Utilizing Volunteers as Project Leaders


Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Welcome to Utilizing Volunteers as Project Leaders, presented to you by the Corporation for National and Community Service in conjunction with Hands On Network. Hands On Network, an internationally recognized volunteer management resource organization, has developed a new generation of volunteer engagement techniques — tailored to today’s community service organization.

Project leaders who are properly trained and supported can strengthen your program and expand the work you are able to do in the community.
A project leader is a volunteer who:

  • Takes charge of a project or program by coordinating it and being accountable for its successful completion
  • Communicates the details of the project or program and serves as a resource for other volunteers
  • Organizes, leads, and inspires a group of volunteers before, during, and after their service
  • May initiate new projects or programs
  • Represents the organization to other volunteers

In this course, you will learn how to develop a framework for volunteer leadership as well as recruit, select, equip, support, and recognize your project leaders.

We hope you thoroughly enjoy this web-based course! For questions and/or to receive additional information or training on this topic, please contact Hands On Network at training@HandsOnNetwork.org.


Course Objectives

The content in this course is organized into topics that will help you assess your volunteer leadership needs, develop a framework for the project leaders, prepare your leaders, and recognize their efforts. Upon completion of this course, you will be able to:

  • Assess your project leadership needs
  • Develop a framework for project leaders
  • Define meaningful leadership roles
  • Recruit and select project leaders
  • Orient and train project leaders
  • Delegate responsibilities
  • Coach and mentor project leaders
  • Recognize project leaders


Developing a Project Leadership Framework

Before you can begin utilizing volunteers as project leaders, you first need to develop the framework for how they will fit into your national service program.


In this section, we will examine:

  • the organizational commitment needed to build a project leadership framework, and
  • ways to assess your need for project leaders
  • defining meaningful roles for volunteers who serve as project leaders


Making a Commitment to Project Leadership

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]An important step in establishing a solid project leadership program is determining how volunteers can best support your program and the broader community. Before you can begin utilizing volunteers as project leaders, you first need to develop the framework for how they will fit into your national service program. This requires a commitment from everyone involved in your program — from staff to volunteers.

Before beginning a project leadership effort, your national service program must make an organizational commitment to project leadership. Be clear about your reasons for building project leadership. Consider these things:

  • Your community is full of potential leaders, including your current volunteers, teachers, senior citizens, and more.
  • Project leaders can expand your program’s capacity.
  • You can create a community of committed leaders who care about and understand your work.

Make sure that staff at all levels of the program are prepared to support project leaders, from recruitment and training to placement and recognition.

  • Prepare staff to respond knowledgeably to volunteers interested in serving as project leaders.
  • Ensure that policies and procedures are in place to manage a project leadership program effectively.
  • Make an organizational commitment to expanding volunteers’ capacity.

Assessing the Need for Project Leaders

Define Goals and Objectives

It is important to define clear goals and objectives for your project leadership program. Equally important, your national service program must have the capacity (e.g., supervision, space) to support project leaders.

Conducting a needs analysis will help you determine where leaders can be used productively. Take some time to think about these questions:

  • What are the goals of our national service program? Are we able to meet those goals with our current staff capacity? Why or why not?
  • How do we want to expand the work we do in the community?
  • What types of volunteer projects do we want to take on?
  • How can project leaders help us enhance our current work, take on new projects, and accomplish our goals?
  • What specific needs do we have that project leaders can fulfill?
  • Have volunteers wanted to take on leadership roles in our program/organization for past projects? If so, what kind of leadership roles have they been interested in?

Once you have identified the major needs, ask even more questions...

  • Is the need genuine or contrived? In what way?
  • Can we give the project leader ownership of this project? Why or why not?
  • Can we provide the essential support? How?
  • Will the benefits be worth the investment of training and supporting the project leader? In what way?
  • Would a project leader want to perform these tasks? Why or why not?
  • Are there barriers to implementing this volunteer leadership role? What are they and how can we overcome them?

Download a worksheet to help you assess your need for project leaders and create your project leadership framework: ProjectLeaderNeedsAssessment.pdf

Defining Meaningful Leadership Opportunities

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Once you know your program’s needs in terms of project leaders, you should clearly outline what volunteers will do as project leaders, what skills are required, and the support/benefits they will receive. Now it is time to develop a volunteer position description to define the role of the project leader.

