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Would Your Employees Work for Free?

Leaders who manage volunteer workforces have much to teach leaders who manage employees.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Here’s the ultimate leadership litmus test: Would your employees still work for you if you didn’t pay them?  

To answer this question, I traveled to Saddleback Church, a so-called mega church that wouldn’t be able to fulfill its mission without volunteers. On a typical Sunday at its main campus in Lake Forest, Calif. (where I visited), more than 1,000 volunteers are needed to make sure that the 20,000 attendees are welcomed, parked, fed, inspired, and connected.

My first stop was a sit-down with Dave Arnold, the pastor in charge of facilities, finance, and strategic initiatives. (In other words, he manages a variety of “odd jobs” for Rick Warren, such as figuring out how to operate in every country in the world.) Armed with an MBA, 25 years as a corporate leader, 10 years with Saddleback, and a seminary degree, Arnold is uniquely qualified to help me navigate the challenges of managing a volunteer versus employee workforce.

The differences, he believes, are relatively minor. For instance, volunteers can’t be managed by command and control, and they often require more flexibility and training, given that many don’t possess specialist skills in their area of service. Truth be told, whether a position is paid or unpaid, everybody is a volunteer and can check out—physically or mentally—at any time.

This jives with Daniel Pink’s research, which is summarized in John Mackey’s book, Conscious Capitalism. From a management perspective, Mackey writes, “What works better in the vast majority of contexts today is intrinsic motivation, loosely translated as the joy of work for its own sake.” From this foundation, Mackey calls managers to “create, sustain, and strengthen the conditions whereby team members operate primarily from intrinsic motivation,” by hiring people “whose personal passions align with the corporate purpose,” assigning people to roles that “take full advantage of their strengths,” and “creating opportunities for people to flourish and grow.”  

Although Saddleback’s Arnold uses different words, it’s clear that the church is adept at helping its volunteers experience the joy of work:

• Alignment to purpose: Volunteers are required to commit to the church’s doctrinal statements by becoming members of the church. And Rick Warren rearticulates the church’s vision every 28 days so that staff members and volunteers have a renewed sense of how their service links to the overall plan.

• Leveraging strengths: Church staff members are evaluated based on their ability to “engage and elevate” volunteers and “get people to do the work,” rather than doing it themselves. Leaders who are unable to do so are viewed as insecure and self-serving (given that they are “withholding the opportunity for people to realize their ministry” purpose). Through Saddleback’s SHAPE class, members are guided through a process of identifying their gifts and passions, and are encouraged to try out a variety of volunteer roles until they find their best fit. 

• Flourish and grow: Volunteers are held in high esteem, and the role of the church staff is to make it “hard on us, easy on them.” Staff members are expected to encourage volunteers through “a look, a touch, and a word,” reaching out to get to know them, thank them, solicit their opinions, and “create environments where people can get together.”

Curious to see how Saddleback’s concepts translate to the field, I visited Saddleback’s church and retreat center in Rancho Capistrano and met with the site’s manager, Janelle Grose. She is one of the church’s paid staff members, but she maintains the 170-acre property entirely with volunteers. Grose is a tall woman with a firm handshake and friendly manner, but has little hands-on experience farming, landscaping, or maintaining facilities. What she does know how to do is get 50 people to show up—every Saturday from 8 am to noon—and perform sweaty, physical work. Most of us would find sourcing the same kind of team difficult, even with a checkbook in hand.

She repeats, sometimes word for word, the management philosophies and practices articulated by Arnold. “I can’t micromanage, but consider myself a hostess who hands out a lot of hugs and compliments and invests a lot time meeting with [volunteers] and eating with them,” in order to understand their passions, families, and how to serve them, she says. Grose delivers “the look, the touch, and the word” by rotating “to every single spot to get to know them and make sure they have everything they need,” communicating a weekly letter of encouragement and information, and throwing thank-you barbeques for volunteers and their families twice a year.

I can’t micromanage, but consider myself a hostess who invests a lot time meeting with volunteers.

Of course, employees work for a paycheck. But often, they would like to work for more than that. Arnold and Grose are proof that it’s possible to help employees experience “the joy of work for its own sake” by serving up meaningful projects that use people’s gifts in an environment rich with autonomy, relationships, and appreciation. Doing so fosters a spirit of volunteerism that encourages employees to contribute more than the amount they’re paid each week, because they get more in return.

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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