Leadership in volunteer organizations has high turnover and frequent burnout. If you are paid staff or a volunteer leader in a church, civic organization, or other volunteer community, you need to brace yourself for that possibility, whether it is burning out yourself or the constant challenge of finding, training, and supporting new leaders. Why does this happen? One explanation is what I call the Lone Ranger syndrome.
In order to describe the work of corporations, economists have invented a fictional character called the residual claimant. That’s the person, or persons, who get what’s left over after the revenues roll in and the company’s suppliers and workers and banks have been paid. That leftover is called profit—or loss. In a for-profit company, profit or loss belongs to the residual claimant—the owners in a privately owned company, the stockholders in a publicly traded company.
In volunteer organizations, there is no residual claimant, because presumably there is no profit or loss. But there is something similar. In these organizations, people accept various responsibilities. They may sort groceries or do client intake in a food bank, coach a kids’ basketball team or take care of the grounds, edit the newsletter or make the coffee. But there are usually some leftover responsibilities that don’t belong to anyone in particular. It may be putting the chairs back after a meeting, or welcoming visitors, but whatever the leftover chores are, they belong to the person (or people) I call the residual obligant. In most volunteer organizations, it’s the paid staff, or the president, or some of each.
Think about the times when you were the residual obligant. How did it make you it feel? Virtuous? Resentful? You are not alone, even though you may feel that way. The leftover tasks that don’t seem to belong to anyone are the ones that make leaders burn out. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a call that someone has had to drop an obligation or needed a meeting covered. I may need to find someone to drive a member somewhere or be there to sign for a package or fill in for a missing speaker/teacher/geeter//cake provider. I recall the time that a colleague was supposed to give a speech in a distant county, and he called in sick. The group asked if he would send the speech and they would read it. Turned out, not to my surprise, he hadn’t written it yet, and wasn’t planning to. It was five days before my daughter’s wedding, and her in-laws were arriving that day, holding the rehearsal dinner three days later at my house. I hadn’t cleaned the refrigerator. I wrote the speech and sent it to the group, and three of my close friends cleaned the refrigerator for me. It was great delegating, because I was the only other person equipped to write that particular speech, and my friends were happy to be able to support me and my family in getting ready for the wedding.
One response to the challenge of unassigned duties is a common style of leadership in volunteer communities that I call the “Lone Ranger syndrome.” For women, it might be called the Supermom syndrome. It’s easier to do it myself than to hunt down a volunteer or pester a teenage daughter. But being unwilling or unable to delegate is a form of failure in leadership, because part of your job is to teach people (or offspring) what it means to be part of a community or a family.
The Lone Ranger leadership styles takes various forms. The first is the delusion of superman (or more often, woman). The thinking process goes like this: I know better than these fools and I can set everything straight single-handedly. Give me advice I can agree with if you want to belong to my team, which is not really a team because I get to make all the decisions and take all the credit.
The second style might be labeled helicopter mom, a term popular among University faculty and staff working with young adults. It is based on fear and the need to control. Here the thought process is like this: If I really delegate, I lose control. The person to whom I delegated may screw up and I will have to clean up the mess. So even when I delegate I am sorely tempted to continue to oversee, second guess, and often overrule. This style relies heavily on preventing people from making mistakes, but making mistakes is actually one of the primary ways by which we learn.
The third Lone Ranger leadership style is based on an aversion to asking for help. It’s easier to do it all myself. Watch this person burn out. Watch this person scare off anyone else from picking up her mantle because the job looks too overwhelming. I have operated in that style in the past, but I hope I have learned better.
What all three Lone Rangers have in common is that they fail to create a sense of ownership among others and to develop new leadership that can pick up the ball when it’s time to move on. All three styles are also an invitation to burnout. A lone ranger or superman operating style fails to build and sustain the connected web of community that can prevent or mitigate future problems and crises. So lone rangers need to be appreciated for their good intentions but schooled in the ways of community, a hard task in a society that is very individualistic.
Each of us needs to look at our own operating style in leadership roles or the qualities we look for in choosing leaders. We need to reflect on how our communities—families, neighborhoods, congregations, nations—can all work better if we adopt, model, teach and/or applaud a leadership style that is intentionally collaborative. Delegation is an important form of collaboration. It’s also the best way to resist becoming the residual obligant.
There are three important ways to keep that from happening. One is to have clear job descriptions for positions and committees and volunteer roles. The second is to delegate. And the third is to break down the work into more manageable pieces so that no one has to do anything all the time.
Writing job descriptions may sound tedious, and you wonder if anyone Is going to read them. Hopefully the nominating committee will read them. Or perhaps the new treasurer or the membership chair of the program chair will take the time to get to know them. Just as the president has to delegate, so can these other leaders delegate specific tasks to members of their committees or teams and not become an unplanned and unwilling residual obligant. So one of your tasks as a leader is to make sure there are job descriptions and that everyone gets one when they come on board.
Delegate is a great word to have in your leadership vocabulary. Maybe you have just had a discussion about how to make the annual meeting attractive so that more members will attend, get enthused, get involved, and work to further the organization’s mission and purpose. But there are details. Publicity, food and drink, venue, invitations, program, decorations…. DON’T say I can do that the first time there is a silence. Some of these responsibilities fall in the purview of committees. Other tasks can be broken down into single assignments. There may be suggestions of people to ask. Develop a protocol for making sure that the tasks are covered, and make it clear that if there aren’t volunteers enough, it won’t happen—whatever it is. At the end of the meeting, reinforce the plan for sharing responsibility by reviewing who has agreed to do what and having the secretary append that list to the minutes. And try NOT to check up on people and make sure they are doing what they promised to. A simple email reminder to everyone involved should be sufficient. Yes, your leaders and volunteers have things to do, places to go, but so do you. You have a life. Keep living it.
Another way to delegate is to assign someone or some group, perhaps the membership committee, to be responsible for identifying potential volunteers. So when you need helpers to coordinate an event or perform a regular service, ask the membership committee to find someone. Making a habit of delegation even when it seems easier to do it yourself is actually a service to the organization. You are modeling delegation, and setting a pattern of shared responsibility that hopefully will last after the end of your presidency. If you are in a system where there is a president in waiting—a vice president with expectation of succession, or a president-elect—make sure you are communicating that lesson not just by example but also the need for a broader base of volunteer participation. It builds community, forges new connections, and makes the organization stronger and more effective.
The third strategy is to break big assignments down into small parts. So if all Amy has to do at the fundraiser is to set up tables and help decorate them, that’s a doable task. Maybe next year she will do more, but this year she can feel like she is useful, appreciated, and part of a team. One step at a time.
There is an important relationship between delegating and creating a sense of ownership. In a largely volunteer organization, people who aren’t asked to do anything feel less like owners and more like customers. In a democratic society, whether it’s local government, parent teachers associations, community theater, community food banks, Rotary Clubs, or churches, you want active and engaged owners, not complaining customers. So next time you say to yourself, okay, I can do that, stop. You aren’t doing yourself or the organization any favors. Ask Tonto. Ask your teenager. Ask a committee. Ask, and it may surprise you what you receive in return.