How to Motivate People When Pay is Off the Table

An interesting theme ran through several conversations I had over the past few weeks. People are frustrated in volunteer roles. Non-profit leaders can’t figure out how to engage volunteers. They want to know how to motivate people, which can be especially tricky in situations where pay isn’t involved. In this case, for volunteers.

Interestingly, the frustrated volunteers were exactly the type of people the other group was looking for.

After spending a significant amount of time in the non-profit sector and working with military reservists and cadets, I saw several very comprehensive programs established to lead volunteers effectively. Quite frankly, those efforts kept those who didn’t know how to lead employed and gave consultants a decent revenue stream.

(While you’re here, don’t miss this post next: Can You Name the 9 Essential Qualities of a Leader?)

Leading Volunteers vs. Employees

In my opinion, the only difference between leading a volunteer and leading employees is a system of compensation.

I recall a staff meeting when a manager started complaining about volunteers who were given tasks, and when that staff person checked in after a couple of months, the work was not done to her satisfaction. I spoke up and asked, “what would you do if one of your paid supervisors left another employee for months with poorly defined tasks and then got angry when it wasn’t done right?”

The response … “I would discipline them!” Really! The only problem I had was to figure out if this person was the pot or the kettle.

A terrific friend of mine who is a very accomplished businessperson and a community leader of the highest order related to me was asked to participate in a membership drive.

At the inaugural committee meeting, a consultant sat everyone down. Next, they instructed all of the volunteers on what they must do as part of the committee. These volunteers are all very accomplished in their own right. For them, being treated like five-year-olds must be very off-putting.

How would you respond if this was your boss talking to you like that? Let alone how you might respond
as a volunteer.

(Do you have volunteers working alongside paid staff? Then take a look at this post next)

I served with volunteers who, when given authority, responsibility, and were held to account, led the responses to some of the most complex disasters of our time. I saw reservists (when treated like the professional soldiers they were) accomplish superhuman tasks.

How to Motivate People When Pay Isn’t on the Table

If you want to know how to motivate people, paid or not, it might take going back to basics. Consider what motivates you, other than money, and imagine those same things motivate your volunteers.

Here are some ideas.

Whether paid or unpaid, people want to:

  • Have honourable and engaging work to do
  • Receive clear expectations
  • Feel they are part of something bigger than they are
  • Be employed at or above their current capacity
  • Get respect and appreciation

Could you use a little more guidance with motivating and leading your team? We should talk. Click here to read about my one-on-one coaching and get in touch.

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This post was first published in 2017, but it was updated in 2021 just for you.