Volunteer Clicks or Cliques?


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One of the most prolific skills volunteer managers possess is the art of matching volunteers to not only roles, but to each other. We work hard to pair volunteer personalities that will mesh. We introduce hand picked volunteers to each other knowing that the team will “click.”

I remember getting all tingly when I dropped in on a team and they were chatting away, enjoying the camaraderie with one another. It’s a real perk to volunteering. You can almost hear the team bonding as each person joins. Click, click, click. But some teams will click so well that they shut new volunteers out.

Being a new volunteer is challenging, especially when dropped into an established group of volunteers. The group is an entity unto its own. The group has a rhythm, methods of interaction, unspoken rules and shared history.

Individually, the group members may be welcoming, but group dynamics dictate actions. So, what can we do to encourage socialization among volunteers but at the same time be cognizant of group think?

  1. 1. Do not just drop a new volunteer into the group unannounced, even if it is only temporary. I brought a new volunteer into a group one day and I thought I had walked into a meat locker, the response was so cold. Alert the group beforehand, talk to them in person, or call to keep from putting them on the spot.
    2. Play up about the awesomeness of the group to the newbie and vice versa. Let the group know that this new person considers it an honor to join such a fantastic well-functioning group.
    3. Appeal to the group’s sensibilities. Say to groups, “I wanted Doug to join you because he’s anxious to do well and I couldn’t think of a volunteer group better able to show him the ropes.”
    4. Make it temporary at first. Say, “Doug will be learning from you and I hope that he can join a group of his own once he’s ready.” Sometimes the group will just love the new person and take them in because the decision was their’s to make. If a newbie is not forced upon them, the group is more receptive.
    5. Check in often. Observing the dynamics of the group will tell you everything about how well the integration is working. Check in to let the group and the new volunteer know that you care about their success.
    6. Make it clear that the organization wants to be inclusive of new folks. I’ve used phrases like, “we don’t want to be the best kept secret,” and “we want everyone to be able to have a meaningful experience. With your help, we can do that with our new volunteers.”

But what if the group still rejects new volunteers? I’ve had groups that, when a member or two is out for extended periods of time get angry because the temporary volunteer doesn’t operate like good old Janet or Bob or whomever is missing. Then, when several newer volunteers tell me that they won’t work with that group because of the way they were treated, I know I have a problem, and it’s time for a volunteer intervention.

Have a chat about change (On their time and turf is best). Invest in members’ feelings. The members of the volunteer group may:

  • be worried that their missing member is sick and will never return.
  • be upset that their missing member is cavalierly being replaced.
  • think that new volunteers will come in and critique them.
  • feel like they’re not doing a good enough job, because if someone new needs to come in, what does that say about their competence?

Assure the group that you care about the missing member. Reinforce the group’s strengths. Make inclusion a source of accomplishment.

Here’s another part to this: Do we, volunteer managers sometimes play favorites without knowing it? It’s natural to engage volunteers who are “super volunteers,” but it’s our responsibility to look out for new people and integrate them into the team. How can we show that we are inclusive?

  • look at everyone in the room when speaking.
  • when chuckling over inside jokes, explain the context to everyone and make everyone part of the fun.
  • when discussing past events, give a synopsis of the event. (and heck, even long-term volunteers don’t know everything about every event)
  • introduce new volunteers in meetings.
  • when asking questions, call on new volunteers.
  • use welcoming and inclusive verbiage.
  • speak to accomplishing mission goals together.
  • enlist long-term volunteers into mentoring new volunteers.

There’s a delicate balance between “clicking” and “clique-ing” and integrating new volunteers into established volunteer groups takes nuanced persuasion.

But then again, ‘Nuanced Persuasion’ is our middle name.

This post is an update from a 2015 post, Click, click, clique


Reject a Volunteer, Gain an Advocate


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A lot of well-intentioned people advise volunteer managers to treat “hiring” volunteers in the same manner staff is hired. It is not that simple and last week’s post explored why. Here is the list again:

  • Unlike staff, we do not have a limit on number of volunteers we can accept, so it becomes much harder to turn away a volunteer. (Because volunteers are viewed as “free help” and the more, the merrier)
  • Qualifications for volunteering are viewed as much simpler and broader than for staff. (meaning there’s a much wider base of volunteers and well, all people want to volunteer right?)
  • There is this perception surrounding volunteering that anyone who offers their time is fit for the job, which is a complete opposite of the perceptions of staff hiring. (warm body theory)
  • Unpaid work is viewed as simple, easy and can be done by anyone. (luke-warm body theory) It’s also, the (they can’t hurt anything because they’re not doing anything impactful theory).

Let me add another big one to the list: Managing human capital. Let’s say there’s an open, full-time paid position for an IT person at Organization X. HR interviews candidates and offers the job to an experienced IT person who on-boards.

Now let’s say Organization X needs a volunteer to man the reception desk 20 hours per week. The volunteer manager will interview candidates but that’s where the similarities end. To fill that position, the volunteer manager must “hire” multiple part-time volunteers along with back-ups for the days volunteers are absent. A volunteer manager’s process is exponentially more complex and fluid and requires a much larger amount of human capital to fill a position involving less hours worked.

Another difference lies in retention anchors. HR has salary, benefits, upward mobility, and positive recommendations that hold the IT person in place. Volunteer managers rely on volunteer engagement. We have vastly different, much more time consuming work involved in keeping a volunteer. (and don’t get me started on the work needed to keep a volunteer at an organization who does not require everyone to engage volunteers)

In mathematical equations it looks like this:

1 employee x 4 variables = success!

