Sometimes, There Is No Parade


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Sometimes, There is No Parade

Awww, you shouldn’t have.



Not everything volunteer managers do will be visible. Rather, in reality, most of our meaningful work is not about measurable numbers or stats. For this out of view work, there will be no awards, no pay raises and no parades. Yet, when recalling the moments that matter, these are the ones that usually spring into our minds.

Helga was a volunteer who came to America after WWII. She married an American soldier, left her home in Germany to forge a new life in a new country with her new husband. Helga still retained her German accent. She was a tiny woman with a smile that reached up to her eyes, even after her beloved husband had died. I asked her to take a shift on the reception desk.

We were in the process of initiating fingerprinting (Level 2) for our volunteers. It is a cumbersome and tedious process and the digital prints are hard to capture. Until this point, I submitted background checks (Level 1), read each report and challenged every anomaly I found. With Level 2, a central system approved or disapproved our volunteers, taking it out of my hands.

We slowly filtered all of our volunteers, new and existing through the fingerprinting process. And, Helga was rejected. The rationale was that fingerprinting picks up “things” that a level 1 does not. I had to call Helga and tell her. I remember calling her and asking her to come in and talk to me. She knew immediately that it had to do with her fingerprints. She started to cry.

We made an appointment for the next day. I hung up and felt…….. enraged. I wanted to know why this beautiful lady was being rejected, so I found an empty office and began to call the reporting agency, bouncing from person to person. It took the afternoon to get through to someone who could spend a minute to help me. She put me on hold, then came back on the line. “What’s her social security number again?” she asked. I told her. After another long hold, she came back. “Well, it seems it was a computer error. Your person has a clean record.”

I called to tell Helga the good news, but something told me to keep our appointment. She did not answer so I left the message to please come in so I could explain in person what had happened.

Helga came in the next day. I found a secluded spot to talk with her. We sat, knees to knees and I explained to her that it was a computer glitch. She burst into tears, crying deep and long as though a dam had given way. I hugged her. “Are you sure it was a mistake?” She asked.

I wondered if this was about something other than her volunteering. “It was just a mistake, Helga. Do you trust me?” I said. “I would not lie to you.”

She nodded and dabbed at her eyes. “I thought you might,” she said, “think I was a Nazi.”

Suddenly, the present fell away.  I could see her, a young hopeful bride after the war was over, arriving in her new home. I could feel her trying to ignore the suspicions while desperately proving she was a good person. I could imagine that the past did not lie buried.

We cried together for a good, long time. I called her the next day. “Helga, do you still believe me? Do you really, honestly know how much we love you?” At that point, I did not care how much time I had to spend convincing her.

“Yes,” she said in a clear voice that removed my doubt. We did not speak of it again.

That day I learned, for most of the time we spend doing our work, there will be no parade.

But, my heart does not really want parades. It wants to hug Helga.


The 1pinion Effect


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“Our CEO has a next door neighbor who has a son who got into minor trouble,” Marlee, a volunteer manager says. “The neighbor asked our CEO if his son could do community service at her organization. I called the son repeatedly, left messages, but he never returned my calls. Wouldn’t you know it, my manager told me our CEO was annoyed because the neighbor blames me for not connecting with the son. My manager said our CEO made the comment that volunteers never seem to be able to get started here.” Marlee sighed. “I can’t win.”

Ehhhhhhhhhh. How can one opinion or circumstance create a belief? Why didn’t the CEO say, to her neighbor, “that’s certainly not typical of OUR volunteer department.” How could she seemingly frame an entire belief on one opinion?

There is something known as Confirmation Bias, an effect that feeds our assumptions. So maybe, Marlee’s CEO might have simply felt that her neighbor’s son was just one more example of the volunteer department’s failure to properly onboard volunteers because she already believed it to be true.

Where did this belief come from? Did the CEO hear other examples (and it doesn’t matter how accurate they are, it’s the perception) of volunteers not onboarding quickly while not hearing enough success stories? Or maybe it has nothing to do with Marlee. Perhaps the CEO had a poor experience volunteering when in college. Maybe the CEO heard horror stories at networking events and applied those stories to all volunteer departments.  Is that fair? No, and even worse, perceptions are really hard to change.

So what should the strong volunteer leader do when hearing these 1pinion comments?

