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Nurturing Relationships With the “Iron Hug”

iron hug

You know managing volunteers requires both strength and finesse, authority, and genuine kindness. Lisa Marie Porter, MA, CVA, serves as volunteer manager for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. To organize, support, and inspire the more than 1,000 adult volunteers at the museum, she developed the “Iron Hug.”

This is an acronym for key management practices she has found effective. In an article first published at, she explains her management approach. The goal is to balance setting and enforcing policies while developing warm, friendly relationships.

Iron = Firmness

  • Include clearly expressed expectations for following policies in all areas and stages of the volunteer experience.
  • Resolve conflicts rather than avoiding them. Base decisions on established policies, but take individual viewpoints into account.
  • Openly share your decision-making process based on your experience and credentials. This helps volunteers understand your choices better.
  • Never fear saying “no” to volunteer suggestions for policy or procedural changes. Also, do not be nervous about informing them their ideas were not accepted. Instead, explain to them why the ultimate choices were made, so they still feel included even though their ideas were not accepted for implementation this time.

Volunteers benefit when you set and follow clear, standardized policies. Volunteers know what to expect and do when you respect your nonprofit’s policies enough to enforce them.

Hug = Nurture

  • Honor your volunteers daily. Recognize their work and achievements, and thank them sincerely.
  • Understand their needs by having open communication channels, accepting feedback, being willing to implement useful suggestions, and telling volunteers when their suggestions result in positive changes for the entire organization.
  • Gain the trust of volunteers by showing genuine friendliness and interest in them. Another aspect of gaining their trust is setting up and maintaining a stable environment for their volunteer work.

This nurturing aspect of volunteer management provides a pleasant, warm, inclusive atmosphere that will keep volunteers interested in their work and increase their loyalty, thereby improving retention rates.

Avoid Rigidity

The Iron Hug approach, at its best, helps you balance strong leadership with a personal warmth that attracts volunteers. However, while setting and operating under policies is important, sometimes situations arise where you can and should allow for valid exceptions. Examples include requested shorter workdays due to accessibility issues or a leave of absence because of medical reasons.

Part of the skill of being an effective manager is finding roles for passionate nonconformists. For example, if someone is consistently flouting rules but cares about the organization, perhaps a different role will bring out the best in that individual.

Learning to operate using the Iron Hug philosophy takes time and practice, as does anything worth learning. However, it can lead to positive growth for people and organizations.

About VIS

Volunteers Insurance Service Association, Inc. (VIS) was established in 1972 for the purpose of providing insurance and risk management services for volunteer-based organizations. In addition to still providing these insurance services today on a nationwide scale, we have expanded to provide noninsurance resources for members to manage their risks and improve their operations. By transferring the volunteer risk exposure to our program, we can help you protect your organization. Contact us today at (800) 222-8920 for more information on our programs and services. Join now!