Lessons From the Road: Training 1,000 Volunteers in 10 Weeks

By: Cynthia D'Amour

After traveling across the country to host several leadership training sessions, Cynthia D'Amour says association volunteers and chapter leaders are hungry for guidance and training that can help them help their associations.

Last fall, with the economy still challenging, many despaired. Every day another failing company was featured on the news, and I couldn't take it anymore. I needed to do something.

I believe with all my heart that strong leaders create strong chapters and associations and that strong associations could play an important role in the recovery of our country's economy.

With the support of my husband, I created The Lazy Leader Transforms America—One Volunteer at a Time! road show. It was a public-education effort using the concepts from my latest book, The Lazy Leader's Guide to Outrageous Results, and dedicated to helping volunteer leaders create better opportunities for people to come together to raise morale, make a difference, and fuel the creativeness to transform America.

Many associations wait until volunteers are almost chapter president before giving them leadership training, but they need it sooner than that.

I traveled to 10 communities in 10 weeks, training almost 1,000 volunteer leaders from a diverse group of associations and nonprofits to be "lazy leaders." Each training event was hosted by one or more local chapters and open to the public. I waived my speaking fees, and every attendee also received support materials to help them implement what they learned.

Of course, this was a learning experience for both those in attendance and me. Along the way, I learned

Collaboration is not natural for chapter leaders. At first, I required four local chapters to work together to host the road-show stops, increasing the odds of getting the required 100 attendees. Great idea, but it created chaos for local leaders. They were not used to thinking beyond their chapters, so I had to change the requirement. However, those who did collaborate made a much bigger impact.

We often talk about partnering as an exciting way to create a new experience for members while potentially saving on costs. I was reminded the hard way that cool ideas to me may be hard for grassroots folks to implement.

Leading may not be natural for volunteer leaders either. We have high expectations for our volunteer leaders. The folks I met were passionate about their associations, but they often had major skill gaps getting in the way of their success. Only some worked elsewhere as managers or executives. Being a leader was something they were learning on the job in their associations.

Many associations wait until volunteers are almost chapter president before giving them leadership training, but most volunteers need it a lot sooner than that. Incoming president is too late. Volunteer leaders would have a much easier time doing good work for their chapters if they knew what they were doing sooner.

"This is how we've always done it" is a safe space. I challenged volunteers to let go of doing it all and to move their missions forward by getting others involved. For leaders used to giving 110 percent, this was a foreign concept. Several expressed concern about being the leader who changed things.

As I pressed the issue I discovered "this is how we've always done it" is a safe space for many leaders. While it may not give amazing results, in their minds it is enough to keep the chapter going. Helping chapter leaders overcome fear of not succeeding may open more doors for transformation.

The more diverse the audience, the richer the training experience. I've often wondered how offering regional leadership training for multiple associations at one time could work. It was very exciting—lots of sharing across organizations and lessons learned. It's something to explore in the future.

Throughout the journey, the volunteer leaders were hungry for the how-to leadership training from the road-show programs. I'm still getting thank-you notes and updates about how local chapters are making a bigger impact as they hone the skills I taught them. And that hunger struck me: Imagine how we could transform America if all associations made a bigger effort in training their volunteer leaders.

Cynthia D'Amour, leadership strategist, is founder of The Chapter Leaders Playground and president of People Power Unlimited in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She blogs at www.cynthiadamour.com and currently serves on ASAE & The Center's Research Committee. Email: [email protected]