1 volunteer x 17,892 variables + vol mgr coaching ÷ meaningful job ≥ staying at home watching “Dancing with the Stars.”

It’s no wonder volunteer managers have a hard time saying no to a volunteer beyond the niceness quotient. We have a more labor intensive recruitment and retention process and every volunteer we turn away equals losing those hours we’ve spent.

It’s not a surprise when volunteer managers back peddle and put in a “warm body,” especially when hounded by comments like “I guess you don’t think we need more volunteers or you’d be out recruiting them.”

But we must find the best people for each volunteer role. This doesn’t mean we have to reject potential volunteers from our organizations. And it doesn’t mean all those recruitment hours should go to waste. We can first classify every potential volunteer as advocates by structuring our recruitment to lay out advocacy and expectations from the start.

Messaging that says, “we need you and everybody else in the world,” sets us up for failure when we don’t need that guy, the one who sneaks a shot of bourbon during breaks in training.

Begin at the very beginning. Start by introducing service to your organization as, “we need more advocates for our mission.” Volunteering for our organizations, as we are told by volunteers is a privilege. Set up the expectation that volunteers are elevated advocates. Make orientation and open houses about advocacy. Welcome the attendees and tell them what actions they can do to help. Give them an advocacy sheet outlining your mission, your work and verbiage to use when advocating. Equip them with pamphlets to pass out. Show them your interactive website.

Introduce volunteering and donating as forms of elevated advocacy or the next step. Explain that potential volunteers will go through an interview and background check process. Show examples of volunteer roles but stress required qualifications and skills. Introduce your policies and procedures and impress upon the advocates your commitment to providing mission value. Make volunteering for your organization a coveted position, one that advocates will want to aspire to, instead of expecting to be automatically accepted because “hey you need someone, right?”

Capture each new advocate’s email and keep them in the loop with email blasts, updates on mission work, new initiatives etc. Encourage them to send in their advocacy hours-anything they have done to further the mission by speaking to friends, leaving pamphlets at clubhouses, businesses, etc. Most likely, you can’t record those hours because these advocates are not official volunteers, but so what? Record them on a separate spreadsheet and share them with the advocates in an email.

Design a report that shows all the advocate relationships and their hours. This report highlights two important but seldom understood volunteer management accomplishments:

  1. time spent schmoozing with people is not just “having fun” but rather, has purpose.
  2. relationships forged in volunteer services extend mission outreach and awareness.

Invite advocates to events and if your organization is on-board with having them work the event, then invite them to participate in a small way. Label episodic groups “group advocates” because a goal with one time and corporate groups is to create partnerships with folks who will advocate for us once they’ve completed a volunteering assignment.

Let’s say an advocate interviews for a volunteer position and you deem them not a good fit for the role. Tell them that this particular position is not right for their skills or talents. It’s more palatable to be told that you aren’t right for a position than to feel like an organization is rejecting you altogether. It’s subtle, but less harsh.

Tell the person you appreciate their advocacy and their willingness to help (because it’s the truth). Making advocacy about action is giving people a way to be involved versus telling them “no, you can’t volunteer,” and then shutting the door.

Let them apply again for another position. The point is, we create relationships with people beyond filling a task. Let that work for you. Ask advocates to recruit more advocates (and potential volunteers). The message then becomes, “We appreciate your willingness to help. There are many ways to help including, but not limited to volunteering.” It’s inclusion versus an all or nothing approach.

Reach out to other agencies who are looking for volunteers and see if there are opportunities open as I suggested in this post from last year, Innovation and Sustainable Volunteering.

Clearly this is not meant for the potential volunteer who is destructive or wildly inappropriate. It is for those potential volunteers who are on the cusp. Forging a relationship with them as advocates doesn’t slam the door in their face and who knows, they may eventually become volunteers or bring in volunteers or donors or more advocates.

We, volunteer managers don’t have to accept that we have an all or nothing approach. When faced with challenges, we find ways to overcome them. Volunteering is about action. Advocacy is also about action. Creating an advocacy role that uplifts volunteering to an elevated form increases mission awareness and reach. It also gives us more control over volunteer engagement and assignments.

And heck, I’ll admit it: I know I have to, but I just hate to turn people away.













Can We Reject a Volunteer?


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We need volunteers. We say as much, in ads, to staff, to other volunteers and to the woman behind us in line as the barista makes our coffee. So, how can we justify rejecting anyone who steps forward and raises their hand? Because, as much as we want every person who even mutters the word “volunteering” to succeed, we need volunteers who will make a positive impact on our missions.

What do you do when someone applies to volunteer and you realize they will not work out? Do you practice avoidance because you’re a nice person and nice people don’t reject other people, especially to their faces? Do you accidentally lose their paperwork? Do you string them along by saying “every job is closed right now due to an internal audit and I’m not sure when the jobs will open back up so hang in there,” in hopes they will get tired of asking?

Or do you accept them and just hope the problems won’t be too big? Do you keep them so close that they’re practically an extension of you and then you fall behind on deadlines? Do you place them with great volunteers, hoping constructive influence will remake them?

Ok, I’m not proud of it, but at one time or another, I’ve actually used every one of the above “strategies.” And, yes, you guessed it, every one failed. These strategies failed because they were not sound to begin with.

