Horrors! Can a Volunteer Manager Say No?


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Carlos took a deep breath and regarded Marty, a long term volunteer who stood before him. “Mr. Jansen really wants to visit his son in Philadelphia.” Marty said. “It’s only a four hour trip from here and I don’t mind taking him. We can do it in a day.”

Carlos thought about the organizational policies, trying to recall one that forbid volunteers from driving clients on long trips. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Marty,” he said. “I really don’t know if we should do this.”

Leadership is about doing the right thing, even if it is the hardest thing to do personally and even if it puts you on the spot. As leaders of volunteers, we are faced with doing the right thing every day. We must weigh the right thing for our organizations, for our volunteers, for our vulnerable clients, for our communities and for us.

Being able to say no is sometimes the right thing to do. While our jobs pretty much paint us as the folks who always say “yes,” we must take into consideration the times we are obligated to say “no.” Some obvious examples are:

  • when a volunteer wants to break policy and jeopardize the safety of himself or a client
  • when a request for a volunteer puts the volunteer at risk
  • when a community service volunteer wants you to sign off on hours not spent volunteering
  • when anyone asks you to embellish volunteer hours

It’s easier to say no when strict policies back you up, or risk factors are obvious. But sometimes we have to say no, when policy is not a factor and the area is gray. Examples might include:

  • When someone requests a volunteer for a task that volunteers have strongly objected to
  • When a volunteer wants to initiate a project that will take precious time from mission related work
  • When you are asked to fill in for a volunteer on your day off and you already have plans

How do we artfully say ‘no?’ If we feel pressured to say ‘yes,’ or are backed into a corner, we might stutter and say something like, “I’m not sure.” A weak ‘no’ is really just a soft ‘yes.’ When saying no, you have to actually say no and not want to immediately take it back.

If you need to, ask for time to think on it. Say, “Let me get back with you on that,” so that you can formulate your response. Getting caught off guard seldom gives you the advantage of putting together a well thought out answer. Remember though, if you don’t get back to the person in a timely matter, they will assume your answer is yes.

Think of all the reasons you have to say no. It’s not because you just feel like being oppositional, it’s because you know there is a better alternative, or you have information the person asking the question does not have. Listen to your intuition and find all the whys that force you to say no, then explain the whys in decisive terms.

Present a suitable alternative. Explain why you are saying no, and offer an alternative. If say, a volunteer wants to bring a friend with them on assignment into a client’s home, you can say, “I’m sorry, but that is against our policy. The reason it is against our policy is because no one who has not been background checked and officially entered into our organization can enter the home of our client. (the why you’re saying no) This applies to staff and volunteers alike. I can offer your friend a path to becoming a volunteer so that he can accompany you on assignments. (the alternative) Let’s talk about how to make that happen.”

Steer the person towards the alternative. If a staff member wants you to find a volunteer for a task the volunteers have repeatedly said no to, you can say, “I will try, but our volunteers have said no in the past so I’m not likely to be able to fill this request. But, we do have volunteers willing to help you in other ways. Let’s discuss the ways they want to be of service and how they can support you.”

Be clear that a no is not personal. Leadership is about the mission and the team. Point out the mission centric reasons you must say no. “I understand that things change rapidly and that now you are asking for five additional volunteers for tomorrow. I will ask one of our experienced volunteers to make last minute calls and I know that every one of our volunteers who can commit, will commit, so you are in good hands. I however, must continue to work on the annual gala which is next week because volunteers are heavily involved and the gala is extremely important to our organization’s outreach.”

There’s a reason these responses sound an awful lot like “professional speak.” It’s because they are. Using professional speak is the way to stop others from viewing you as a lightweight, a yes person, a go-fer. Using professional speak forces others to communicate with you on a mission-related level and not on emotional or personal terms.

Feeling like you can never say no resides on emotional levels. Being able to say no in a professional way resides on logical, thoughtful levels. In order to take control of the conversation, use professional speak that centers on mission centric goals and steer the person away from trying to emotionally manipulate you.

You can put off a conversation until later when you have the time and energy to discuss it with focus. Take the volunteer who wants to initiate a program that takes time from mission related goals. You can say to that volunteer, “that sounds like an interesting proposal and one that you’ve given considerable thought to. I really want to give you my full attention, so can we set aside a time to discuss it when we can really focus on what you are offering?” Then set aside a time when you are not being bombarded from all directions and can thoughtfully discuss any ideas.

Saying no is not a failure on our part. It is actually an opportunity to control the direction of our programs and a chance to steer people towards a better way of engaging volunteers by offering more viable alternatives. When done with tact and professionalism, saying “no” can open doors to a better “yes.

A strong leader is able to say no in a way that assures everyone that the no means listening carefully, then a negotiation, or a revamping or an alternative.  Above all, it indicates a striving for excellence. And that already describes every volunteer manager.



Helicopter Volunteer Management


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photo of helicopter on flight

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Yvonne looked at her watch. “Oh my gosh, it’s 12:30, I have to get up there.” She hastily threw the rest of her lunch away, closed her office door and headed upstairs to the workroom. Her volunteer, Angie was just settling in for her Thursday afternoon work recording client surveys. Angie picked up the rubber banded stack and opened the computer program on the aging desktop.

“Hey, Yvonne, how are you?” Angie asked. This corner of the workroom, designated for volunteers was quiet, a bit dark, since the clouds outside threatened rain.

“Great, now that you’re here.” Yvonne turned on the lamp a few feet from the desk. Do you have everything you need?”

“I think so,” Angie said, looking around. “I’m not sure if all the new surveys are here, but I can work with these.”

“Oh,” Yvonne put her hand on Angie’s shoulder. “I’ll go find out where the new ones are and bring them to you.” She headed back to her office. After several phone calls, Yvonne tracked Garth in compliance down and was able to retrieve the latest pack of surveys and bring them to Angie.

Helicopter volunteer management. When does making sure that volunteers are engaged border on hovering and intrusion?  When does the desire to give volunteers a meaningful experience devolve into swaddling them in bubble wrap?

