You can influence from the middle to champion your volunteers. This first-person account is proof.

Have you ever heard of The 360 Degree Leader, by John C. Maxwell? The book’s premise is that you can develop your own ability to be influential from “anywhere in your organization.” You don’t have to be high up on the managerial food chain

Seminars and webinars I had taken had made this case too, but it took reading this book for me to truly think on how to be a leader when it isn’t in your job description.  You can have significant impact even if you aren’t part of the high level meetings about the larger picture at work. 

In the volunteer management world, it is very important to advocate for your volunteers to be a visible part of your organization, so that their work is viewed as valuable and relevant.  It’s unlikely to happen without you.

Last October, the Director of Smithsonian Associates (a unit of the Smithsonian Institution which produces 700+ educational and entertaining programs annually) distributed a draft version of a new strategic plan at an all staff meeting. It included a new mission statement, a vision statement, a set of collective values, priorities, key indicators, and implementation and a section on “What our organization does best.” Along with all this were categories for a three year plan: membership, programming, marketing, fundraising and staffing.

The word “volunteers” was nowhere in sight.

I knew I had to step back and not take this personally. It wasn’t necessarily an intentional omission. This was a business document, with a focus on the “bottom line.” It was developed by upper management: the Director, our CFO, and Heads of Marketing and Programming. While our leadership recognizes that volunteers are vital to sustaining our operations – often affirming that “we couldn’t do it without you” – our volunteers were left out of the first draft. The plan did not reflect the reality

Because the Director acknowledged in the staff meeting that the plan was a draft, that it may be missing things, or need editing/clarifications, I sensed her openness to additional ideas from staff. She asked for feedback on the spot, and there was a big silence in the room.

I asked if we could look over this document and email our suggestions, and she said, “of course.”  I knew I needed to strategize my response and present it in a way that made so much such sense it would be easy to approve.

Key to that was identifying where it was logical to include volunteers, and discussing it with my supervisor, Karen, before submitting my suggested edits to management.

The clearest strategic area for including volunteers was in the “Collective Values” segment, where it said “embraced by staff and shared with colleagues, donors, members and guests.”  I proposed changing it to “embraced by staff and volunteers and shared with…” because volunteers are expected project the same values as our staff.

Secondly, the staffing session of the plan would also benefit from including volunteers. I proposed changing the language to “Increase staffing and volunteer involvement to meet growing demands in programming, marketing (social media and design), and the business office.”  I was intentional in choosing the word “involvement” because I wanted to keep the focus on engagement rather than numbers of volunteers. I was advocating to increase the reach of our volunteers in furthering our strategic goals.

My supervisor  is a true ally for our volunteers, and we decided  the best way to affect these changes were to have her present them in person at a management leadership meeting, rather than  by an email I could write. A conversational approach, in real time, had distinct advantages over something that needed to be read independently, and then responded to. While I didn’t have “a seat at that table,” Karen did.  I wasn’t privy to the discussion in that meeting, but I was delighted with the outcome: my recommendations went forward.

What I learned from this experience is that you can absolutely “lead from the middle.” It is possible to make a compelling case for volunteer inclusion in your organization’s strategic plan. Involving my manager was key, her own influence helped it all happen.


Jenna Jones, CVA has over 15 years of volunteer management experience. She is the Volunteer Coordinator for Smithsonian Associates, where 350 volunteers help hosts courses, art programs, bus tours, and other operations. Most of her volunteers are over 50, and Jenna’s bachelor’s degree is in Gerontology. She is currently studying for her Master’s Degree in Arts Administration and Museum Leadership at Drexel University. Feel free to contact Jenna through her LinkedIn Page with comments or questions.