Just as leaders spread the sunshine of feedback with volunteers, they seek to build upon the informal, on-the-spot interactions with more structured opportunities for deeper conversation.  Leaders know that being there to support volunteers, especially those who have demonstrated a continuing commitment, requires an ongoing investment.  Coaching is a relationship-building practice with increasing presence in volunteer-supported organizations.  Why are more organizations adopting this practice?  Because the correlation between volunteers’ sustained emotional connection to the organization, its leaders and their peers and their continued impassioned service is undeniable. 
Coaching feeds the passion of the volunteer. 

What exactly is Coaching?  The terms coach and coaching have been used in a variety of contexts, from transportation and sports to executive development and discipline.  Because of their myriad use in many environments, the concept of Coaching within an organization can be confusing.  Coaching as a leadership practice is defined as conducting regularly scheduled one-on-one discussions between the leader and the volunteer that are focused on performance and development.  An examination of the key words in the definition allow for richer understanding: 

regularly—Including the word regularly in the definition for Coaching reminds leaders that this practice is a continuous one. 
Sustaining Coaching conversations over the long haul creates the expectation that volunteers will have the uninterrupted attention of their leader on a frequent basis.  Building Coaching into a leader’s routine is quite possibly one of the most impactful choices an effective leader
can make for their volunteers. 

How frequent?  And how long?  These questions are often raised by leaders new to the Coaching practice.  There is no one-size-fits-all answer.  Many factors influence how often these conversations take place.  Some volunteers may desire or require more attention from their leader.  Weekly, bi-weekly or monthly meetings may be appropriate for volunteers who value this face time.  Other volunteers may prefer bi-monthly, quarterly or semi-annual sessions on their service calendar.  The beauty of Coaching is that the two parties, the leader and the volunteer, get to decide the appropriate frequency.  The same guidance can be applied to the projected length of the meeting—fifteen minutes, a half hour, an hour or more—it too can be mutually determined. 

Yes, that means that the frequency and duration could be different for every volunteer in which the leader engages in Coaching conversations.  And that is OK.  This is not about striking precise equality, or avoiding perceived partiality.  Coaching is about dedicating regular time to volunteers who dedicate their regular time.    

The only recommendation regarding frequency is facilitating the Coaching conversation more than one time per year.  An annual conversation between a leader and a volunteer may unintentionally feel like a performance review.  Although there is a relationship between the Coaching practice and annual appraisals for those organizations who use performance management tools (some would even suggest a converse relationship), one is not meant to take the place of the other.         

scheduled—Coaching sessions are scheduled.  Why is getting a date and time confirmed on the leader’s and volunteer’s calendars so important?  Face it, leaders of volunteers are busy people.  If Coaching is not scheduled, it just may not happen. 

Additional benefits to a scheduled time frame are the messages the invite sends.  Volunteers know in advance when and where Coaching will occur, allowing them to prepare.  After all, it is their time.  Volunteers also know that their leader takes this time commitment seriously.  Scheduling places an air of importance and gravity to the time frame—not in a heavy, ominous way, but in a purpose-filled, cherished, valuable way.          

Some leaders attempt to rationalize not having the scheduling aspect by stating, “Well, I have an open door policy.  Volunteers know they can come to me whenever they want.”  This may be true.  Being approachable is a key factor in leadership effectiveness.  Realistically, when do people take advantage of the so-called open door policy?  Typically, when there is a problem or issue that needs to be resolved.  Relying purely on the leader’s openness combined with the assertiveness of the volunteer to initiate the interaction tends to create a communication pattern—one where problem solving and issue resolution become the only topics of conversation.  Not scheduling Coaching often results in never touching on other critical conversation topics a leader and volunteer may share.   

one-on-one—A leader cannot practice Coaching from a safe distance.  Coaching is part of nurturing the volunteer’s affair of the heart.  Coaching is about offering undivided attention to a volunteer.  The Coaching conversation is all about the volunteer—it’s their time. 
Coaching is Otherliness in intentional conversation. Some leaders even refer to Coaching in their daily language as a one-on-one meeting.  Engagement happens one person at a time, right?     

Give thought to the surroundings in which Coaching sessions are conducted.  Locating a space free from people interruptions and technology or environmental distractions is ideal.  Communicating to others that only an emergency should disrupt a Coaching session sets the tone that this is precious time spent.          

Leaders will at times seek to replace valuable one-on-one time with team meetings.  Both of these forums are an important part of the leader’s communication strategy with their volunteers.  Meetings foster group communication and collaboration, but they cannot be a substitute for time with the individual volunteer. 

discussions—Coaching is all about the conversation!  In contrast to delivering feedback, which is a monologue that may launch a dialogue, the intent from the outset of Coaching is to have the leader speak less and the volunteer speak more.  How does the leader accomplish this?  By using open-ended questions, of course!   

When Coaching works as designed, the leader peppers the dialogue with open-ended questions and the volunteer runs with it.  Over time, leaders learn that Coaching delivers its greatest returns when they speak less and listen more.  The proposed 50/50 split of air time prescribed in The Learner Engagement Model is a worthy guideline for a Coaching conversation to follow.  

focused—Coaching conversations have purpose and intention.  Although Coaching sessions need not be over-structured so that they feel stiff and uninviting, they are more than a social event, coffee talk or idle words exchanged in passing.  The content of Coaching is focused. 

Including this word in the definition may help those leaders thinking, “I talk to my volunteers all the time!  Why would I need to schedule time to converse with them more?”  A communication paradox exists for most leaders.  Unless time is dedicated and intention is designed, conversations just don’t seem to get around to the good stuff—the deep, enriching subjects that touch a volunteer’s heart—as often as they should or could.  Management topics rule the day, leaving less time for leadership interactions.         

performance and development—The presence of these words in the definition answers the question “Focused on what?”  Coaching conversations are targeted on how the volunteer is doing in their role (performance) and in what ways they are growing or desire to grow in and through their service (development).

In addition to covering these core topics, Coaching sessions may also be opportune for sharing organizational news and updates, personal or professional celebrations and challenges, and any other subject that may be noteworthy or have an impact on the volunteer’s service.     

An in-depth exploration of the definition for Coaching brings leaders to a simple conclusion:  Coaching is facilitating structured, meaningful conversations with volunteers.  Yes, leaders and volunteers sharing purposeful chats.

Coaching conversations build relationships.  Coaching allows leaders and volunteers to share and gain insight through their exchange. 
Coaching shows that the leader cares.  Coaching may also uncover significant factors that inhibit or enhance the volunteer’s future engagement.  That’s why some organizations call Coaching the “stay interview.”  That is, the opposite of an exit interview, which usually occurs only after the person has decided to leave.  Coaching is a proactive investment in sustaining volunteer passion in the hope of avoiding the reactive “What could we have done differently to keep you here?” approach.                 

coaching volunteers

guiding leaders of volunteers to feed the passion of those who choose to serve