We, volunteer managers can often walk an emotional tightrope when we “hand over” a volunteer to a department. We can feel like the typical proud parent, especially when we have spent precious emotional time cultivating a volunteer. We recruit with an impassioned plea. We interview with laser focus, zeroing in on the volunteer’s strengths and desires. We train with patience, allowing enough time and questions to ready the volunteer for greatness. We instill in them what a great experience they will have.

And unfortunately, we carry scars, too. We’ve turned over excellent and ready volunteers, only to see them leave due to being under utilized or given confusing directions or not contacted quickly enough. We see all our upfront work wasted, our emotional investment dashed and we think of “what could have been.”

Sometimes, we just want to pick our battles. We know that if we complain that certain staff members don’t take working with volunteers seriously, we will be rebuffed, or labeled “negative” by senior management. And so, we pick up the slack, or follow a volunteer about, making sure that he has everything he needs. And maybe it’s not even that. Maybe we realize that departments are just not going to cuddle our volunteers and that scares us a bit.

While we have the best interests of the volunteer and organization at heart, does helicopter volunteer management have its drawbacks? What might they be?

  • We perpetuate the stereotype that volunteers are low-skilled. By running around making everything ok, we send a message to the staff working with them that volunteers are not capable of doing the job without our help.
  • We create volunteer dependence. When we subtly say to our volunteers, “you need me in order to succeed,” we create a dependence on us and rob the volunteers of using their common sense and being able to forge a relationship with the departments they work for.
  • We use precious time better spent elsewhere. When we follow volunteers around, we miss opportunities to recruit other volunteers, or create new programs.

So, how can we let go of helicoptering?

  • Pull a new volunteer if a department doesn’t reach out to them within 3 days. Re-assign that volunteer to another department, or better yet, keep that volunteer and ask them to help you with your projects. Don’t chase a department, begging them to call the new volunteer. And don’t be so quick to get them another one, but explain that if they cannot contact new volunteers in a timely manner, then volunteers won’t wait.
  • Prepare volunteers as well as you can and give them instructions to call you if they need you.
  • Praise staff who work well with volunteers. Create awards for key staff, Trust the time it takes for them to forge relationships with volunteers.
  • Expect some amount of failure. Unfortunately, failures will occur. It’s important to not blame yourself, or to fall back into the helicopter mode.
  • Appoint seasoned volunteers as mentors. Ask them to take new volunteers under their wing and to check in with new volunteers often at first.
  • Gather feedback, especially from new volunteers. Prepare a “new volunteer report,” and include their comments, both positive and negative. Share with senior management.
  • Prepare departments individually to work with volunteers through a “new volunteer integration plan.”
  • Continue to educate staff. Create training through in-person, video, manuals, posted tips or cheat sheets. Help staff learn how to work with volunteers.

Our desire to hover over our volunteers is understandable since it is most often based on experiences we’ve had when helplessly watching volunteers leave due to being under utilized or due to the amount of effort we put into cultivating and readying new volunteers.

Instead of hovering, which simply band-aids any problems, we can begin to work on fixing our tendency to helicopter by addressing the underlying issue: What do we think happens to volunteers once they leave our cocoon of cultivation?

  • Do we assume they will be mistreated?
  • Do we assume they are not capable of handling themselves?
  • Do we think that once volunteers ask questions, or need something, they will be labeled “difficult?”
  • Do we secretly desire to be the only person who can get the best out of the volunteer?
  • Is it more than just doing our jobs for us?

We have to be careful in how we view volunteers and our role. If we operate in an “us vs. the rest of the organizational staff” bubble, then we are going to helicopter our volunteers. And we’re going to take any shortcomings by staff personally. Stress will follow us everywhere.

If, instead, we open up and begin to work within the system, (good and bad) we can start to clearly see where challenges lie and then, in a professional way, find solutions.

One of the areas that may need tweaking is in that zone where a new volunteer joins a department. Before a new volunteer is assigned, help your organization’s departments answer these questions and formulate a “new volunteer integration plan:”

  • Does my department have a plan in place for new volunteers?
  • Do we have a departmental staff member to mentor new volunteers?
  • Do we have someone designated to answer questions?
  • What is our course of action should the volunteer need more help than we can give or is not working out?
  • How do we help the new volunteer succeed, but continue to get our work done?

Once these questions are adequately addressed, a new volunteer should fit into a department more comfortably, thus removing a lot of the anxiety felt by the volunteer manager who placed the volunteer in good faith.

Cultivating volunteers is a highly emotional experience. We get caught up in the volunteers’ passion and desire and sometimes their issues. We want to help them. While noble, this desire to see them flourish can take an emotional toll on us.

Can we set aside our emotional investment and let them fly? Can we forcefully, yet professionally advocate for top-down respect for volunteers and their time? Can we partner with other departments to set up a system for integrating new volunteers? Can we meet out consequences in a solution-related manner when departments fail our volunteers?

We, volunteer managers invest heavily in our volunteers with our time, energy, mentoring, and passion. It’s time we also invest in our own emotional health by setting our organizations up to successfully integrate new volunteers so that we can refrain from helicoptering and move forward to recruiting and creating innovative programs.





Filling In for Volunteers: A Paradox


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Seth arrived at the office early Saturday morning. It was quiet among the empty desks, almost hushed. Only one other staff member showed up, carrying a large foam coffee cup. Volunteer Hannah was sick and could not come in to answer the phones that morning. Seth had called every volunteer he could think of, but since it was last-minute, very few volunteers were at home and those who were, had plans they couldn’t change. So, Seth went in and answered the phones. After all, it had to be done, right?

We’ve all done it. Sat with a patient. Drove a client to an appointment. Filled in at events. Pulled up a chair at a table and stuffed envelopes. Manned a kitchen. Answered phones. Took visitors on a guided tour. Filed records. Completed a project. Why? Would the organization dissolve if a volunteer role went unfilled one time? Or is this just an antiquated volunteer management holdover from thirty years ago?

Are we the only profession that supposedly manages human capital but then is expected to personally fill in for that human capital every time there is a shortage? How did we get here?