Project Leader Position Descriptions

A position description provides a useful tool for recruiting volunteer leaders, a framework for supervision, and a foundation for recognition. A project leader position description outlines responsibilities, support, and benefits of specific volunteer opportunities. It should include the following components:

  • Title — Provide a descriptive title that gives the volunteer a sense of identity. This will also help program staff and other volunteers understand the assigned role. You may choose to use words that indicate leadership, such as manager, coordinator, or director.
  • Purpose/objective — Use no more than two sentences to describe the specific purpose of the position. If possible, state the purpose in relation to the nonprofit’s mission and goals.
  • Location — Describe where the person will be working. Also note if this is a virtual (online) position or if the leader could possibly work from home.
  • Key responsibilities — List the position’s major responsibilities. Clearly define what the volunteer is expected to do as part of this assignment.
  • Qualifications — Clearly list education, experience, knowledge, skills, and age requirements. Also note if the opportunity is accessible to people with disabilities. If a background check is required, it should be indicated here.
  • Time commitment — Note the length of the assignment, hours per week, and/or other special requirements.
  • Training/support provided — Define nature and length of all general and position-specific training required for the assignment. Also list resources and other support available to the volunteer.
  • Benefits — Describe benefits available to the volunteer, such as lunch, T-shirt, and development opportunities.
  • Volunteer supervisor and contact information — List the staff person or volunteer leader who will be working most directly with the volunteer; also include his/her contact information.

Remember that a project leadership role is one that involves broader responsibility and ownership in addition to specific tasks. The position description should reflect the depth of a project leader’s role.

Download a worksheet to help you create a project leader position description as part of your project leadership framework. VolunteerPositionDescription.pdf

Project Leadership Framework - Knowledge Check

Recruiting & Selecting Project Leaders


In this section, we will examine:

  • strategies for recruiting project leaders, and
  • how to effectively select and match volunteers with leadership roles


Recruiting Project Leaders

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Project leaders need to understand how their service and leadership can impact your organization and the broader community. By offering meaningful leadership opportunities and utilizing an effective messaging strategy, you can recruit talented and dedicated volunteers to serve as project leaders with your program. Recruiting project leaders is very similar to recruiting other volunteers.

First, examine the project leader positions to be filled. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who will be qualified for and interested in this position?
  • Who will be able to meet the time commitments?
  • Where will I find these people?
  • What motivates them to serve?
  • What is the best way to approach them?

Then, think about how to target these potential project leaders. Different messages will appeal to different audiences, so you will want to use a variety of recruitment methods. You can use targeted recruitment that is focused and addressed to a specific audience where people will have the skills, interests, and availability needed to fill your positions. As you consider how to market the leadership opportunites, keep in mind that these volunteer positions involve greater responsibility and ownership and try to reach those people with the necessary leadership potential.

Also consider what it is that will motivate them to become project leaders, and tap into those motivations with your recruitment messages. Here are some ideas about how to recruit volunteers for project leadership:

  • Ask in person — this is always the most compelling!
  • Post your volunteer opportunity on the Internet using your program’s website or another site, such as www.volunteermatch.org or www.idealist.org.
  • Post flyers or brochures strategically in the community; this might include such places as barber shops and doctor offices. Be sure to promote your opportunity with the staff where you post them.
  • Partner with volunteers from a school, corporation, community center, faith-based group, or other nonprofit.
  • Utilize local media (e.g., newspapers and radio) to spread the word about your volunteer opportunities.
  • Network with community groups and leaders.
  • Use online forums and/or blogs to spread the word.
  • Work with your local volunteer center or Hands On Network organization.

If you are already actively recruiting volunteers, examine your current recruitment strategy, including printed and web-based recruitment materials. Ensure that your materials address the following:

  • How do our current communications truly help people understand our leadership needs?
  • How would the recruitment messages inspire me to get involved?
  • What kind of people are consistently attracted to serving with us as project leaders?

Ask people you know — current volunteers, agency partners, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers — to help recruit project leaders. You can also use e-mail, letters, and phone calls to build awareness among existing contacts.

Download a worksheet to help you map your project leader recruitment strategy: Project recruitment worksheet.

Selecting & Matching Project Leaders

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Because project leaders will have greater responsibility for planning and implementing the project, in addition to managing other volunteers, it is important to place the right volunteer in the leadership position. You may want to develop a special project leader application to capture important information about volunteers’ interests, availability, and skills.

Project Leader Applications

A project leader application should include the following components:

  • Personal profile — Gather the applicant’s contact information. Keep this information on file to advise the applicant of upcoming volunteer opportunities even if he or she isn’t selected as a project leader at this time. You may also choose to ask for emergency contact information.
  • Volunteer history — Capture information about the applicant’s history with your program, as well as other volunteer experiences. This will give you an idea of his or her knowledge, skills, and interests.
  • Interest survey — Find out what the applicant is interested in doing with your program. You can list specific projects or a variety of options such as projects with children, projects on the weekends, or one-time projects. Be sure to ask why the applicant is interested in being a project leader with your program and what time commitment he or she is willing to make.
  • References — You may choose to ask for references, conduct background checks, or require other information on the application.

