The Honour of Leading Volunteers

Written by Peter DeWit of Serve the City Paris

One of the best parts of leading a Serve the City initiative is seeing volunteers enthusiastically join in. It’s been almost three years that I have been part of the Serve the City network, with its many branches around the world. In Paris, it’s always a highlight for me to meet volunteers whether they be ex-pats, or nationals, or even asylum seekers from around the world. There is so much diversity and good that gets done when volunteers unite for a cause.

As I think about volunteer-based organisations like ours, I remind myself that our volunteers are not a commodity to serve our thing, or serve any leader’s ego-driven goals. As a leader of initiatives, I must also be careful to not let my own identity hinge on how the volunteers show up. They have come alongside us to serve and thus they’ve trusted our welcome and the open door we’ve afforded to them. With that privilege comes our responsibility to look beyond ourselves and see the heart of our volunteers!

A word that comes to mind when it comes to volunteering is trust. Volunteer-based work is an exercise of great trust. Volunteers give themselves freely with the hope and trust that what they bring to the table will be valued. We as leaders get front row seats to the best that humanity has to offer. A good way that leaders can honour that trust is by giving them our best back. How so? We do our homework (preparation), we lead with a happy demeanour (attitude), ready to engage and serve together (love).

My wife once described volunteerism as unsolicited generosity. It made me ask myself the question, “Why do these people give of themselves week after week?” Where generosity comes from exactly is anyone’s guess, but it comes from the heart and it is beautiful to behold. In the Bible there once was a time when Moses asked the people of Israel to bring a free-will offering of talents, time, and treasures in order to construct a proto-type worship place. He didn’t stand there and evaluate or compare each gift given. He knew generosity was something you could not measure or critique. What counted for Moses, what got highlighted, was extravagant generosity. The giving was so generous for the project that the leadership had to say, “Stop it already! We’ve more than enough.”

No one, of course, gives perfectly all the time and sometimes the need is greater than our volunteers can meet. At times teams of volunteers are not always as ready as we are to step up to the task. That is to say, volunteers are not all supermen and women. Really few are. For this reason, I, as a leader, must not get too uptight when an initiative doesn’t come off as expected.  Keeping a good sense of humour and more importantly letting our volunteers know they are valued, not only for what they bring but for who they are, will gain long term motivation, trust and personal growth. The opposite is also true, an ill-timed critique or message coming from leadership can douse the enthusiasm of volunteering and worse, from joining us in the future.

Negative messages or criticism eventually tire us all out. You can’t build on negativity. We as Serve the City leaders are all about bringing hope and kindness to the most vulnerable. Let’s not forget to do the same for our volunteers. It’s how we inspire creative kindness and action. And that is what makes serving volunteers perhaps the most far-reaching part of our work, that is, harnessing the positive energy of volunteerism. So leaders, keep honouring effort, extolling generosity, and trusting the heart of our volunteers. By doing so we will surely create together along with our volunteers a more equitable world and make our cities a kinder place for all.

Thank you to all our generous Serve the City leaders and volunteers!

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