How can I motivate my fellow nonprofit volunteers to get their s*%t done? - Generocity Philly


Oct. 20, 2016 9:33 am

How can I motivate my fellow nonprofit volunteers to get their s*%t done?

Slacker committee? Here's how to whip it into shape.

Lansie Sylvia.

(Illustration by Hannah Agosta Illustration, based on a photo by Jessie Fox)

How to Give is a biweekly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.


I volunteer my time with a local nonprofit’s marketing committee, but it’s a mess. People volunteer for tasks that they never complete, so the bulk of the work ends up falling on the shoulders of two or three people (including me). My wife says I should just quit since it’s become a constant source of frustration but this org means a lot to me. How can I help the committee perform better and motivate my fellow volunteers to get their s*%t done?

“Search the parks in all your cities; you’ll find no statues of committees,” adman David Ogilvy allegedly said. He was most likely cautioning us against conflating the achievement of consensus with the demonstration of leadership. Not the same!

Personally, I think the parks’ lack of committee statues can also be credited to society’s love affair with the lone wolf / solopreneur / fearless leader archetype. We idolize the “golden boy.”

Anyway …

The truth is, most people experience greater success when they work together. Collaborating in a team means you get more ideas, more resources, and more connections. Ostensibly, it also means you get more hands to do more work. So why doesn’t that ever seem to be the case?

Here are my top tips to keep your fellow volunteers happy, productive, and accountable to each other.

1. Be realistic and celebrate achievements.

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New teams have to achieve several “small wins” together before being tasked with a big responsibility. Too often, nonprofits bring together a team of people who have never worked together … and then task them with planning an entire gala. Setting small goals and achieving them helps individuals feel more fulfilled by the work, and therefore more motivated. Always celebrate these small wins by sending a congratulatory text or email to the group.

2. Create the roadmap together.

Too often, committees form around a common goal, but only after the leadership establishes a plan for success. Then, everyone gets delegated specific tasks (or they volunteer for them) but they have no part in creating the work plan. We know that when people are involved in creating a plan, they feel more ownership over the tasks within it. Involve everyone from the start, and you’ll have long-term buy-in.

3. Use a project management tool and set clear deadlines.

Now that you have everyone pitching in to create the work plan, have them set their own deadlines, and be as specific as possible — not “the week of October 11” but “October 11 at 8 p.m.” A project management tool like Trello or Basecamp can help with this. If someone misses a deadline, immediately follow-up with them and have them propose the new deadline.

Which leads me to my next point:

4. Create accountability buddies.

I’ve found that my ideal teams are always even numbers: two, four, six or eight. Any larger than that and the work doesn’t get done. Encourage people to create partnerships with an “accountabilabuddy” to keep them on task, check-in on deadlines and motivate them to succeed. Knowing that someone has your back, and knowing you’re responsible to help them in return, is a powerful motivator.

5. Lose the dead weight.

I hereby give you permission to fire unreliable volunteers. They aren’t doing anyone, or any cause, any good by showing up in person then flaking out when the work needs to get done on their own time. “But they’re good people!” you’ll cry to me. “They’re just really busy right now!” you’ll say. To that I say: We are all busy right now. No excuse.

Here, I’ll give you an email template to get started:

Hey Dan!

I noticed that you missed the last two deadlines that you set to [DO THIS ACTION]. As you can see in the work plan, if we don’t [ACHIEVE THIS MILESTONE] by [THIS DATE] then [THESE TEAM MEMBERS] can’t [DO THEIR ACTION], which sets the entire team back.

If you are unable to complete your tasks, please connect with the other team members this week to find out who can take this off your plate. If you can’t find anyone, let me know. Otherwise, please propose a new deadline for yourself on or before [THIS DATE AT THIS TIME] so we can keep moving forward. Thank you!

With gratitude,


Did Dan still miss the deadline?

Then you send this: 

Hey Dan!

Since you haven’t completed any of your committee tasks, I’m going to assume that you no longer wish to be part of this committee. Please let me know if that’s not the case, and I’ll add you back into our group communications. Thank you so much for your time and talent up to this point. It’s been great to hear your ideas for improving [ORGANIZATION].

With gratitude,


Good luck, intrepid volunteer! Thanks for donating your time and talent to a cause that matters to you … but if the committee doesn’t shape up in a year, listen to your wife. 


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