If an employee in a department is sick, does the manager of that department go sit in that employees’ chair for the day and do their work, completely setting aside their own duties as manager? No, rather, the absent employee’s work is set aside or other people in that department pick up the slack.

And what about fund-raising? If a donor stops giving, do we ask the fund-raising department to pony up the missing money? Ok, that may be a stretch, but if we think of volunteers as time donors, then why do we, volunteer managers have to make up the donated time, when fundraisers don’t have to make up the donated money?

Here’s the thing: Non-profits seem to want to have it both ways. On one hand, the volunteers’ duties are considered critical enough to warrant expecting the volunteer manager to fill in when the volunteer can’t make it. But on the other hand, the volunteers’ duties aren’t critical enough to warrant paying a staff member overtime to fill in. Which is it?

Volunteers typically work in established departments as support personnel. They support on-going, organizational areas that are made up of staff and management. Let’s examine what happens when staff is absent.  If a staff member is out for the day or week, then other departmental staff pick up the slack, or fill in or divide up the work, or the work is shelved until the staff member returns.

Not so much in volunteer management. In my experience, the prevailing thought was that, “hey there’s other volunteers so there should never be an interruption of volunteer support, no matter what.” It didn’t matter that not every volunteer was capable of filling in for certain duties, nor did it matter that some volunteers were not suited for specific duties, the expectation was that volunteers were an endless supply and always interchangeable. Really? Do we ask staff in data and records to fill in for a social worker when the social worker calls in sick or vice a versa?

And here’s the perceived message: If there aren’t enough extra volunteers to fill in for absent volunteers, then the volunteer manager must not be doing a good enough job, so they should stop complaining when they have to fill in. Huh, so in the volunteer sector, are we all just warm bodies then, volunteers and volunteer managers alike?

It circles back to expectations. Organizations expect volunteers to fill tasks. They expect volunteer managers to supply the volunteers to fill the tasks. So, if volunteers get sick or go on vacation, will any old volunteer body do, including the volunteer manager?

But let’s take this one step further. If the jobs that volunteers do are really able to be filled by anyone, then that renders the job non-critical, doesn’t it? So, if an organization wants all volunteer jobs to be kept filled at all times, then the jobs better be critical to the mission, don’t you think?

Did we do this to ourselves? Do we privately chastise ourselves for not having enough volunteers? Do we feed the perception that volunteer roles must never go unfilled? Do we buy into the idea that volunteers’ roles are so generic that anyone can fill them? And if that is true, then how can we advocate for treating our volunteers as highly skilled contributing members of the team?

Let’s go back to the idea that a data staff member doesn’t fill in for a social worker. It should be the same with volunteers. You only have a portion of your volunteer base who are trained in a particular area and are able to fill in for others when they are absent. You can’t really call all volunteers, only those trained and/or familiar with the task. Or rather, we shouldn’t call every volunteer because that just feeds the warm body theory.

Ok, maybe a really nice volunteer will say yes to coming in for a job they are not familiar with and that takes care of it for that moment. But what if this volunteer is someone who is highly skilled in another area, say working with clients and they quit because they were left to “figure it out” when answering the phones for an absent volunteer?

This illustrates why categorizing volunteers by their training, skills, desirability and availability is crucial to dispelling the warm body myth. Not all volunteers are appropriate for and ready to fill in answering phone calls, or running out to get something or taking a client to an appointment. Too many of these warm body experiences will drive volunteers away.

But back to volunteer managers filling in for absent volunteers. Have you discussed this aspect of your job with anyone? Discussing the fill-in expectations portion of your job might just yield some wiggle room for you if you point out that your job is to provide skilled, appropriate volunteers for organizational tasks and that every time you have to fill in for an absent volunteer means you have less time to do your job.  It becomes cumulative. The more you fill in, the more you will have to fill in because you are not able to train and recruit volunteers. So, what can we do?

  • Point out that just like staff, volunteers will occasionally be absent and there needs to be contingent plans for those instances. This involves the staff in the department picking up the slack.
  • Provide a categorized list of volunteers for every task with emphasis on the volunteers’ training and experience.
  • Begin the cross train the volunteers who are willing. Volunteers who are willing to “float” shows your commitment to filling absentee roles when possible.
  • Gather feedback from volunteers on their fill-in experiences.
  • Advocate for moving on from the warm body theory.

Elevating volunteers and volunteer management is not an easy path. This paradox that volunteer roles are important enough to be kept filled, but not important enough to be filled with capable volunteers or staff and not just any body is frankly, ridiculous.  Volunteer roles must be viewed as just as diversified and skills based as every staff role.

We have to stop buying into the notion that as long as a breathing human being is sitting in the volunteer’s seat, we’ve done our job. We have to change the perception that volunteers are interchangeable tools and that we have to fill in when there are no volunteers available.

In order to progress in volunteer management, we need to present ourselves as the leaders of volunteers, not volunteers ourselves and show that our duties do not include filling in every time a volunteer is absent.

But, first, we have to convince ourselves.



Velp or Vichelin Stars, Whichever


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Do you clap on Medium or use Yelp or TripAdvisor or any of the rating systems? Do they influence your reading habits or purchases?

What if we were to institute ratings for volunteer organizations? “Yipes, are you nuts,” comes to mind. But, in reading Jayne Cravens’ excellent post, Volunteers should be talking about their experience online, on volunteers and social media experience sharing, it reminded me of something I posted a few years back.

In my post entitled, Of Tires, Stars and Volunteer Organizations, I argued that we should adopt a sort of Michelin Star rating system for volunteer organizations, one in which a central volunteer agency awards Volunteer Centric Stars based on attaining specific volunteer centric goals. Points of Light already does offer a path to becoming a service enterprise organization through their program. I’d love to see an expansion on that idea, one that has visual impact (stars) and levels of deeper commitment to volunteer engagement so that volunteers, donors and the community can easily see how much effort is placed on volunteerism.

Why would that visual make a difference? Well, why do we stop at hotels that have 5 stars, or why do we aspire to eat at a 3 star Michelin restaurant? Because there is accountability involved, whether it is through public rating or through an organization that creates standards.