Don’t get mad or hurt-get curious: What is fueling these opinions? Do some research via surveying the staff or a one on one chat with senior management to find the sources of these perceptions. Say, “I heard something that concerns me. I think there is a perception that I don’t get in touch with new volunteers and I’d like to find out what happened to create that perception.” Then, be prepared to act! Refuting assumptions is one route to take, but there are better ways as in…

Double down on positive reporting: Counter negative perceptions by offering facts supporting positive volunteer department accomplishments. Review your stats to find areas that are lacking. Create new categories of reporting to freshen up the numbers. But, again, this is somewhat akin to refuting, so there is another thing to try…

Create your own performance improvement plan: No one wants to be unfairly criticized, so if there is a perception floating around that volunteers are not being contacted in a timely manner, embrace it on your terms. Let go of the frustration at having been unfairly labeled. A self-imposed performance improvement plan accomplishes two really important things.

One, it says a great deal about you-that you are always willing to improve (and here it’s not about being unfairly labeled, it’s about always striving for excellence).  Say, “If there is a perception that new volunteers are not called back in a timely manner, well it came from somewhere and I’m here to change that. I don’t want one prospective volunteer to slip through the cracks.” This approach shows that you don’t harbor an us (volunteer department) versus them (upper management) attitude, that you are solution-oriented, and that you are proactive and approachable.

Two, it allows you to create a new narrative by moving forward from this point of misconception.  (It’s so much easier to create new impressions, than fix old ones). By acknowledging the old perception, you are not positioning yourself for a fight. You are forging a new, cooperative path, one in which your future statistics will be embraced in a positive light. And you will find your critics becoming supporters along this journey.

We are all prone to confirmation bias. As proactive leaders, we must put aside our personal feelings when hearing negative perceptions, and work to change those perceptions by creating new, positive ones.

Let’s face it. Opinions are not facts. Opinions can be unfair. While we may not be able to control each and every negative opinion, as proactive leaders, we certainly can control what we do about them. And the thing we do best is understand people and their motivations.

When confronted with 1pinions, we can gear up for a pointless fight or we can use our strengths to create new and more positive realities.


Interview With a Volunteer: Ellie Part 2


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Part two of an interview with Ellie, a volunteer for 18 years with a hospice.

VPT: Let’s look at things in retrospect now. What advice do you have for volunteer managers? How can we keep someone like you?

E: I’d say that having someone a volunteer can count on is important.

VPT: In what way?

E: It’s trust. I trusted my supervisor and he trusted me.

VPT: You moved away. But you stopped volunteering before you moved. Was it because you were contemplating the move?

E: (pauses) No.

VPT: What was it then?

E: Things were changing.

VPT: In what way?

E: Well, my supervisor was taking on more and more work. I began to realize that when I needed support or a chance to talk, I may go to his office and he would not be available or at another location.

VPT: That support was important.

E: Well, yes, because I wanted to make sure that I was doing the right thing. I did not want to do anything wrong.

VPT: And so, you saw change happening.

E: Yes.

VPT: Ok, I am asking you to be honest here. As volunteer managers, we’ve all done this. We sometimes share our frustrations at the amount of extra work with our volunteers, although we don’t mean to do that. Did your supervisor start sharing his frustrations with you?

E: No, not at all. See, the type of relationship I had with my volunteer supervisor was so successful. He didn’t have to say a word to me. I instinctively knew that he was overburdened all on my own.

VPT: Do you think it is harder for new volunteers if they don’t forge that deep relationship with their volunteer manager?

E: I don’t know because I can’t compare it to anything I experienced. I would ask though, are volunteers getting what they need? I know I had it pretty good, and by the same token, I wonder if volunteers who don’t receive the same vote of confidence will stay.

VPT: So when did you decide to stop volunteering?

E: I had this patient, Joy, the sweetest lady you’d ever meet. I would go to her house and take her to do her shopping. We had so much fun together, But one day, I went to her house. I was tired, out of sorts I guess and I felt a bit like I didn’t want to go to the store. Joy said to me, Are you all right? Have I done anything to upset you? Well, I assured Joy that she could never upset me and I apologized over and over. I thought long and hard about that moment.

VPT: And that had something to do with your leaving?

E: I knew then, that I was done. How? It was my attitude and reactions that told me. I knew that it was time. I had nothing more to give. And if I can’t give 100%, then I’m not doing any good for the people I’m supposed to be helping.

VPT: How did that make you feel?

E: (sighs) It made me sad, because it had been such a good ride.