We, volunteer managers are often faced with difficult choices, ones made more difficult because we are working with volunteers. Unlike an HR department that hires staff, our situation is much different in these ways:

  • Unlike staff, we do not have a limit on number of volunteers we can accept, so it becomes much harder to turn away a volunteer.
  • Qualifications for volunteering are viewed as much simpler and broader than for staff.
  • There is this perception surrounding volunteering that anyone who offers their time is already fit for the job, which is a complete opposite of the perceptions of staff hiring.
  • Unpaid work is viewed as simple, easy and can be done by anyone.

Perceptions of volunteers and their contributions hinder our ability to be choosy, but we must. We are responsible for providing volunteers who positively impact our missions. But there’s another reason to be choosy. As we advance our volunteer engagement programs, we have to tighten up our methods for maximum impact and move away from being overwhelmed by unproductive ends.

The first step in finding solutions is to examine our own objections to having a difficult conversation with a potential volunteer. The difficult “rejection” conversation is different from having a talk with an existing volunteer (see Difficult Conversations with Staff or Volunteers) in these ways:

  • We don’t know the potential volunteer as well as we know an existing volunteer.
  • We haven’t given the potential volunteer a chance.
  • We’ve work hard to recruit the volunteer and now we’re rescinding that invitation.
  • We don’t know the approach that works with a volunteer we barely know.
  • We feel like we’ve failed because our recruitment strategy didn’t capture the perfect person.

We can’t keep using avoidance or risky strategies. Those counter intuitive strategies waste everyone’s time and create ill feelings when our goal is to create positive relationships. And we can actually create a relationship with a rejected volunteer.

The first thing we need to do, is to stop using the word “reject.” Reject is a harsh word, meaning deny, eliminate and dismiss. Instead, let’s look at reshaping the potential volunteer. Let’s view every person who comes to volunteer as our chance to create organizational advocates. Not everyone has to volunteer to become an advocate. Heck, one-time volunteers or people who tour your office can be advocates.

Volunteer managers excel at building relationships and rejection just doesn’t fit our style. Once you rethink rejection as potentially building a relationship, then prepare yourself to “reshape” the prospective volunteer by:

  • Reminding yourself that not all people will fit the volunteer role, but all people can be advocates.
  • Reassuring yourself that your goal is to create an advocate, not a person who feels mistreated because of avoidance strategies.
  • Giving yourself permission to feel disappointed, but assure yourself that you are a proactive leader who is finding the best solution for all.
  • Reminding yourself that it is more cruel to set a volunteer up for failure than it is to find an alternative solution from the start.
  • Viewing the opportunity to mold your engagement program.

We, volunteer managers are not comfortable rejecting volunteers so let’s stop looking at it in this way. We want everyone to excel. But not everyone has to excel in the task boxes our organizations have created, so it is up to us to invent new boxes.

If we develop a volunteer engagement system that allows for avenues, reshaping becomes much more palatable for us and for the new advocate.

A very dear colleague used to use the phrase, “let’s part as friends,” when turning down a job applicant. We can take that one step further and say to any potential volunteer who may not be right for a particular task, “let’s advocate for a cause we believe in.”

Next time: Systems in place to turn a rejection into a reshaping.




A Different Thankful


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Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on everything we are thankful for. We are inspired by volunteers, our community and each other.

But, can we be thankful for challenges? Can we be humbled, yet encouraged by the things that give us fits? For volunteer managers, our challenge lies in the paradox that is our place in the non-profit world.

We’re thankful for the profound connections our volunteers make but not thankful for the twinge in the pit of our stomachs when fellow non-profit staff say things like, “be glad you’re not in management,” or “my son stayed home from school today. Please be a dear and give him some volunteer stuff to do while I work.”

We’re thankful that our efforts produce real solutions, but not thankful when we are expected to fill-in for absent volunteers.

We’re thankful that our community is richer because of our volunteer engagement program but not thankful when we’re told that we are classified as a 40 hour position, yet on our time off we field phone calls from volunteers who weren’t given clear instructions.

We can rage at the moon or we can do something. We can look at our challenges as an opportunity to enact change, one that will elevate our programs, our volunteers and ourselves.

Volunteer managers are the antithesis of the “woe is me” crowd. Action is our middle name. We are in motion all the time.

Let’s take this opportunity to fix the paradox. Let’s do this for our volunteers, for the people we serve, for our communities and for the leaders of volunteers who will come after us.

Let’s be thankful that we, here and now have been given this opportunity.  Let’s find one another, unleash a united movement and elevate volunteers, volunteer management and volunteer managers.

Thank you.


Volunteering Backwards


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In the U.S., the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday signals retail’s frenzied push to profit and the beginning of the holiday season. For me it was always more of a Frazzled Friday because I was never quite prepared for the outpouring of love for mankind by hopeful one time volunteers after the stupor of eating too much turkey and mayo on leftover oven biscuits wore off.

Ahhhh, that giving spirit warms the heart or maybe it’s indigestion from cranberry sauce with whole berries, (cause they ran out of the regular) I’m not sure. You know what I’m talking about. People are in the mood to do a good deed.

It could be the steaming cup of hot cocoa or the search for the perfect gift for Grandma Maria or the filled seats in a place of worship that stirs the soul into thinking of others. It could be instinct and we humans, like birds migrating, have an internal clock that collectively ticks towards helping.