At this point, volunteers have little to go on when choosing a volunteer organization, unless they have been a recipient of services. And with little to no rating system, why should any organization try to do better?

And what is the purpose of rating anyway, at least in theory? It’s feedback for entities being rated and guides for people looking for the best place to spend money or time. Let’s look at this example of the power of feedback:

Ben owns a small, upscale restaurant. Traffic has been down lately. He thinks, it’s got to be the quality of the food, so he sits down with his chef, Alisha and tells her that the diners are not happy. He sends Alisha to scope out other restaurants in the area so that she can mimic their menu. Alisha dutifully does as Ben asks, but there is no increase in traffic. Frustrated, Ben looks for another chef and replaces Alisha with Jorge. Together,  Ben and Jorge revamp the menu. Ben advertises a grand re-opening and for a few short weeks, traffic increases, but it falls to a level that is lower than before the re-opening. Perplexed, Ben finally joins a review site and to his amazement, the overwhelming complaints shared by his patrons are the rude wait staff, charging for water and the dirty bathroom. Ben had blamed Alisha and her food for the drop in customers, but it was other areas of his restaurant that drove them away. Ben had forgotten that dining is an experience and that every person and area in his restaurant contributes to that experience.

It’s no different with volunteers. Every person and area in an organization contributes to the volunteer’s experience, including the volunteer manager and other volunteers, ease of getting started, scope of work, etc.

The question, then becomes: What would volunteers say? It might be a frightening thought at first. But, how do we fix what we don’t know? How do we back up the idea that keeping volunteers motivated is everyone’s job? How do we illustrate our assertion that volunteers are looking for flexibility, or projects or skills based volunteering opportunities?

Until there is a volunteer rating system, if ever, can we just cut and paste one? Yes, we can and do. It’s our surveys or exit interviews, our conversations with volunteers and as Jayne Cravens so brilliantly points out, our monitoring of volunteer comments on social media.

Anonymous surveys can give volunteers a chance to be honest with us and provide the feedback that supports our assertions. If you do send out a survey, there are some feedback by-products that you might want to utilize:

  • At the bottom of the survey, give an option to include the volunteer’s name with the promise that anything that needs to be addressed, will be done in confidence. Follow-up with the volunteer.
  • Indicate on the survey that quotes will be utilized for recruitment purposes. Then, use the positive quotes as testimonials on your recruitment information, even if they are anonymous.
  • Share the positive and negative responses with upper management as an instructive way to show what is working and what is not working. If volunteers indicate that certain departments are not utilizing them or taking too long to contact them, then upper management needs to know that. Prepare a report based on the feedback you receive. Do it in a professional, instructive way, not in an emotional, “see, you guys are mean, and I’m frustrated,” way. Based on feedback, come up with recommendations to fix the negatives such as enhanced training for staff, better software to capture data, a review of jobs and positions, etc.

Scour social media sites for any comments on your volunteer program. Add those to your feedback report.

Even though there is not yet a Velp or Vichelin Stars, there is still organic rating going on in the form of word of mouth, social media and surveys. Feedback helps us cement the things we know, while we discover the things we don’t know. Think of the ways to use it to your benefit and encourage volunteers to give their feedback.

We can preach all we want about the path to meaningful volunteer engagement. But, if we really want things to change, it’s time to back it up with concrete evidence.






Expecting Different Volunteering Results is Organizational Insanity


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Expecting Different Volunteering Results is Organizational Insanity

Albert Einstein is widely credited with this quote:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Vern sat down and dropped his notepad on the desk. The meeting had not gone as planned, but then, Vern knew it wouldn’t. He’d gathered his volunteers, served them coffee and donuts and explained the new task to them. He mustered up the enthusiasm to pitch the task and at times, came close to begging. He used phrases like, “we really need,” and “if you could just,” but the words were vinegar on his tongue.

Asking his volunteers to give more of their time to a task he knew they had no interest in, felt like he was betraying them. A few of the volunteers felt sorry for Vern and even though they were already giving a good chunk of time to client related volunteering, they promised to give the task a try. They told Vern that the only reason they agreed to try was because they wanted to support him. They appreciated how Vern had always treated them with respect, how he shared impact with them and how he matched them to assignments that utilized their skill-sets.  The volunteers knew that if they did not say yes, Vern would get into trouble.

Vern put his head in his hands. It wasn’t fair to treat the volunteers like pawns in a chess game. It wasn’t fair to ask them to do something they weren’t invested in. It wasn’t fair to the clients, because now, those volunteers were devoting their time to a meaningless task which kept them from their mission centric volunteering.

This scenario, the one that Vern endured, plays out day after day in organizations everywhere. It is the scenario in which organizational upper management, without the input of the volunteer manager, decides to enlist volunteer help in a task that either a) staff involvement has decreased or b) a new initiative has been created and the “grunt work” needs to be completed or c) a staff member or department has complained that they are overworked and they want to offload the minutia on volunteers.

So, what is so wrong with that? After all, that’s what volunteers are here for, to do our bidding, right?

Well, let’s just count the ways this is the perfect example of organizational insanity:

  1. It sends a message to volunteers. Volunteers are not easily duped. Every action an organization takes sends volunteers a message. How many messages that say, “you are nothing more than tools to be used at our discretion” are sent before volunteers leave? Oh, and tell their friends?
  2. It puts the volunteer manager in a terrible position. It reduces the VM to selling a task to volunteers instead of engaging them in ways that excite their passion for the work. It undermines the VM and all the effort in laying a foundation of volunteer trust. Poof! Out the window goes everything the VM has told the volunteers about how the organization is committed to integrating volunteers into mission critical work.
  3. It robs clients of the help we promise them on our slick brochures. Let’s do the math on this. 50 mission centric volunteers – 20 volunteers diverted to meaningless tasks = not 50 mission centric volunteers, that’s for sure. Oh, and let’s do complicated math while we’re at it. 50 mission centric volunteers – 20 volunteers diverted to meaningless tasks x number of volunteers who don’t like the bait and switch thing happening = not many mission centric volunteers at all.
  4. It moves us away from the mission. What are we in existence for? To perpetuate and grow? To pad our coffers? To increase our influence? Growing, padding the coffers and increasing influence are not wrong, in and of themselves, but when they become goals instead of secondary goals for supporting the mission, then we’ve become something unrecognizable to our volunteers. And don’t forget, volunteers are not easily duped.
  5. It establishes a self-defeating pattern. When volunteers say yes out of a sense that the volunteer manager will suffer consequences instead of because they want to do the task, a self-defeating pattern is set. If a few volunteers reluctantly say yes, then more meaningless requests will follow, because it appears that volunteers are happily agreeing to do anything. It becomes much more difficult to explain volunteer objections if volunteers agree to assignments they feel pressured to accept.
  6. It keeps us frozen in outmoded models. When we engage volunteers in the same tired manner from years ago, we will see our volunteer numbers drop.
  7. It wastes everyone’s’ time. Volunteer managers have limited time. Volunteers give limited time. Why are we wasting it with tasks that drive volunteers away?
  8. It sends a message to the volunteer manager. The message from upper management says, “you are nothing more than a mouthpiece, a carnival barker, a conduit for our demands. The skills and time you invest in our volunteers mean little to us.”

What can a volunteer manager do? Besides quit?

  • Don’t beg volunteers. Offer any task or request as an option. Check your emotions at the door. After all, it is up to the volunteers and we’ve all been surprised by volunteers who are willing to do something we never imagined them wanting to do. But, on the flip side, don’t buy into the “get them to do it” nonsense and don’t share your frustrations with the volunteers. They will say yes because they like you and don’t want to see you get in trouble. And then, the self-defeating pattern is set.
  • Capture volunteers’ objections. Write them down to give to those requesting the task. “that’s not something I’m interested in,” or “it doesn’t fit my needs, or time-frame or skills,” are phrases that show the reason a volunteer is declining the task.
  • Ask the person(s) requesting the task to present it to the volunteers. Take yourself out of the middle.
  • Remind senior management that you are there to engage volunteers, not use them. Share engagement successes and failures in order to support your theories and illustrate the difference between mission centric volunteering and tasks.

Organizations thrive with engaged volunteers and while it may seem harmless to organizational senior management to ask volunteers to do whatever we want them to do, it actually sends a message. And not a very good one.

We must take two additional and crucial things into consideration when creating volunteer tasks. How does it impact the mission and how does it impact the volunteer? Without mission centric volunteering, tasks are meaningless chores that sap the volunteer soul. And wear them out. And drive them away.

What’s the definition of organizational insanity?

Not listening to nor respecting the insight of the volunteer manager.



Volunteer Chaos Theory: If a butterfly flaps its wings, will Jeremy volunteer?


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I’m on a short vacation this week, so I’m revisiting a post I wrote in 2015 and tweaking it just a bit.

Volunteering needs to have its own chaos theory:  You know, the one that starts with “if a butterfly flaps it’s wings in Brazil, will it spawn a tornado in Texas…”  because engaging volunteers can be quite chaotic.
Have you noticed that a lot of really smart people look at volunteerism in a very linear way? Their volunteering theory in no way takes into account any chaotic variables that affect whether a potential volunteer follows through, or an existing volunteer stays. Instead, it all depends upon how well volunteer managers “sell” the program.
Their linear theory  goes something like this:
Volunteer Manager (VM) sitting at desk. A long line of prospective volunteers stand outside the door patiently waiting for their turn to do good.

VM: Who’s next? May I help you?

New Volunteer Jeremy (J): Hi, I’m answering your ad for volunteer help. Can you tell me more about it? I really want to do good and I can’t do good on my own so I came here.

VM: Why yes, we need someone to do good by helping put up supplies.

J: Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable, I have a Master’s Degree in putting up supplies! I’ve put up supplies for most of my life. I love nothing more than to put up supplies! When can I start to do some good?

VM: Well, you first have to go through some orientation and training. There’s four sessions starting tomorrow. That might be a bit last-minute.

J: Tomorrow, huh? Well I had some important surgery scheduled for tomorrow, but I think I’ll reschedule that. To do good by putting up supplies is far more important. I can take the pain a little longer for the chance to volunteer here.

VM: Wonderful. After that we need to do a background check. It needs to be done before you come to training. That just gives you this afternoon to get it done.

J: This afternoon, huh? I actually have an interview for the job of my dreams this afternoon. It’s a job in putting up supplies, but hey, I’ll bet they’ll understand if I don’t come. I’m sure another job of my dreams will come along in another decade or so. After we speak, I will go to the police station and do the background check. I’ll pay for that myself. While I’m there, do you want me to pay for some other volunteers?

VM: No, that’s not necessary, thank you. Let me check the schedule for the all-important supply put-uppers. Are you available to work on Tuesdays?

J: Wow, Tuesdays, huh? That’s the only day I have to take my elderly Mother out of the nursing home. She really loves our outings, but hey, what the heck, putting up supplies for you guys is so much more important. I can maybe write my mom some letters. I’ll be here every Tuesday doing good! By the way, what kind of supplies are we talking about?

VM: Well, our organization gets shipments of office paper supplies on Tuesdays. No one here is willing to do that work.

J: Office paper supplies, huh? I’m violently allergic to office paper, but you know, my college thesis was on the body mechanics of putting up office paper supplies! That’s where I learned I was allergic. But, I’ll just go to my doctor after the background check and get some stronger medication. Is there an emergency room close by here, just in case the medicine doesn’t work?

VM: There’s a hospital about five miles from here.

J: That’s fine, I’m sure they have ambulances.

VM: You do know, Jeremy that you will have to work alone in a hallway closet. There’s not much light or air, but that’s where the supplies are kept. Is that all right?

J: I do have a fear of the dark, but what the heck! My minor in college was working alone in a closet, where I learned I had a fear of the dark, but I’ll just bring my own flashlight.

VM: Great, we will see you tomorrow. Thanks so much for volunteering. Next!

So, in this linear theory, volunteers pretty much show up, then set aside and overcome any and all barriers to volunteering, because nothing will stand in their way. But, in reality, even the most well-intentioned and eager volunteer can be thwarted by outside factors.

