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Distributing leadership is one of the core principles of organizing, and comes with a large range of benefits for your organization - from deepening volunteer engagement, to providing much needed help to reach your goals faster. However, a lot of organizations are still reluctant as this comes with some challenges. Let’s explore what they are and which kind of structure can help you overcome them to safely and efficiently distribute leadership.

Distributing leadership is powerful … and challenging

First, let’s clarify what we mean by distributing leadership. Distributing leadership is about trusting people to accomplish a mission on your behalf. This might vary depending on your organization type and needs, but can include the following activities:

  • Enabling local leaders to take responsibility for the relationship with a group of supporters (which will include part or all of the following activities)
  • Allowing volunteers to:
    • access a part of your database for data entry or phone banking
    • send communication to a segment of your community
    • fundraise on your behalf
    • create / host events 
    • post content to your blog or manage one of your local websites

The benefits of empowering your community to take action on your behalf are numerous - the first one being that no one can do it alone, and being able to rely on dozens or hundreds of volunteers willing to help you expand your reach or recruit new people is incredibly important  to maximizing your impact, especially when you have a small team.

By giving your supporters the opportunity to be  more  involved and have meaningful tasks to accomplish, you will also allow your supporters and volunteers to develop a greater level of engagement and commitment, which will increase your chances of retaining them and their impact on your organization.

Finally, by getting more people meaningfully involved, you will gain greater insights to inform your campaigns, crowdsource ideas and foster innovation to grow faster and harness all the benefits of this collective power.

That being said, this comes with some challenges, including:

  • Fear of letting people see / use your data, for security reasons 
  • Uncertainty about what would be helpful to your organization
  • Lack of time to supervise volunteers 
  • Lack of time to train people and establish processes

These are legitimate concerns that most organizations face. However, they shouldn’t lead you to freeze and pass on this opportunity. Instead, let’s dive into how you can arbitrate between control and centralization, for a safe but efficient leadership distribution. 

Key components to safely distributing leadership

Step 1 | Define your objectives

First, you’ll need to define your goals and expectations when distributing leadership to your community. 

  • Look at the overall goals of your organization, and identify which ones your people can help with: is it recruiting new donors or new members? Raising awareness about a specific campaign? Increasing retention? 
  • Then, identify the related tasks that people can help with  to support those goals. Is it sending 1-1 communications to new recruits? Organizing local events? Writing content for your website? Training new volunteers? 
  • If at all possible, try to define specific metrics. Example: I would need five super-volunteers who can train fifty new volunteers each month to do phone banking. 

You shouldn’t skip this step––even if the work is distributed, the plan must remain centralized. Every volunteer action should contribute to a meaningful, larger goal, otherwise it will lead to chaos, a loss of resources and discouraged volunteers.

Step 2 | Get ready to recruit

After you’ve identified your goals, define which kinds of roles are going to be necessary to reach them. For example, if you are looking at creating a network of local groups, you might need the following roles for each of them: a group coordinator, a communications manager and an events coordinator. When defining those roles, remember: don’t be scared to make big asks. People want to do meaningful things and they want to grow their skills in the process. 

Now, we need to find those people. But what if you already know a lot of them? 

  • Start by auditing your database to understand which kinds of skills or interests your people have. 
  • Then, look at the past and recent activity in the form of  tags, events participation or social capital to identify people to reach out to because they have been particularly active recently and/or have demonstrated certain skills. 

The next step is to create a ladder of engagement that will allow you to track who you have reached out to, who has expressed an interest, and to facilitate onboarding. Make sure to attach this path to the dedicated volunteer page you may have created for your recruitment, and also to add the people you identified in the previous step via a batch update.

  • Example of path: Potential leader > Ask # 1 > Follow up > Signed up > RSVPed for training > Trained > Leader pack sent

Step 3 | Set up your permission sets & groups

Now that you have defined your objectives, your roles available, and the process to recruit the people who are willing to help, the next step is to prepare yourself to give them access to your nation. Yes, it is a little scary, but it’s part of the process of giving power to people and unlocking all the related benefits. 