No matter the reason, you brace yourself for the stampede of human kindness.

Alicia calls to say her three kids need to come in and find out just how good they have it by seeing people less fortunate than they are. Can you pick out a few good down on their luck folks to show them?

Mrs. Bancroft stops by, wanting to donate the leftovers from her holiday book club party. She needs help getting the half eaten cake with “Hap Hol” written on top and large tub of spoiling fruit salad out of her car. When she closes her trunk she winks, “Give it to the hungry people. They’ll love it.”

Celia shows up with her trumpet and says she wants to “cheer up” all the poor folks with her rendition of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.”

Andre, a photography student drops in unannounced because he had this dream last night and he wants to photograph sad faces and share his work with the world.

Yep, love for fellow man is filling up hearts like giant blow up Santas on motorcycles. You remember the last health department inspection and schlep all the food to the trash after Mrs. Bancroft has gone. You politely lie to Alicia and say you’re sorry but you’re standing knee deep in water because there’s been a water main break and no one is allowed in the building for the foreseeable future.  You tell Celia that all the “poor folks” are allergic to music and tell Andre that the sad people are down the street at city hall.

The holidays bring out more one-time volunteers with requests than we can handle. It’s easy to dismiss their naivete and motives when you and volunteers are busy balancing the light and dark that holidays bring to your clients. Holiday one timers don’t get that we have processes; that they can’t use our clients for a feel good moment.

We can wonder where that desire to do something nice for our fellow citizens hibernates all year. We can wave our hands in front of puzzled faces and say, “you’ve got this all wrong! If you would come in and take volunteer orientation, I can show you volunteering’s real meaning.” We can mutter under our breath, “seriously, you want to hand out pictures of your son, who has a bit part in a movie about a homeless man to our families as inspiration?”

Can we just bottle this enthusiasm, pour it into our volunteer engagement brew, stir it up and come out with a perfect volunteer? Maybe we need to serve turkey or figgy pudding or hot cocoa all year round.

Or maybe we can find some solace in the absurdity and know that there’s good in most everyone, even if it doesn’t show in an appropriate volunteering way.  As hopeful beings, we can continue to hand out our volunteering pamphlets and invite everyone who breathlessly calls us with a need to do something good to come and participate in a real way.

And, we can remind ourselves nothing is perfect, we can’t make every person understand how volunteering works and we have real work to do for our clients who are both hurt and hopeful during the holidays. We can be kind but still tune out our inner voice that whispers, “you’ve got to try. Make this person see how magical volunteering can be.”

The holidays are wonderful, stressful and overwhelming without the addition of added pressures. While you are humming “Jeremiah was a bullfrog,” formulate your strategy for making this season work for you, for your volunteers and for your mission.

And for all the Alicias, Mrs. Bancrofts, Celias and Andres out there, you’ve got it kinda backwards, but thanks for caring.


More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative


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On the 12th October Rob published an article raising five questions about a new corporate social responsibility (CSR) pilot from Starbucks in the USA. By happy coincidence, this appeared two weeks after Meridian Swift had published another article challenging leaders of volunteers to be aware of and engage with corporate volunteering. Both articles shared common threads so it seemed sensible to work together to develop the thinking further.

Rob and Meridian got their thinking caps on and devised some further questions that they felt needed asking. These relate not just to the Starbucks pilot, but to employee volunteering more broadly as well. What follows is the product of Meridian and Rob’s joint efforts to try and provide some answers.

How will this affect me, in my office, in my town, and what do I do about it?

Meridian: It’s reasonable to think that since there are only 36 employees participating in 13 cities across the United States, it won’t really affect me at all. However, if you live in the areas served by this initiative, it might. The Points of Light (POL) network affiliates involved in this initial pairing are:

HandsOn Atlanta; HandsOn Bay Area; Boston Cares; HandsOn Broward, FL; Chicago Cares; VolunteerNow (Dallas); Volunteer Fairfax; Volunteer Houston; HandsOn Miami; HandsOn Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul); HandsOn Greater Phoenix; Seattle Works; and United Way of Greater St. Louis.

The affiliate organizations listed above act as clearinghouses for local volunteer programs. If your volunteer engagement program has a relationship with one of the above affiliates, it’s conceivable that your organization benefits downstream from this resource.

Starbucks has plans to increase their volunteering commitment next year and if successful, they could extend it into other countries as well. In support of this first pilot cohort, the Starbucks Foundation awarded POL a grant and a portion of that grant provides each of the Fellows with an hourly stipend – much like a national service placement awards their living stipend. These 36 Starbucks partners spend up to 20 hours each week at one of the placement sites listed above.

We must realize this initiative will grow and begin to prepare for future changes in how we cultivate and engage volunteers. We have become accustomed to corporate groups seeking one-time projects for team building and to increase their CSR (corporate social responsibility) visibility, but the Starbucks Service Fellows are a whole new level of corporate participation.

Should we be prepared for more of this? Is this where corporate volunteering is going?

Meridian: Oh, my gosh, yes. Consider this direct quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light: “We believe this bold program, designed in partnership with Starbucks, will redefine corporate engagement and the private sector’s ability to support civic engagement.”

Others are already jumping on the bandwagon. A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Indiana recently made news when the owner decided to pay his employees to volunteer while his store was closed for remodeling.