Have you ever recruited the most promising, amazing human being, only to have a change in job status, unexpected move or family circumstance steal them from you before they even get started? It can shake you and make you feel that all your hard work has been wasted.

Chaos surrounds volunteerism. Unlike a paid position, any extenuating circumstance can interfere with a volunteer’s commitment to follow through. The tenuous bond volunteers establish with us can fray at any moment due to events beyond our control.

It happens to all of us and when it does, it feels like that chaos butterfly is slapping us in the face with their wings. There’s no point in obsessing over the stories of “the volunteers that got away,” so we dust ourselves off and continue on, hoping that chaos will smile on us and allow the next eager volunteer to actually get a chance to become a valued member of our team.

We keep that potential volunteer’s information in a drawer. Sometimes we get lucky and the butterfly wings flap in our direction. When the volunteer is able to return, they will, because we didn’t guilt them about a family member falling ill or a child of theirs needing help and instead, made them feel as though we understood that circumstances kept them from us.

It’s those nuanced moments that can affect the direction our chaos takes us. Treating volunteers as more than bodies to fill tasks leaves a lasting impression on them. And even if circumstance never permits them to return, they will spread the message to others that our program cares about volunteers as people with real lives.

Maybe we have to endure more chaos than most. And maybe it’s difficult explaining the variables that keep volunteers from following through.

But maybe, in this chaotic world, the next great volunteer is waiting for us to find them.


Annual Volunteer PerBoreMance Reviews


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Annual Volunteer PerBoremance Review

“I quit, yeah I did.” Christi poked at her sushi. “I mean, I volunteered there like, a year and everything was fine.” She clicked the chopsticks together in rhythmic thought. “Well, I thought it was, anyway. But at my performance review they told me I wasn’t doing the job all that well and that I needed improvement. You’d think they would have said something before a year, wouldn’t you? Now, I figure, everything I did for them was a waste, so I quit.”

The Annual Volunteer Performance Review (AVPR). It didn’t help Christi, did it?

The department Christi volunteered for felt that something had changed with Christi and in the past few months, they had to go behind her and fix all her mistakes. But, did they address it with her? No, they chose to just sigh and throw up their hands while muttering, “volunteers, go figure.” And so, when it was time for Christi’s AVPR, that’s when the department decided to address the issue. And so, she quit. Maybe that’s what they wanted all along, but was that the right way to handle it?

While the AVPR is set up to deliver constructive feedback, there are a few inherent problems with this model:

  • a yearly review more likely reflects the volunteer’s performance of the past month, not year
  • if a problem has not been addressed with the volunteer before the review, then the volunteer is blindsided when finding out they have not been doing well
  • it takes time to put a review together and because we’re volunteer managers, we agonize over making it just right, which takes more time
  • it gives everyone involved anxiety, i.e., the volunteer and the volunteer manager, especially when the volunteer hasn’t received much feedback up to this point
  • oftentimes it is a requirement, but it doesn’t carry any follow-up or plan of action
  • it can suck the soul from volunteering when everything is boiled down to line items
  • it doesn’t measure the real value of the volunteer’s contribution

So, should we just throw it away, even if it is a requirement? Ok, well, maybe we can’t get rid of it entirely,  but maybe we can tweak it so that it better fits our needs.

We know that volunteers need on-going feedback. More so, actually than staff. The longer the time spent away from a job (staff spends about 40 hours a week at their job and volunteers spend on average maybe 4 hours at their volunteer assignment), the greater the learning curve. Volunteers don’t have the on-going repetition of learning a job, don’t have the daily back and forth between co-workers, don’t experience the atmosphere of expectations for hours on end like staff does.  So, volunteers’ feedback needs are exponentially greater than staff’s.

Besides, they may not stay for a full year, so feedback is vitally important while they are actually volunteering.

Addressing a problem after it has been ignored for a time, creates this sinkhole of confusion, hurt feelings and anger. Ignoring problematic behavior until you can’t any longer just deepens the hole. How?

  • The volunteer is blindsided
  • You can’t really justify why you let it go on so long
  • You render your policies and procedures meaningless
  • You erode your position as a leader
  • You water down the integrity of the mission

Performance reviews imply something must be addressed. If everything is going well, then the review is a pat on the back, unless you are compelled to come up with an area that needs improvement (and a lot of performance reviews have this requirement). So, you make something up for the volunteer to work on, which renders the review pretty meaningless.

So, what can we do instead?

Give mission related feedback:  “Hey there, you’re doing a great job,” is nice in a broad kind of way, but specifics are much more meaningful. Why is the volunteer here except to further the mission? Mission related feedback can be peppered into conversations. “Thanks so much, Jep for coming out last-minute. Because of your quick response, the wife of our client Ari, was able to get to our support group. She has missed the last three group meetings and they are crucial to providing families with education and support. Do you realize that your actions directly impact our mission to support and educate our patients and their families?” These are the instances that fulfill mission centric volunteering and they need to be recorded, both in the volunteers’ files and for those all important volunteer reports.

Expect excellence: Expecting nothing more than showing up gets us, well, nothing more than showing up. (and not because the volunteers are lazy, but because the message we are sending is “we don’t expect much because we have nothing meaningful for you to do, it’s all just busywork.”) Being wishy washy nice and afraid to hurt feelings gets us a heck of a mess. Volunteers want to be part of something excellent. Let’s not rob them of that by excusing any and all behavior.

Volunteers want leaders: Leaders aren’t afraid to lead. If volunteers wanted us to be their best friend, they’d get a dog instead. They want us to inspire them, mentor and coach them to excellence. Look at your feedback in that way-“I want you to be the excellent volunteer I know you can be and by working together, we are going to accomplish great things.” (my dog never told me that, well, not in actual words anyway…)

Turn the work around: Yep, offload when you can. Instead of wracking your brain to fill out some form, ask the volunteer to come into your review meeting with 2 things they’ve accomplished over the year and 2 mission related goals they have set for the coming year. Discuss their accomplishments, how they achieved them, and then give them any suggestions you have for improvement.

