadvertently forget!

Celebrating successes – when a project is complete, people always feel special if there is a celebration. It doesn’t have to be posh – a thank you card, gift or a celebration dinner will normally suffice. Don’t only host a once-a-year blanket thank you for everything dinner.

I have been working with volunteers and as a volunteer for quite a few years. This article chronicles some of the pain I feel and also stories related to me by real-life volunteers. Do feel free to share your thoughts as a volunteer, church leader or project manager.


  1. Steven Fogg - March 4, 2014

    Hi Alex, great post! I resonate with so much of what you have written here. The point that really sticks for me is honouring the volunteer. That can be through time management, preparedness and acknowledgement of service.

    Churches need to do this better!


    • TheBackpackr - March 17, 2014

      Thanks for the positive comment, Steve. It’s hard for many leaders to change, but I believe they can do so one-step-at-a-time.

      May there be more appreciation for volunteers here on earth, though they reap much in heaven, someday!

  2. James - April 20, 2014

    Check out Seth Godin’s talk on “trash early”

    See 7 minutes in.

    • TheBackpackr - May 4, 2014

      James, thanks for sharing. Seth Godin definitely shares very good insights on creating a strategy to have a cut-off date for critique so that deadlines can be met! Get a sign-off from stakeholders to say I’m reviewing the work now and after this point, I will not give anymore feedback.

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