We are in a corporate volunteering pivotal time. No, I take that back. Due to societal shifts and social media, we are about to be hit by a tidal wave of corporate volunteer participation. The private sector is getting deeply involved, as I alluded to in my blog post in September. If volunteer engagement professionals do not get on top of this trend right now, corporations will become frustrated at our lack of preparation and ability to provide the level of engagement they are looking for in a partnership. The sad reality is, they will bypass us completely, and they have the talent and money to do it.

Are there going to be businesses who admire Starbucks and want to be like them, so they will attempt to model this initiative?

Rob: Almost certainly, yes. Here’s another quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light:

“Starbucks’ investment in the 13 communities served by this initiative will not only spark positive change through more than 17,000 hours of community service, but it also serves as a model for an employer-led capacity-building program that Starbucks and other corporate partners can scale globally in the future.” 

It’s important to remember that this pilot seems to be driven primarily as a way to attract millennial employees. As the UK’s Guardian newspaper stated in their coverage of this story:

“18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”


“According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, one-third of Millennials surveyed said that their companies’ volunteer policies affected their decision to apply for a job, 39% said that it influenced their decision to interview, and 55% said that such policies played into their decision to accept an offer.”

Employers of all sizes and all sectors are facing the challenge of providing incentives to hire millennial staff. Baby boomers are ageing into retirement, leaving a shortage of labour thanks to the smaller cohort of Generation X. Competition for millennials will, therefore, increase and we shouldn’t be surprised to see businesses looking to volunteerism related options as a way of winning the recruitment battle.

In fact, the question isn’t really whether we’ll see more of these kinds of initiatives from corporations, but whether the public and non-profit sectors might follow suit as they try to pry some of that millennial talent away from the private sector.

What exactly are these “Service Fellows” doing? A regular volunteer’s job? A regular employee’s job? Or something that can’t replace anyone already there?

Rob: Good question. Right now we don’t really know. However, as our colleague Jerome Tennille pointed out when commenting via social media on Rob’s blog post:

“This model of service is similar to AmeriCorps, and most non-profits are familiar with how to integrate them in. The difference here is that it’s funded by a private entity.

If Jerome is right then we can expect to see Starbucks Service Fellows stepping into roles similar to those undertaken by AmeriCorps members.

Back in March 2010 our colleague Susan J Ellis wrote an article encouraging managers of volunteers to engage with the then emerging AmeriCorps programme to ensure the roles provided didn’t have negative effects. Chief amongst Susan’s concerns was organisations would hire AmeriCorps members to lead volunteer management, rather than making long-term, strategic investments in this important function.

We would echo Susan’s call today, eight years on. Leaders of volunteers have to engage to make this scheme a success for everyone, not just Starbucks. It is essential that volunteer managers at non-profits are part of the planning as these innovations in corporate giving develop. We need to make sure our voices are heard, influence these schemes for the good of our organisations and clients.

In fact, Susan’s concerns are perhaps more acute for the Starbucks model where placement will only be for six months. Imagine getting a new (and possibly relatively inexperienced) service fellow coming into the organisation twice a year – would your organisation benefit or suffer from that turnover in the leadership and management of volunteers? Please don’t just dismiss these schemes as not volunteering, burying your head in the sand in the hope they will go away. Get involved, speak up or it may be your job that service fellows take

Did they consult a volunteer engagement expert? What arrangements are in place with the POL affiliate nonprofits?

Meridian: I have reached out to Starbucks press and a few of the local affiliate organizations who are recipients of the Starbucks Service Fellows, but haven’t yet had a lot of luck in connecting.

I realize that this is a new program and they may not have enough good information to share at this point but what I have gathered is Starbucks and Points of Light are striving to change the way corporations think about employee engagement and the use of their human capital/resources to support strengthening nonprofits and communities. Since Points of Light is the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, they are experts in volunteerism, so my guess is there was a good deal of consulting between these two giants in their respective sectors.

Since this is a joint partnership between Starbucks and Points of Light, it naturally follows that Points of Light would choose affiliate partners across the country. There are more than 200 volunteer mobilizing organizations or affiliates, which share a common mission, goals and approach. The affiliates may pair Starbucks Fellows with local non-profit partners, but that is yet unclear.

Is this one of those lofty, not thought out edicts from above that will make a volunteer manager’s life a living hell because no input was asked for?

Rob: As we’ve already noted, Starbucks are doing this because they want an advantage when recruiting millennial employees. Points of Light are doing it because they have affiliates who will “benefit from focused volunteer efforts that align with Starbucks’ global social impact priorities, with a focus on opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.” 

Whether we agree with those motivations or not (and who are we to judge?), that’s what we know.

Boards and senior managers will rush to engage with corporations with the volunteer management professionals likely to be the last to know what they’ve been signed up for.

This is especially true with CSR programmes where the impetus comes from fundraising colleagues – in the hope the corporate will make cash donations – or communications colleagues looking for a public relations coup.

For schemes like this to be a success the volunteer manager cannot just be the poor schmuck who gets responsibility for making it work dumped on them. That may not have been the case in the Starbucks example, but we can see it happening in future, to the detriment of all involved. Non-profits need their leader of volunteer engagement involved from the get-go and we need to be making this case now, before it’s too late.

Will volunteering be on-site or is it project based off-site?

Meridian: We have no evidence at this time. Whether the service fellows will follow a prescribed national plan or will be allowed to meet local needs remains unclear. It appears they will volunteer in the areas that align with Starbuck’s philanthropic priorities, which include opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.