And here’s the weird thing: Don’t fear that if the volunteer comes in with their perceived accomplishments, you won’t be able to address their shortcomings. Why? Because the accomplishments they point to will always somehow involve the areas in which they need improvement. How can that be? I don’t know, it’s one of those blow your mind physics things like you always hit the stop lights when you’re late. Just trust me.

After you discuss accomplishments and shortcomings, take a look at their goals.

The beauty of listening to their goals gives you an opportunity to:

  • learn more about the volunteer, where they are headed, what they value, where they feel they fit in
  • redirect any potential behavior that needs to be worked on
  • discover more about the volunteer program, what volunteers think of it, where challenges might lie, what visions volunteers have for the future
  • discover what the volunteer thinks about the organization, it’s mission, structure, staff, rules etc.
  • recharge your role as the inspirational leader of volunteers
  • re-direct everything back to the mission
  • and finally, for crying out loud, learn what it takes to keep this volunteer engaged

We can re-purpose annual reviews into goal setting discussions geared towards keeping great volunteers coming back. And then, throughout the year, we can provide the feedback that guides each volunteer towards excellence.

We can turn a perboremance review around and call it the setting of mission centric volunteer goals. 

Besides, reviews look backwards, goals look forward.

And isn’t looking forward the way to progress?




Don’t Believe Your Own Press…Too Much


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Don't Believe Your Press Too Much

When I attended my first peer group meeting for volunteer managers, there was a moment that stopped me in my tracks.  During the break, a few volunteer managers were sharing volunteer stories and I overheard one of them remark, “yes, that happens to me too. One of my volunteers told me that I was so amazing and actually said that my orientation changed her life.”

“Whaaaaaat??????” Poof, my brain exploded.

Their volunteers were saying the exact same wonderful things about them that my volunteers were saying about me. How was this possible? I wasn’t special? I wasn’t the greatest volunteer manager ever? There were, (gasp) others?

What a wake-up call. My little piñata of secret self-importance burst open with one whack of the reality stick. But as I dejectedly swept up all those sweet volunteer comments that were like piñata candy from the floor, I started thinking about what all that meant.

It meant I wasn’t the best volunteer manager to ever walk the earth. It meant my volunteer programs weren’t the greatest thing to happen in the history of volunteerism.

It meant that I was taking my job way too personally. I was personalizing volunteer enthusiasm.

That day, I realized that I was the representative of my organization which meant that I was the face, the voice, the go-to symbol of all the good my organization stood for. The volunteers were praising me because they loved the work.

Because here’s the thing about taking comments too personally. One day we’re buoyed by a volunteer’s glowing comments and the next day we’re dragged down by a careless remark from a staff member who didn’t get enough volunteers for a task. It can become this gigantic disconnect in our heads: How come the volunteers think I’m so great and yet, staff just treats me like I’m on a lower rung?

Becoming emotionally self-absorbed in our work is exhausting and it corrupts the way we view our job performance. Taking everything personally clouds the ability to see the bigger picture. When the work becomes personal, we become guarded and unable to view challenges with logic. We defend more, complain more, and close ourselves off more. We begin to see each positive comment as personal affirmation and each negative comment as hurtful. We lose the ability to see things clearly.

But you know what? Letting go of the personal and instead, representing the mission and the impactful volunteer work is actually so much more satisfying than slogging through all that heavy personal junk anyway. And you get to go home at night.

So, what to do when volunteers tell you that you’re the best thing since sliced bread? Firstly, thank them of course. But their comments can actually present an opportunity to learn more about the things you are doing that are working and going well.

A few follow-up questions can uncover the specific reasons that volunteers gush over you and their work:

  • “What part of the training did you find so helpful? How did that speak to you?”
  • “Can you tell me more about why you find this work so fulfilling? What elements of the work are directly impacting you?
  • “How did the conversations you and I had in private help you become a better volunteer? What exactly did I say that made you feel like you can do this?”
  • “What words did I use during the interview that made you want to volunteer?”
  • “What is it about the atmosphere here that makes you feel so productive?”

A comment such as, “I’m so glad I volunteered here, this is the best day ever,” sums up a pinnacle moment that consists of a lot of moving parts. That smile of triumph on a volunteer’s face or their respectful hush when something profound occurs is the culmination of factors working together to make a perfect volunteer moment.

While it feels really good to hear the wonderful compliments from our volunteers, it can also be highly instructive. We already know that asking an unhappy volunteer the specifics of what went wrong helps us to learn and adjust for next time. In that same vein, asking for the specifics of what is going right can also be helpful and give us solid blocks to build upon.

Not being the greatest volunteer manager in the world isn’t so awful. It’s actually kind of nice to know there are lots of them out there.












It’s That Time Again for New Words Added to the Volunteer Management Dictionary!


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This Year's New Words Added to the Volunteer Management Dictionary

Well, it was the yearly meeting time again for the Committee to Define Volunteer Management. This year, the members decided to video conference instead of getting together in person because no one could scrape up the gas money to drive up and back. So, after three hours trying to get the program to work, they all finally called it a night and decided to email each other.

Once again, none of them could really come up with a statement of less than 3,763 words to define volunteer management, so they decided to quit arguing over whether or not attending volunteers’ birthday celebrations constituted volunteer management and instead, they tackled item number 2 on their agenda and added new words to the volunteer management dictionary. Here are the terms added this year in no particular order of relevance: (or sanity)

volsplaining: when someone who knows nothing about volunteer engagement but has a grandmother who has been volunteering for 31 years, explains that you “should go to the senior center and talk to those people. Ha, ha, they have nothing better to do.”

voltriloquist: when a staff member speaks through a volunteer by taking advantage of the volunteer’s kind nature and manipulates the volunteer’s opinions so much that volunteer Betty says to you, “my gosh, have you seen how the records department is so overloaded? I can’t imagine how they get everything done. I try to help these poor, overworked people as much as I can. It’s such a pity they can’t hire more staff. You know, I should get a bunch of volunteers together and march up to the CEO’s office and complain. ”

