Helping Others “Walk the Path a Little Better”: Mentoring Volunteers to Build a Movement

Aimee Inglis

Aimee Inglis is the Member Services & Volunteer Coordinator at Tenants Together, a California statewide organization for renters' rights. She trains volunteer counselors and manages the Tenant Rights Hotline, coordinates social media and online organizing efforts, and recruits new volunteers. Aimee was formally trained as a community organizer through the Midwest Academy's Organizing Intern program.

You're looking to better involve volunteers, or start an internship program, or engage members in your organization. I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that you only have to do one single thing to do this well. The bad news is that I can tell you what it is, but I can't teach you how to do it. 

As an activist, organizer, and volunteer manager, there's one role model whose vision and practice I continue to draw lessons from: Ella Jo Baker. If you don't know this unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement, you should. She was a radical humanist with a lengthy history of activism by the time Dr. King came on the scene. The success of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s was due to the political and social capital built by Ella Baker and organizers like her.(Payne, Charles. I've Got the Light of Freedom. University of California Press. 2007 ). Baker believed that everyone had a role to play in the movement, and she took the time with people to find out what they could contribute. Most notably, she was beloved and revered by the young people she mentored who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She supported them, directed conversations with insightful questions, and most of all, she let them lead.(Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. University of North Carolina Press. 2005.)

"If there is any philosophy, it's that those who have walked a certain path should know some things, should remember some things that they can pass on, that others can use to walk the path a little better." 

-Ella Jo Baker 

"What Ella Baker did for us, we did for the people of Mississippi." 

-Bob Moses 

Embracing Your Role as a Mentor

Be a mentor. If you focus on this one thing in supervising and managing volunteers, you will see more success than what you could achieve from attending a dozen webinars on the subject.  Prioritize teaching, delegating, and letting others take the lead. Meet them where they are, and build them up one step at a time. Ella would often say, "Strong people don't need strong leaders," and whether you are doing grassroots organizing or looking to build your volunteer base, I'd encourage you to live by this motto. 

I have been a volunteer manager for five years and a volunteer or intern for many years before that. I’ve experienced success and failure on both sides of the volunteer-staff relationship. My training is in community organizing and volunteer management, and I find that many recommended "best practices" of volunteer management sort of fall into place when you consider volunteer relationships as opportunities to be a mentor.  

Here are a few examples:

  • It becomes easier to determine great candidates for volunteers and intern positions when you ask yourself, "Can I see myself really mentoring this person and would it be worthwhile to invest time in them?"
  • Even if a volunteer isn't there primarily to gain some professional experience, there are a lot of opportunities for personal growth that staff should feel responsible for nurturing. Opportunities for growth are a key difference between a meaningful experience and doing mandatory "community service hours".
  • You will head off many performance problems because you will genuinely care about the person and their experience as a volunteer and have a desire for them to succeed, sparking many conversations during their service where the two of you can reflect and adjust work or behaviors.

Most of the challenges I've had supervising volunteers came up during times I was NOT approaching the relationship this way.

Here are some instances where I’ve put mentorship on the backburner:

  • I'm desperate for help so I say yes to a potential volunteer after a rather rushed interview. Turns out this volunteer didn't have as much experience as I'd thought, which is problematic for the work they're doing and more difficult for me to supervise.
  • I have a group of volunteers and treat them all the same, forgetting to recognize individual needs, which results in turnover.

Building a Movement

There are direct benefits for staff members that result from prioritizing mentorship, but the underlying reason I think it's important is because I believe mentoring is a cornerstone of building any movement for change. A cadre of happy, effective volunteers is your building block for reaching as many people with your message as possible. 

Most of you will agree this sounds like a good idea, but might resistant to doing the work to get there—and I don't blame you. Many of us in the nonprofit field are already doing the work of two or three people. As someone who empathizes with this situation, I have to be honest and tell you that involving volunteers will not reduce your workload. Better involving volunteers should change your workload so that more of it becomes supervision, teaching, and support. Supervising others to take on more responsibility is more feasible than trying to do all of those tasks on your own. With the right people, in the right positions, and a focused mission, you will get a whole lot more done. 

Sharing Your Vision and Letting Others Lead

Our society—our planet—is in crisis. People are counting on us to do our jobs well. To me, doing my job well means building something larger than myself. The experience of that intern that you train now and bring on for the summer will have ripple effects. With a good experience comes growth: an intern or volunteer might tell their friends about your organization, they could go above and beyond in their work or they could even decide to dedicate their life and career to the cause and, in turn, become a mentor to others.

The thing I can't teach is how to believe this is important. I can't teach you how to genuinely care about people you are working with and take the time to show it. As harried as we are, we can forget that we are social animals and much of the work moves forward through a web of relationships. This is the primary capital we organize for social change. It's important to take time and be present to those around you, and acknowledge the power that comes with sharing your experiences. You and your organization have something to share and the privilege to share it. Involving volunteers and interns means finding the right people to share that vision and experience with and nurturing their growth along with the growth of your movement.  

Most of us are not going to be Ella Bakers, and that's fine. Given her philosophy of nurturing individual strengths, it's unlikely she'd approve of anyone trying to be just like her. Like many volunteer managers, I am on a journey to discover what mentorship means to me and how I can contribute to building a bigger movement. I hope you’ll join me on that journey. 


Who was Ella Baker (Ella Baker Center) 

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