Coaching Volunteers

In the last ten to fifteen years, the use of coaching as a method to develop individuals has increased significantly. However, most of this coaching has been aimed at leaders and not a lot at volunteers. This is partly because much of the coaching effort has been carried out by external coaching professionals and also because the payoff from coaching is seen to be greatest in leadership ranks. However, this thinking is rapidly changing and as internal coaches are increasingly being trained many more opportunities for coaching volunteers are arising.

So, what is volunteer coaching?

For our purposes, volunteer coaching takes place in any circumstance where a conversation to guide behaviour or to build new knowledge or skills takes place. This may be coaching on a very informal basis like a short chat for a few minutes. Coaching may also occur on a more formal session. For example, many leaders talk to each of their volunteers at least once a month to review their role and answer any questions the volunteer might have. These are natural occasions for coaching to occur.

Whether the discussion is formal or informal, coaching has quite different goals to issuing a statement or just offering one-way guidance. In a coaching situation, a leader provides the individual with the opportunity to discuss a situation that is relevant to them and asks them to make suggestions on how things might be done differently or in a new way in the future.

What is the best kind of volunteer coaching approach to take?

Despite the fact that we can coach volunteers in a number of different ways, the experience should ideally encompass each of the following steps every time coaching takes place:

Step 1: Seek to Establish Relationship of Mutual Trust

The foundation of any relationship is the ability to empathise with an individual and to be open to feedback on a regular basis. Without trust, conducting coaching effectively is an uphill task and will feel like lecturing. Coaching should therefore be a sincere and positive event with the goal of working together to render improvement and growth.

Step 2: Open the Discussion

In opening a coaching discussion, it’s important for the leader to clarify the specific reason the discussion is taking place. The key to this step is to describe – in a friendly, non-judgmental way – that the coaching discussion will be valuable to both parties so the time to talk is an investment in the future.

Step 3: Seek Agreement on the Area of Focus

Probably the most critical step in the coaching discussion is getting the volunteer to appreciate what the main focus of the discussion will be. Coaching should be specific to a given skill, area of knowledge or a new behaviour and not a general chat about many things at the same time.

The skill of specifying the area consists of three parts.
  • Cite specific examples of the issue or area on which you wish to focus.
  • Clarify what you are thinking may be possible.
  • Ask the volunteer for feedback and if possible agreement on the fact that a new approach could be tried.

Step 4: Explore different approaches/course of future action

Next, explore ways in which the volunteer may learn new skills or behave in a new or different way. Avoid jumping in with your own alternatives, unless the individual can’t think of any. Push for specific forward options and not generalisations. Your goal in this step is not to choose a particular path, which is clearly the next step, but to maximise the number of choices for the volunteer to consider and to discuss their overall benefit.

Step 5: Deal with any possible barriers and offer support

Volunteers may raise excuses or present barriers to doing things differently at any point during a coaching discussion. To handle this, leaders should ideally seek to re-phrase broad expectations offered by the individual and help them to think as laterally as necessary. The goal here is to ensure that the volunteer is happy and reasonably confident to act and not reluctant or nervous. In addition, the leader should always seek to handle the discussion in a calm and empathetic way and offer whatever support is requested by the individual in making proposed changes.

Step 6: Seek Commitment to Act and a Timeframe in which to do so

The next step is to help the volunteer choose one particular way forward (without being too pushy about this). To accomplish this step, a leader should ideally look for a verbal commitment from the volunteer regarding what action will be taken and when.

Step 7: Provide a final summary

Effective coaches understand the value and importance of helping a volunteer that he or she is coaching to execute well after the discussion.

One way to do this is to provide a final summary on what has been agreed on and even confirm this in a email so that there is clarity for both parties on what has been committed to happen and by when (including any future review steps).


Coaching volunteers is fast becoming something which every leader needs to do on a regular basis. But coaching is not about issuing commands to people to change their ways and nor is it one way advice or guidance about what should be done differently in the future. Coaching means having a structured discussion with a volunteer (formally or informally) which allows for two-way discussion and a joint decision about what should be done next. If this is done well, volunteers will more rapidly learn and grow and thereby make greater contributions to the ministry they are a part of.

Colin is the Director of ResourceZone International. He has 30 years of ministry experience as a pastor, college lecturer and consultant/coach to consultants, denominational leaders and local church pastors. He can be reached at



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About the Editor and Primary Author

Colin Noyes

Colin Noyes is a Brisbane (Australia) based coach and consultant with extensive experience in the areas of organisational health and growth, change management, leadership development, recruiting/staff development and coaching. Read more

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