Hurricane Michael recently devastated the areas around Mexico Beach in Florida and according to the Starbucks press release, a Starbucks shift supervisor from Florida will work on hurricane preparedness and hurricane relief with HandsOn Broward. Their involvement may be according to local needs but we just don’t know yet.

What role should bodies like Points of Light have in future, representing non-profits and Volunteer Managers?

Rob: The role of a broker in corporate volunteering can be a really important one, as Dr. Joanne Cook and Dr. Jon Burchell highlighted in their 2015 paper, “Employee Supported Volunteering: Realising The Potential” (summary article available here):

‘The challenge is finding what people in the business will engage with, and the skills that the charities want, identifying this is the challenge and that’s where the brokerage comes in.’

In the Starbucks initiative, POL played a brokerage role between the company and their own local affiliates, matching needs and priorities between both parties. Yet as schemes like this develop and spread the importance of brokers will grow, with a neutral party necessary to help match corporates and non-profits in a fair manner. Key to this will be supporting non-profits to assert their needs rather than just capitulating to whatever business requests. As in any volunteering relationship, mutual benefit is essential, so brokers will need to ensure a level playing field as both parties negotiate the details of corporate volunteering relationships.

We also think brokers and intermediaries have a responsibility to ensure the volunteer management voice is heard in non-profits. As noted before, all too often the desire to work with business is driven by the lure of a cash donation, marginalizing the input of a volunteer engagement professional in favour of corporate fundraising priorities. This mustn’t happen! If volunteer managers are left out of the planning loop then they will struggle to deliver on what their bosses and corporate partners want and need, weakening the relationship limiting the potential for success.

If we were Volunteer Managers on the receiving end of this, what would we like to know?

Rob: OK, over to you. This is your chance to collaborate with us on this article and move the debate forward. Imagine your organisation is looking to get involved in something like the Starbucks / Points of Light initiative. What questions would you have; for the corporation; for your board and senior managers; for other paid staff colleagues in your organisation (e.g. HR, fundraising); and perhaps for your existing volunteers and those coming from the business?

Leave a comment in the comments section below with the things you’d like to know and add your voice to the debate.

We look forward to reading your thoughts.

Rob and Meridian

Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative

My brilliant colleague, Rob Jackson and I have been chatting about corporate volunteering and in particular, the Starbucks initiative. We both are getting the feeling that this is like the first pebble to skitter down the mountain, signaling an avalanche of change is coming.

I’m re-blogging Rob’s original article here and this coming Friday, we will issue a joint blog outlining more questions and thoughts on corporate volunteering’s direction and what we need to do now to get ready. I hope you will join us in prepping for this trend.


Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd

Just a few weeks ago my attention was drawn to a headline in The Guardian newspaper, ”Paying employees to volunteer could be key to keeping millennial staff”.

The article reported on Starbucks who, in the USA, have partnered with the Points of Light Foundation to create an initiative designed to attract millennials to work at the coffee chain. As The Guardian reports:

“18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”

In response to such challenges, Starbucks is running a six-month pilot program where thirty-six employees in thirteen US cities will continue to get full pay while working at selected non-profit organisations for half the work week…

View original post 1,067 more words

Resting on Nonprofit Laurels


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Resting on Non-Profit Laurels

courtesy of gratisography.com

I don’t remember the date, but I remember the conversation. It was the first time I’d heard the word “competition” in relation to volunteer organizations. I was in a community meeting and nonprofit experts were discussing the impact of a newly formed non-profit in the area.

“They’ll be looking for the same resources,” one expert said.

“Yes, we now have competition,” another added.

Huh, competition. That’s one way to look at it. But here’s the kicker statement from the CEO of one of the established titan organizations. It’s a statement that stuck with me. “I wouldn’t worry too much, because we’ve been in this community for years and the public knows us and knows we care.”

I might add that the start-up organization did very well.

Do established nonprofits have a monopoly on compassion? Or on knowledge on how to solve societal challenges? I have always suspected that the underlying reason volunteers are not fully integrated is because they are seen as outsiders. By that I mean there is this nonprofit clutching to caring and knowledge as if volunteers or donors are cat burglars and they are sneaking in to try and steal it away.

I have always suspected that this is the reason volunteers are not requested by senior management nor included in planning. You know what I’m talking about, right? You introduce a highly accomplished volunteer to senior management and you get that look. That subtle grind of the jaw that says, “who is this interloper and what will they discover, or take from me or change?”

I remember being so excited about a volunteer, Serena. She was taking a year off work and staying in town with her mom. She came from a prestigious marketing firm in New York and I couldn’t wait to get her started helping our marketing team as a volunteer consultant.

But they didn’t engage her. They didn’t even grab a cup of coffee and sit down with her to explore the treasure trove of experience she was willing to share. They simply sniffed and said there wasn’t that much for her to do. They clung to their area of expertise like it was a chest of gold and marauding pirates were landing.

I’ve heard nonprofit staff disparage corporate volunteers, dismissing them as “not understanding what we do.” But, you know what? Some of these corporate volunteers exhibited more compassion on their one day of volunteering than some staff members showed all month.

Society is rapidly evolving. What used to be exclusively in the realm of the nonprofit and even faith-based sectors is now front and center. Corporations are practicing “conscious capitalism.” Individuals are creating foundations (Bill Gates is a prime example) to tackle societal challenges. Citizen helpers are bypassing volunteer organizations.