VPT: Eighteen years. That’s a long time. Did you feel any guilt over leaving?

E:  No, no guilt because I gave my all while I was there. It was just time.

VPT: How do you look back on it, now?

E: I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It was enlightening, rewarding, and was almost like a second carer.

VPT: What advice would you give to volunteers?

E: You get out what you put in. And, it is crucial to ask if you have questions and to share problems and experiences with your supervisor.

VPT: Any advice for volunteer managers?

E: Yes. Supervisors need to know that volunteers go through what I went through. They need to realize and look for signs that volunteers are going through a period of ineffectiveness and they need to address that. Nurture the volunteers you have.

VPT: Would you go back now that you’ve had some time off?

E: No. That is in the past now.

VPT: Thank you Ellie, for your honesty, your insights and your incredible volunteering.

E: My pleasure.






Interview With A Volunteer: Ellie


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We all know volunteer feedback is invaluable, during and after projects and assignments. There is also value in gathering feedback from former volunteers who have had the time to process their experiences and take aways.

Recently I was able to catch up with a retired volunteer, Ellie, and I asked her to look back on her years of volunteering for a hospice.

VolunteerPlainTalk (VPT): How many years did you volunteer?

Ellie (E): (laughs) “oh about 18.”

VPT: That’s a long time.

E: It was a long time, but it was good.

VPT: What was your favorite part of volunteering?

E: Hmmm, my favorite part. I liked the idea of giving and I always felt that I was receiving so much in return, but I guess you hear that a lot.

VPT: Do you remember the beginning?

E: Yes. I remember my training. At the end of training, the volunteer trainer handed me my first assignment. She told me that she believed I was ready. And she took me over to the window and pointed to the house of the person I was assigned to. She sort of let me know that it wasn’t far away and I would be close to help if I needed it.

VPT: How did that go?

E: I was nervous, but I felt prepared.

VPT: Was your first assignment the impetus that kept you going?

E: Actually, it was my first long-term patient, who came right after. We became incredibly close. Before she passed away, she said that she had added one more daughter to her family. And shortly before she died, she called me in and said that she needed to know that I was going to be ok. The extent of our connection was something I never expected.

VPT: How much of a role did your volunteer manager play in your success?

E: Oh my goodness, so much. The fact that my trainer and my supervisor, Jim trusted me, had faith that I could do this was huge. And, I always felt that if I had a question, he would be there. I remember I was sitting with one patient whose wife had a part-time job. He had a morphine drip and he thought it wasn’t working and he said to me, I don’t understand why this is not working, can you find out? Now, I have no medical knowledge at all, but I immediately got on the phone and my supervisor got me to the right person. That went a long way to building my self-confidence.

VPT: So, having someone to contact was hugely important.

E: Absolutely. I always counted on being able to knock on his door, go in and receive the support I needed.

VPT: You are also a thirty year now retired school teacher. Why did you volunteer at a hospice and not with children?

E: (laughs) I think I needed to do something different. After my husband died so young, I felt like I wanted to do something that was meaningful.

VPT: Did his death influence your decision to volunteer for a hospice?

E: I don’t think so. It was over three years between his death and my decision to volunteer.

VPT: How did you find hospice?

E: I saw this ad, and I knew right then it was a way to fill my life with some meaning.

VPT: So, there was no magic formula for recruiting you?

E: Sorry, no.

VPT: Many people think hospice volunteering is depressing. Were you burdened with sadness?

E: No. It was quite the opposite. It was fulfilling.

VPT: Was there any opportunity for fun?

E: Oh, my yes. I had so much fun with the staff. We let loose all the time. The seriousness of our work was a contrast to the silliness we experienced. I remember the time we made over 100 pumpkin pies for a Thanksgiving dinner in our care center. We laughed the whole time. Having that fun kept us wanting to do more, you know what I mean?

VPT: I do. Was having fun a good use of your volunteer supervisor’s time do you think?

E: Absolutely. Life is full of balances. The balance between serious work and letting off steam goes a long way to bond us together. It strengthened our team.

VPT: I’m pushing here, but I wonder. Have you ever connected your losing your husband, the man you had planned on retiring with, and your work in hospice?

E: Ehh, no. I just know that I had a lot of years to give and it was a way to fill my life with some meaningful work.  But I do remember one year, I signed up to volunteer at a children’s grief camp.  That day, while driving on the way to camp, I thought about all the little kids who were coming. They had all lost someone important in their lives and I had a little meltdown. I missed my husband.