GVOAT: Greatest volunteer of all times-you know, you have one. And, sigh, you compare every volunteer to the gvoat. (yeah, wish they would all just be polite and earnest and have this twinkle in their eye when they speak…. oops, sorry, just thought about my gvoat for a minute)

bogovol: Buy one, get one vol. Some volunteers travel in pairs; they might join as a pair or they might find each other during orientation. They just like to have a buddy to share in their experiences. The bogovol is great when filling requests for multiple volunteers. Also know as 2fervol.

self-serve volunteering: Volunteering only to enhance a resume, pad a college application, or use the mission to further a goal. You know the ones. Their blinding white smiles and almost superhuman enthusiasm are too good to be true, but hey, you’re not one to judge so you just assume you’ve got a good one, and they arrive the morning of their first assignment, all perfect-looking and they slide a form onto your desk as they plead in their charming way, “can you just fill this out now instead of after I volunteer, it’ll save you time later and well, there’s a deadline to turn this in and I promise I will do everything I said I would do and time got away from me just a bit and besides, I know you don’t want me to miss my deadline, do you?”  Then BAM! No sooner has the ink dried on your signature, they’re out the door before you’ve dropped your promo pen back into your wizard pen holder. Also know as reputation robbers. There’s an old post about this topic here.

volbot: pre-programmed robotic volunteer. Push the microphone icon, tell it what to do and blip, beep, they whir into action. Staff may not say it to your face, but, oh, they all want one. Need I say more?

sVaddling: Babying a volunteer because she is friends with your CEO, or the niece of a board member so you’re stuck and you bend the rules and keep her all wrapped up in layers of protection. You can’t tell other volunteers that the reason you’re insulating her is because she will report you to higher management if her feelings are bruised so you just give her lots of slack. You say things like, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she turns in her paperwork, maybe it’s just hard for her,” and then you call her up and try to make her understand that paperwork is mandatory but she brushes you off and so you fill out the paperwork yourself. When the CEO passes by in the hall and says, “oh, hey my friend Annabelle likes volunteering but wants to know if she can change her day to Saturday, would you be a sport and come in this Saturday, you know, to make her fee welcomed,” you just clench your teeth and nod. Also know as kid glove volunteer.

kudo-slap on the wrist: When wimping out of reprimanding a volunteer by setting a meeting and having all your policies ready and even your documented instances of the volunteer’s infraction of the rules and you’re wearing your best business suit jacket, the one you interviewed for this job in, and then Ba-boom! You’ve got the sandwich principle in your head, the one where you first compliment a person, then talk about their shortcomings, then end on a positive note, but you get started on the compliments and the volunteer is looking at you with those volunteer eyes so you go on about how wonderful they are and how you know their heart is in the right place cause gosh, they said that a new volunteer was dumb but trainable, right? You prattle on for so long while the volunteer’s face glows with the syrup of validation that you can’t bring yourself to actually reprimand them and instead, you hastily type up a commendation certificate which makes you end up in a worse place then when you started. (But the volunteer is happy as heck and proudly shows the certificate to all the other, stunned volunteers)

vacant lot of praise: The throwing out of meaningless phrases like “we love our volunteers” and “we couldn’t operate without our volunteers.” (and when you point out that volunteers would like specific appreciation, you get a vacant stare.)

egocorporate: A group of corporate vols who want to volunteer, but want you to arrange their involvement to benefit only them. Time-frame, task, juicy assignment all need to work for their day of volunteering. And so, you bend and bend and bend and then, on the day of volunteering, the 13 extra volunteers that show up because they were kind of shamed into coming, are standing around, checking social media and Ivan, a client’s family member who agreed to speak to the group about how the mission helped his family, can’t be heard over all the pockets of conversations and there’s not enough shovels to start that “garden of love” and half of the volunteers are in suits and high heels and it’s hot out and there’s not enough water so you run to your office and call a trusted volunteer who agrees to go out and get some water and then the corporate volunteers who are just standing around start leaving because they showed up, right and that’s pretty much all they agreed to and poor Ivan knows that everything he said fell on deaf ears and now you could kick yourself because you just probably lost this awesome speaker for future events and the garden is half dug and you have to clean up and now the water arrived, but everyone is gone, so your trusted volunteer is bummed and you missed your nephew’s birthday for this debacle and your brother is going to be mad, not to mention the “dirt hole of love” needs to be filled in.

Well, there you have it! The committee called and asked me to include a round-up of last year’s words and you can see those words here.

Thank you Committee to Define Volunteer Management. As usual, you did a great job! (wait, that’s a vacant lot of praise, isn’t it? I really should be more specific. Hey, committee, sorry, I meant you clearly have a talent for massacring words.)


National Volunteer Week: Celebrate Service and Take Care


National Volunteer Week Celebrate Service

Happy National Volunteer Week! As you are deep in the midst of celebrating your volunteers’ service, put aside a few moments to reflect on all that you do to forge the path leading volunteers to connect with meaningful, impacting work.

Take a deep breath and as you exhale, let go of all the stress from trying to make sure everything is perfect. Perfection is not the goal.

Understand that your volunteers already know how much you admire, respect and yes, love them; that you don’t have to prove it. It’s the things you do all year that count.

Cherish these moments for they will sustain you when things get rough. They will fill you with the glow of accomplishment throughout your life.

Realize that when others are counting their coins, or their followers or their possessions, you are counting your moments of pure joy. You are living a life that matters.

Revel in the nature of your contributions to our communities. Take a second and look around, for the world is better because you have decided to help it become so.

Inspire yourself with the same words you use to inspire volunteers. Turn each phrase over in your mind and know that it applies to you.

Take care of yourself. You are the greatest tool in your toolbox. Sharpen yourself. Put yourself away at night. Don’t wear yourself out.

Connect with other volunteer managers. Talk to the people who understand. Help one another.

Together, we can grow and strengthen volunteers, volunteer services, and volunteer engagement.

Elevate your position in your own mind. You are a change agent, a pioneer, a difference maker.

Let the small stuff be still for a moment and let the minutia drain away. Do you feel it? That’s the world around you basking in your positive energy.

Take care of yourself. You are needed. Your volunteers need you. Other volunteer managers need you and the world needs you.

Celebrate service and take care.