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