Leader Plays a Big Role in Meaningful Volunteer Work

Anna CajanusFour years ago I was studying in Santiago, Chile. During my studies, I got to know a few really great people also from El Salvador, which is a small, beautiful developing country in Central America. A year later, when back in Finland, I invited them to join my birthday party. Of course they couldn’t travel across the world, but this invitation led to something bigger.

I found out that one of my friends was starting a Teach for All initiative in El Salvador called Enseña por El Salvador. Due to Finland’s good reputation in education, I asked if he wanted some help. In the beginning of 2012 I gathered up a team of Finnish teachers and teachers-to-become and later some Salvadoran living in Finland joined us as well. This has been a truly meaningful project but as the beginning of the Enseña por El Salvador training has been postponed several times, it has at times been challenging to remember the meaningfulness.

Further on, even when the work is meaningful it sometimes requires some tasks that you don’t enjoy that much and – especially in voluntary work – sometimes you might have something more urgent to do. Here, the role of the leader plays a big role.

I find that it is important to clearly define what our goal is and what concrete actions each of us needs to take to achieve this goal. This helps us to define our roles and responsibilities. When defining the roles and responsibilities, the (voluntary) workers should be encountered as individuals: what kind of ambitions and wishes they have, and what do they want to learn and gain.

We track the desired actions, which helps us to clarify what we are doing and connects also the not-that-inspiring tasks to the meaningful goal we want to achieve together. As the goal might seem distant – and as in our case, it is moving further all the time –, it is essential to celebrate the little advancements. We have, for example, made traditional Salvadoran pupusas together to thank ourselves for the good work so far. This last sentence actually includes two more important tools for motivating: good food and saying “thank you, great job” for the tasks well performed. (Ok, maybe good food is not that important in working life, but who wouldn’t prefer a meeting with healthy snacks to one without.)

I feel that I haven’t always performed as well as I could have, partly because of lack of established processes. Luckily our team members are such great professionals with a big heart that they continue working with the project nevertheless.

Even though this project is run by volunteers, the same management principles apply to working life: we need to set clear goals and concrete actions to achieve the goals as well as define clear roles and responsibilities. And you should never forget to celebrate the achievements and say thank you – and provide good food.

The writer is Cloudriven’s expert in organizational development and holds a Master’s degree in Technology. Whenever she’s not working, she volunteers to provide education for kids in El Salvador, and to create a better world through scouting.