First, it makes sense to give people access to only what they need. So you’ll want to define permission sets that let them see only the parts of the product they will actually use. For example, if you are not comfortable with volunteers seeing any financial data (linked to donations), then make sure to disable access to the Finances section in all permission sets. If someone needs to send emails or text blasts but should not edit the website, the permission should reflect that to avoid any mistakes. 

Second, your most precious asset is likely to be your database, and that’s generally the source of most concern. The good news is that there is a great way to ensure that your people will only see the people they are responsible for, and no one else. No risk that they send a blast to your entire database accidentally, or that they can access some of your most sensitive contacts. To restrict access to a portion of your database, leverage our feature Groups that allow you to make one or several control panel users responsible for a group of people. When groups are set up, they will only be able to see in the People section when they log in the people who are part of their group, and no one else. 

Note that permission sets add on top of Groups, meaning that if someone doesn’t have the ability to send email blasts in their permission set, they will be able to see the people in their group but not send them email blasts. You can therefore distribute responsibilities within the people managing the same group of supporters: some can edit the group’s website, some can send email blasts, some can only update the records. 

It’s also recommended to disable the ability to export and import for anyone who would not need it. And finally, to ensure data integrity, you’ll need to train your people - which will be discussed in the step below.

Step 4 | Define processes & train people

A huge part of distributing leadership safely, on top of restricted access, is to correctly train your people to use your tools appropriately. But also, to make sure you have a scalable process that does not burden your volunteers when trying to accomplish their mission. 

While every organization will want to handle this differently, here a are a few tips and considerations when designing processes and training: 

  • Write clear, detailed and easily accessible documentation. Make sure to include an FAQ and list the right point of contact for each type of request.
  • While you will need to train your supporters yourself at first, you should think about developing a “Train the trainer” program, in order to enable your volunteers to train other volunteers, making this really scalable and saving you time.
  • It’s essential to test and learn to find the best format for everything - from training sessions to the tasks given to volunteers and the processes you have in place to track actions. The most important thing is to make it replicable and respectful of your standards.
  • Setting up processes is important for scalability and security, but it should not burden people otherwise it will be inefficient and  push them away. 

All of this seems daunting? Start small by doing a pilot with your most engaged and reliable folks. Adjust and optimize, until you feel comfortable expanding the program. Along the way you’ll figure out how to improve it, but it’s key to get the work started.

Step 5 | Create a feedback loop

Organizations that distribute leadership across their community should not produce programming their supporters don’t care about, because programming should be informed by those supporters. Getting feedback from the volunteers who are executing missions on your behalf is key to the efficiency and sustainability of your volunteer program. 

There are a couple of things you can implement to create a feedback loop:

  • First, make sure to treat your volunteers and their feedback as you would your peers - it is the best way to attract and retain talented volunteers.
  • Create a feedback page accessible to anyone willing to share suggestions, that you’ll monitor and promptly answer. This should be different from a page to allow volunteers to request support.
  • Even as you scale your program, one to one interactions remain crucial. Getting on the phone / Zoom with your leaders is essential to managing them, nurturing relationships, and staying in touch with what’s really going on in the field to develop initiatives that work.
  • Finally, don’t forget to report on the results of the work accomplished by your volunteers. Keeping an eye on the data will help you understand what works well, and should be deployed at a larger scale, and where there might be issues to solve. 
  • After giving your program enough time to ramp up, you should make sure that the benefits outweigh the efforts, and be mindful that not all benefits can be quantified and reduced to a number of doors knocked. Beware of vanity metrics!

If you must leave with just one takeaway, it would be this: get started. Developing a successful program can take time, and it’s a long term project that’ll serve long term goals. But when it’s done well, you’ll unlock incredible benefits for your organization and build power like never before. 


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