This is a quote from an eye opening article posted by Cureo on a philanthropic Millionare’s rant.

They never ask me to help in ways that don’t involve a check? I know, I’m not going to volunteer at their race, but I’m sure there are other opportunities for me to help!

And believe me, I have offered a number of times. I’ve asked for more frequent, and more relevant data. Maybe I can make new connections. Maybe I can assemble a volunteer team of some of my super talented staff to riff on a problem or deliver a solution of some kind — in areas of marketing, HR, capital projects, operational expansion — whatever!

What are we so afraid of? That we’ll lose control? That we might not be as smart as our corporate counterparts? That we’ll admit we need help in planning and executing, not just in stuffing envelopes? That we’ll actually put our mission ahead of our own personal need to be the most compassionate person in the room?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had these feelings too. I remember sitting in a peer group meeting and listening to another volunteer manager talk about a successful volunteer initiative and I felt jealous. Not inspired, not happy that people were being served. How selfishly insecure of me. I remember mentoring a new volunteer coordinator and feeling that twinge. “What if volunteers like him better than me and then, gasp, I won’t be the most loved volunteer coordinator ever to roam the earth!” (I still have that fantasy picture in my head-yeah, I know, seek help)

You’ve heard the term, “founder’s syndrome.” It generally means a non-profit founder keeps their non-profit from growing by clinging to power. We don’t have to be founders to suffer from treating our work like it’s our baby and we are the only one who can sing it to sleep.

Maybe we proudly wear the shiny sweat on our foreheads from having labored for so long at being selfless that we can’t imagine some giggly newcomer bouncing in and outperforming us. Maybe we cling to a martyr notion that caring people work for non-profits while the rest of the selfish world drowns baby animals for money. Maybe we suffer from “Non-Profit Insulation Syndrome.”

But these insulating emotions keep us from learning something new, from moving forward, from expanding and from finding better ways to help the people we profess to help. And sadly, we become the kid in the sandbox who won’t let the other kids try the best toy truck. A very wise volunteer scolded me one day, arguing that my self-esteem had nothing to do with anyone else but me. (I fired him on the spot-just kidding)

That’s when I began to detach myself from other people’s talents and discovered what my job really was about. Was a volunteer more compassionate than me? Heck yeah. Did another volunteer coordinator create a much better program than me? Good grief, yes. Was there any place for clinging to a warped sense of my own need to be perfect? No. (I’m still roaming the earth, though)

We should actually be excited that more people want to get involved. We should be opening doors for them, eager to share the joy we clutch. But what I fear is, the nonprofits who rest on their laurels and continue to close their doors to all this amazing outside help will be left behind.

I fear that cornering the market on compassion or empathy or knowledge will cause generous donors like the one quoted above, skilled volunteers and philanthropic businesses to give up or find another way. I fear they will leave us behind, raising our fists to the skies and bemoaning the unfairness of it all.

And then, again, maybe that’s what needs to happen.


There’s No Crying in Volunteer Management


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Does volunteer management ever make you cry? It does, doesn’t it? I mean, when you are sitting there and a volunteer recounts their struggle with being bullied as a child or they tell you about their journey through rehab or their fight to beat cancer, you just break down and cry because you care and feel their pain.

And then there’s the pride cry when we witness volunteers wrapping a child in their arms or brushing the tear off the cheek of a grieving spouse. We well up when volunteers win an award because we witnessed their profound effect on those we serve. We weep when volunteers suffer a loss or when we see one of them grow fragile. We cry openly when they leave because they mean more to us than the hours they’ve spent.

But do you ever cry out of frustration? When it’s all your body can do? I remember crying like that once. I was managing a resale shop with little to no resources except the great volunteers. I would borrow a hospital laundry truck to pick up donated furniture and ask an able-bodied volunteer to go along with me on the route that I had meticulously mapped out. Depending upon where the pickups were located and how much the donor had planned to donate, the route made maximum use of the truck.

It happened during the last stop one day. It was 5:00 pm and I had to unload the truck at the shop and get it back by the hospital’s evening laundry run at 6:00 pm. The hospital had already sternly warned me that if I didn’t return it by 6, (I’d been late returning it several times already) they would not lend it out anymore, so I needed to hurry.

My volunteer, Peter and I parked in front of the last house and got out. The donor was waiting to meet us. “I know I said I had two pieces of furniture, but we’re moving and I want you to take all of it.”

Peter and I looked at each other. He and his wife had dinner plans with relatives who were visiting from out-of-town. “We won’t be able,” I began to say, but the donor cut in. “It has to be gone tonight. I thought we could get it into storage but we can’t. Our son was in an accident and he’s taken a turn for the worse.” His voice trembled. “We need to get to him.”

Peter and I started to gather the furniture and haul it into the truck. The cargo space was nearly full and we had to jam the furniture in any way we could. I looked at my watch and realized that there was no way I could get the truck back in time. That meant the hospital would stop loaning it to me and the arduous task of having to find another vehicle all over again loomed.

I knew that Peter would miss his milestone birthday dinner with his family. He didn’t say it, but I knew how important this was to him. My body was tired, my mind exhausted and thoughts of “what am I doing all this for anyway, I can’t get ahead,” began to swirl. My careful planning meant nothing now. Standing there in the back of the truck amidst all the tangled lamps and chairs, I broke down. It was so defeating.