Be prepared to explain to potential volunteers how this information will be used. Make sure that your program has a privacy policy in effect to protect volunteers’ personal information to the same degree as that of staff members. All staff should understand this policy and be able to explain it to volunteers if asked.

Download a sample project leader application form: ProjectLeaderApplication.pdf

Screening and Matching Project Leaders

Take time to screen the project leader applications and then interview potential leaders if necessary. Get to know the volunteers so that you understand their skills and interests and can match them with the best project. After screening applications and/or interviewing potential leaders, match volunteers with existing projects or work with them to develop new projects.

Matching volunteers includes determining the interests and abilities of the potential leaders, determining their suitability for particular positions, and assessing their “rightness” for the program, its style of operation, and its mission. NOTE: During the screening and interviewing process, you may determine that some applicants aren’t yet qualified to be project leaders. Don't turn them away! Keep them involved as volunteers and pair them with more experienced leaders who can serve as mentors until the volunteers have gained the skills necessary to serve as project leaders.

Recruiting and Selecting Project Leaders - Knowledge Check

Training Project Leaders

There are many valuable resources available on designing and delivering quality volunteer orientation and training. This section will review some of the basics and discuss specifics for working with volunteer project leaders.


In this section, we will review:

  • key components of effective project leader training


Project Leader Orientation & Training

Once you have recruited and selected project leaders, it's time to build on their interests and skills by further orienting them to your national service program and leadership goals. These volunteers may already possess strong leadership and project management skills; however, it's important to always make available additional training to help project leaders develop these essential skills. Orientation and training for project leaders should be more intensive than for other volunteers.

Begin planning your orientation and training process by defining the desired outcomes. Ask yourself: What should project leaders know and be able to do after the orientation and training?
Use a variety of training methods (e.g., informal gatherings, one-on-one meetings, formal classes, web-based training, printed manuals) and tie the method to the outcomes you seek.

Training and orientation should be ongoing. Consider information the volunteers need to remember on an ongoing basis, and compile those things in a handbook that volunteers will keep.

Training volunteers and staff together offers an opportunity to build a strong team and ensure that the knowledge gained is consistent among staff and volunteers.

By combining three kinds of training, you can train your volunteers to think, act, and behave like leaders.

  1. Knowledge training attempts to transfer information, details, or data.
  2. Skill training aims at teaching or empowering potential leaders to be able to perform a task or exhibit a specific skill.
  3. Behavioral training influences one’s values or attitudes so as to evoke a response or change in mindset/behavior.

Training for project leaders should include these key components:

  • History and mission of the national service program
  • Ways volunteers impact the community
  • Importance of the project leader role
  • Project leader responsibilities
  • Project development and management
  • Volunteer management basics
  • How to ensure safety during service events
  • Methods and importance of maintaining confidentiality
  • Reporting requirements (if any)

In addition, training should provide project leaders with the skills they need to build partnerships with community groups, plan and manage projects, and recruit and manage volunteers. Whatever the project leader's role, he or she should feel thoroughly prepared for success.

Supporting Project Leaders

In addition to providing volunteer project leaders with thorough orientation and training, it's important to support them as they plan and implement projects in the community. You can help project leaders cultivate their skills, tackle problems, manage project details, and understand the impact of their efforts.


In this section, we discuss:

  • creating a support structure for volunteer project leaders
  • how to support project leaders through coaching
  • methods for delegating responsibilities to project leaders
  • supporting project leaders through recognition


Establishing a Support Structure

With adequate support for volunteer project leaders, your aim is to help leaders develop their thinking and capacity. Provide clear guidelines, due dates, reminders, and clarification of requirements. More importantly, know your leaders’ strengths, as well as the areas that need more development, so that you can best help them hone their skills to become more effective in their roles.

By working in partnership with program staff, volunteer project leaders are much more likely to achieve their goals. When you foster volunteer project leaders' development as you do for staff, your program is more likely to retain a strong and growing body of committed, qualified project leaders.

Decide if you want to support project leaders formally or informally:

  • Formal support can include regularly scheduled meetings, task-specific training, or volunteer committees.
  • Informal support occurs as the need arises, rather than at scheduled times; it might include calls or e-mails to check in with leaders on project progress.

Also consider providing ongoing opportunities for volunteer leaders to share best practices and learn from each other, with casual gatherings at a local coffee house or online discussion groups, for example.

