You Do This For Free?

I am a Marine. Yes, I retired in 1993 after 20 amazing years of serving my Country in the United States Marine Corps. But the old saying “Once a Marine, Always a Marine” fits me to a tee.

While in the Corps, I learned so much about leadership and how to accomplish the seemingly impossible with scare resources. I knew how to motivate my Marines to stretch themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of accomplishing in garrison when things were peaceful and I could focus on helping each of my Marines grow in their leadership and their careers. I also could direct operations in the fast paced tempo of vertical replenishment where helicopters externally lifted large pallets of supplies onto our ship. These pallets had to be quickly unloosened from their cargo nets and whisked away to the aircraft elevator. Once lowered to the crew in the hanger deck, the pallets were quickly unpacked and the incoming supplies, mail, and equipment were stowed so that aircraft operations could resume almost immediately. And I have had to direct my Marines in hostile environments with direct orders that were meant to be followed immediately without questions.

I have found that the skills I learned in the peaceful times helped me as I transitioned to the civilian workplace. I could assess my team’s strengths and weaknesses and help them to grow in both areas. The results were normally very positive and my people walked away feeling good about themselves and our working relationship.

But there are times when the “make it happen” side of me comes out and I begin snapping orders with a stern voice and a manner that clearly conveys the message that from this point on, I am in charge and expect you just to react. This may be fine in a work environment when everyone knows the deadline issues that must be met but with volunteers, this is never the right approach. I was reminded of this lesson just recently.

I pastor a very small church in rural Georgia so I have to depend on volunteers for many projects. A wonderful young woman leads my Ministry Committee where we discuss ways to reach out to those in need in our community, in our state, and in our world. We even collect a monthly special offering that may only be used for mission work to fund the work of the Ministry Committee. Recently, I mentioned a project to which we normal give money on an annual basis and asked her to talk about it in the Sunday School Class to determine how much we would donate to their cause this year. After Sunday School, I asked her about the amount we would give so I could have the Treasurer prepare the check. She told me that there was discussion as to whether the Missions Fund should provide the money or the money should come from the General Fund. Because of the timing of this donation, I immediately went into Marine mode and made the off-hand comment, “Of course it is funded by Missions. That is why I asked YOU to discuss it.” Without even realizing it, I had sent an arrow through her very loving heart and hurt her feelings.

When dealing with volunteers, you are going to have to remind yourself of several important issues to ensure you can keep them working with you to enable your organization to be successful. Let me outline some of the ones I have learned the hard way.

  • Never forget that they are working for free. They have offered their time, talent, and experience at no cost. This is a huge sacrifice and you can never take it for granted. So, when you feel yourself getting frustrated, ask yourself, “If I double their pay, will it make a difference?” The answer becomes obvious.
  • Never forget that they volunteered because they believe in your mission or cause. So, ensure that they feel that the position in which you have placed them is not only in keeping with the talent they bring but also allows them to feel that they really are making a difference.
  • Never forget their time is valuable. Your volunteers may have families, other jobs, children with practices, sporting events, tutors, etc. So, ensure your meeting have an agenda, that the meeting starts on time and that the meeting ends when promised. Help the team stayed focused so you can cover everything that is necessary. If it looks like a new issue comes to light that needs discussion, help determine if it can be fitted into the time allotted or can be delayed until the next meeting. If you must take the time to discuss the issue now, help determine what agenda item can be delayed or be understanding if someone must leave before the meeting is closed.
  • Never forget to say thank you. This is so important and will keep your volunteers motivated even during trying projects. You may not be paying them but a sincere “Thank you” pays big dividends.

I am grateful that I have a congregation that realizes I am human and prone to error. So, another member of my flock came to me after church and let me know that I had hurt the feeling of my Ministry Committee leader. I knew exactly what I needed to do. When I got home, I immediately called and apologized. No excuses – no “but you didn’t…” – no “next time…” – just a simple and very heartfelt apology. And I apologized for one reason and one reason only – it was the right thing to do.

So, if you are going to be an exceptional leader, remember that you will make mistakes. When you do, apologize – and mean it.


Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

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  1. There is a really nasty breed of person that looks for volunteers; volunteers to help with business development. There are many whom I know personally that were asked to dedicate hours out of their day and their work and knowledge was stolen.

    Volunteering to help is good for the soul. Too bad there are people out there that abuse such a good intention.

    • Chris – I, luckily, have not experienced anyone like you comment about but as in every adventure, there will be those who try to advance themselves at the expense of others. But when treated with dignity and respect, volunteers are the life blood of non-profit organizations. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Len, first of all, I hope my grandson, who is in the Marines, has a leader like you. He is definitely used to the barking orders mentality. Second, I admire you for not reducing the effectiveness and sincerity of your apology with ‘yes, but’. Everything I do is as a volunteer. Believe me, when your pay is shelled out in gratitude, a sincere thank you is worth six figures. You could triple my pay, and you would get the same thing. Volunteers work for the heart of it.

    • Jane – Your grandson is getting the same leadership I learned from the Corps.
      Marines will always be the same because of one very important difference between the Corps and the other services. Marines teach their history – it is a testable course in boot camp. So every Marine can tell you the Marine Corps Birthday – and they know who Sgt. Dan Daily, Capt Robert Barrows, Archibald Henderson, and Chesty Puller are. Esprit de Corps is created by this requirement because a Marine will never want to tarnish the Corps because of those who served before them.

      People who give freely of their time and talents to volunteer for a cause in which they believe are the unsung heroes of our society. Thank you for being the kind of person who freely gives and does so for a simple “Thank You” spoken from the heart. You are a special person and I am grateful to call you my friend.