Peter stopped and gave me a minute and then he said, “Look, it’s ok. We’re going to do this. I can join my family when I get home, it’ll be fine.”

“But it’s your birthday. Some birthday. I made you miss it. And they will take the truck away,” I said through tears.

Peter nodded and said, “Yes, they probably will. But look, you’ve got us. All of us volunteers and we will figure this out. We’ve done it before and we will do it again.”

We finished that night almost three hours late. I thanked Peter and drove the truck back to the hospital where my car was parked. After I gave the keys to an angry attendant, I got in my car and headed home. As I drove, I broke down and cried again.

This time though, I wept because I was surrounded by volunteers like Peter.




Top 6 Volunteer Manager Lies We Tell Ourselves


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Volunteer Manager Lies We Tell Ourselves

We all hate lying. It’s dishonest and harmful. It sucks. But it seems like we are ok with telling ourselves lies because well, we can take it or maybe because we think the truth is too scary to face or maybe we just like messing with our own heads or heck, I’m no psychologist, I honestly don’t know why we do it.

A lot of volunteer managers, myself included have been lying to ourselves for years. And how do these lies manifest themselves? With stress, frustration, passive-aggressive behavior, shutting off, self-doubt. Lying to ourselves is destructive.

So let’s just examine some of the top volunteer manager self-lies and put them to the volunteer manager Truth o’ Meter test. The volunteer manager Truth o’ Meter is foolproof. I know this because I paid no attention when I asked it if I should announce at the volunteer luncheon that “you volunteers should go on strike and hold out until all staff tattoo ‘we couldn’t do this without our volunteers’ on their arms.” Yeah, the Truth o’ Meter was right on that one.

The top 6 lies we tell ourselves are:

  1. “Volunteers need my undivided attention or they will leave.”
  2. “When I can’t provide a volunteer, I’ve failed.”
  3. “If I just give it some time, problems will work themselves out.”
  4. “I have no business asking for resources or a raise or a promotion.”
  5. “I can’t make others see how important volunteering is.”
  6. “No one wants to hear my version of leadership.”

So let’s go over these lies and see why that little voice that whispers in our ear is destructive and wrong.

To #1,”Volunteers need my undivided attention or they will leave,” I’m thinking no. (Well, wait, when volunteer Dottie comes in and recounts her serious accident for the fifteenth time, the one that happened 10 years ago, it’s because she needs to voice her feelings and…woah, there’s that voice again..) No. Stop the voice. Volunteers are with us because they want a volunteer experience that enhances their lives. Enabling long non-productive volunteer interactions (or gabby staff for that matter, am I right?) accumulates and robs other volunteers and clients of your time. We don’t have to hear and invest in every personal story over and over. We can listen for a few moments and redirect the volunteer to their volunteering. The Truth o’ Meter proclaims this 89% false.

To #2, “When I can’t provide a volunteer, I’ve failed.” Ok, so sometimes we’re busy doing something else and sometimes we are in a funk or can’t remember the name of that volunteer who told us during that long conversation like the ones in #1 that he played the bongos and now staff wants to get a bongo playing volunteer. Sure, once in a while it’s actually our fault and we can own that, but it’s time to realize that not every task will be filled and that doesn’t detract from the tremendous impact made by our volunteers. The Truth o’ Meter proclaims this 98% false.

To #3, “If I just give it some time, problems will work themselves out.” Do we need to talk about avoidance? We can hope all we want that Clarence in accounting will stop calling volunteers “little nuisances” and will see the light or volunteer Ed will stop interrupting staff to tell multiple old elephant jokes, but we’d be wrong. Meeting challenges head-on saves us from bigger headaches down the road. Tactful mediation ensures solving challenges so that all sides can satisfactorily work towards meeting mission goals. The Truth o’ Meter proclaims this 99.5% false.

To #4, “I have no business asking for a resources or a raise or a promotion.” Hmm, have you told the CEO she doesn’t know what she’s doing lately? I thought not. Why can’t we ask for a promotion or resources or a raise? We manage a huge amount of human capital that positively impacts people, have mad engagement skills and know our organizations inside and out and have ideas that will work. Yeah, we need to keep our heads down and keep telling ourselves we’re not good enough. The Truth o’ Meter proclaims this 99.8% false.

To #5, “I can’t make others see how important volunteering is.” Ok, sure, it’s hard, no, actually it is really hard. There’s so much to engaging volunteers and how do we put that into an elevator speech or a sound bite? But our passion to see volunteers respected will lead to better ways of showing impact and as we all work towards professionalized and elevated volunteer management, it will become more clear. Hang in there for The Truth o’ Meter proclaims this 99.9% false.

To #6, “No one wants to hear my version of leadership,” Uh huh. Yeah, why would they? We don’t inspire anyone. We don’t lead volunteers to do amazing things. Nah, who would want to hear that anyway? If your comfort zone (you know the one where fluffy pillows embroidered with “I’m just the volunteer coordinator” lay atop bean bag chairs filled with ‘keep a low profile’ nuggets and ‘no risk zone’ signs adorn the zen green walls) is holding you back, then venture out of it, one toe at a time. Speak up at a meeting, enter into discussions, offer to present some findings and showcase your style of organic leadership. You have so much to offer. The Truth o’ Meter proclaims this 100% false.

There you have it. The top 6 lies volunteer managers tell ourselves has been debunked.

And remember, the Volunteer Manager Truth o’ Meter never lies.