Ask each individual volunteer project leader how he or she prefers to be supported. Ask what "support" looks like to them. Is it coffee once a month? A weekly phone check-in? Written e-mail reports? Continue to build relationships with your leaders so that they succeed in their leadership roles and take ownership of their projects.

Let's look more closely at supporting project leaders through coaching, delegating, and recognition...

Coaching for Success

Coaching is support that happens through ongoing conversation and collaboration. Coaching can happen prior to a challenging event, in the midst of action, after a triumph or defeat, or during a pause between assignments.

Coaching is not just for new volunteer leaders; it should be an ongoing part of your relationship with the volunteer. The key elements of successful coaching are:

  • A trusting, honest, respectful relationship between the coach and project leader
  • Time for preparation and reflection
  • Clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and expectations
  • Effective listening skills
  • Strategic questions that promote thinking
  • Data collection and thoughtful feedback

Active Listening

Active listening is an important part of coaching. To be an active listener, remember these tips:

  • Be calm and patient.
  • Don’t assume you understand what the speaker thinks and feels.
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Summarize or paraphrase what you are hearing.
  • Avoid crafting a response while the other person is speaking.
  • Don’t try to solve the project leader's problems immediately through giving advice.

Coaching Questions

Coaching questions are used to help people clarify and develop their thinking. Some examples of helpful coaching questions include:

  • What do you hope to accomplish?
  • How did it go?
  • What happened?
  • What did you think?
  • What worked?
  • Why?
  • How do you know?
  • What have you learned so far?
  • What would you like to do differently next time?


Delegating Leadership Responsibilities

Delegating leadership responsibilities to volunteers requires careful preparation. Before you delegate, take care to consider the following:

Delegate assignments in terms of results, not just tasks...
In order to accomplish something, project leaders need a sense of what they are trying to achieve. Therefore, define jobs as something to accomplish ("raise $500") rather than as something to do ("write a grant proposal").
Explain as precisely as possible what they are to do.
Explain the importance of the particular task in relation to what you are trying to achieve.
Show that you have confidence in their ability to carry out the task.
Be certain that the people you choose have the necessary knowledge and training to perform the task.

Define the level of control and indicate how much decision-making authority project leaders have...
Before the project starts, let project leaders know who will be responsible for making decisions.
When appropriate, delegate authority to make decisions along with the responsibility for carrying out the task.

Communicate any guidelines and parameters that must be used to shape decisions...
Be specific about deadlines. Help set priorities.

Ensure resources and assistance are available to accomplish the task...
Be aware of the types of support project leaders might need and the type of support you can provide.
Ensure the project leader has proper access to tools and resources to get the job done.

Determine criteria for success and agree on how results will be evaluated...
To be satisfied with their work, project leaders need feedback that indicates their degree of success. Prior to the project, determine the criteria for success and how they will be evaluated.

Establish reporting points along the way...
Set times to check in with project leaders. This provides the opportunity to discuss progress and helps you avoid those meetings that occur only when things aren’t going well.
Give project leaders your undivided attention at a regular meeting. This lets them know that you care about the work they're doing and how it is accomplished.

Recognizing Project Leaders

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Recognition makes volunteers feel appreciated and valued. If project leaders don’t feel like their contribution is valuable or necessary, they won’t return.

Volunteer recognition can take many forms — from a simple thank-you card to a large annual event. An ideal recognition system makes use of many different approaches and procedures. It's important to have something for every volunteer and to keep it personal and meaningful.

Informal and Formal Recognition

  • Informal, day-to-day recognition is the most effective because it is more frequent than a once yearly banquet and it helps to establish good working relationships. Informal recognition can include anything from a simple "thank you" to a birthday card.
  • Formal recognition includes awards, certificates, plaques, pins, and recognition dinners or receptions to honor volunteer achievement.

Volunteer recognition does not have to cost a lot, and there are many alternatives to the traditional annual recognition banquet. Use your imagination and think creatively to come up with some fun, inexpensive ideas that will let volunteers know they are appreciated.

NOTE: During the interview process, ask project leaders what kind of recognition they tend to appreciate. That way you can spend your time and energy on recognition techniques that will be most meaningful to each individual.

Supporting Project Leaders - Knowledge Check


Congratulations for completing the Utilizing Volunteers as Project Leaders online course. As a result, you should understand how to:

  • Assess your project leadership needs
  • Develop a framework for project leaders
  • Define meaningful leadership roles
  • Recruit and select project leaders
  • Orient and train project leaders
  • Delegate responsibilities
  • Coach and mentor project leaders
  • Recognize project leaders

We hope the information presented in this online course has been helpful. For questions and/or to receive additional information or training on this topic, please contact Hands On Network at training@HandsOnNetwork.org.