VPT: That must have been tough.

E: I thought about these kids and it occurred to me that I went through this years ago. It brings something home. While I was there, we had a ceremony at night. I was really grieving for my husband. It comes when you least expect it. Sometimes you have an epiphany to a particular circumstance you’ve been through. It was almost like a total realization I had been through a significant loss and I released that.

VPT: I’m at a loss for words.

E: I even had grief counseling after his death. But my meltdown shocked me. I thought I had processed the grief.

VPT: So, in retrospect, did your volunteering have a personal positive impact on you?

E: Oh my, yes.

Next time: Part 2 of this interview. Ellie moved away from her hospice, but she stopped volunteering before she moved. Why?


Happy Volunteer Appreciation Week


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Volunteer Appreciation Week

Happy Volunteer Appreciation Week. It’s one of the most exhilarating and exhausting weeks of work, so please enjoy yet don’t overdo.

Stay hydrated, get plenty of rest and know that your hard work means so much to each and every volunteer. Your dedication and your sincere desire to make all volunteers feel appreciated is volunteer management at its best. Enjoy and have some fun!

Two Upcoming Events


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Where can you learn from the world’s best authorities on volunteer management? At the 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership scheduled for July 26-28, 2017 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Here, experts will share their wisdom and experiences in over 100 breakout sessions during the three day summit. Choosing the sessions to attend will be an incredibly difficult undertaking, given the excellent lineup of foremost authorities in volunteer engagement. Here is a partial list of the presenting superstars:

Susan J. Ellis-Energize Inc., Rob Jackson-Rob Jackson Consulting , Elisa Kosarin- Twenty Hats, Betty Stallings, Barry Altland-Head, Heart And Hands Engagement , Tony Goodrow-Better Impact , Liza Dyer-Liza’s blog, Tobi Johnson-VolunteerPro, Jennifer Bennett-VolunteerMatch , Beth Steinhorn-JFFixler Group  

I am honored to also be presenting a workshop on elevating volunteer management by focusing on creating the building blocks for a volunteer leader’s personal brand. You are after all, the face of your program. I am so exited to be part of this amazing summit. I would love for you to join me if you are attending. The breakout will be interactive, fun and you will leave with concrete tools to utilize in strengthening your leadership. The session particulars are:

Breakout 1-Wednesday, July 26th, from 2:15-3:45pm

Track: Professional Development see track here

From Manager to Leader: Elevating Volunteer Management
Meridian Swift, Author and Blogger |
Join this interactive session that focuses on developing your own personal leadership brand. Explore the six building blocks that define proactive versus reactive volunteer management. Awaken the leader within to advance your program’s standing within your organization through re-imagined thinking.

Hopefully we will see you in Minnesota in July.

The other exciting event is a joint venture between myself and Elisa Kosarin (see above list of superstars) from Twenty Hats. Because we are both passionate about supporting all the great volunteer managers who work tirelessly in our profession, Elisa came up with this wonderful idea for a national retreat to be held in the fall of 2018. I was more than happy to get on board. But wait! A contest is involved! Here are the particulars from Elisa:

On the board of your volunteer managers association or DOVIA? We have a contest for you!

Volunteer Management Pros Meridian Swift of Volunteer Plain Talkand Elisa Kosarin of Twenty Hats are teaming up. They would like to host a weekend-long retreat just for volunteer managers.
This first-ever national retreat would include two days of workshops, conversation, and fun to help you revitalize your professional passion. This is not a conference! Elisa and Meridian are providing the setting and the coaching for you to discover new insights into your path, career, and personal goals.

The event is planned for the fall of 2018 — but they need your help in finding an awesome spot to hold the retreat.

And that’s where the CONTEST comes in:

If you are a Leader of Volunteers who sits on the board of your volunteer manager association, please help find the venue for the 2018 retreat!
The association that finds the winning venue receives the benefit of THREE FREE REGISTRATIONS for this event. In addition, the winning association will receive a special discounted price for any other members who would like to attend.
Is your organization in?  If yes,here are the specs for the retreat venue:
  • Available for two nights, Friday and Saturday
  • Time frame is a weekend in October 2018
  • Large enough to accommodate 30-50 guests
  • Meals provided, or list of catering options provided
  • At least two meeting spaces available
  • Price average $150 per day, if meals provided

If you represent an organization that’s game for this contest, email Elisa at Twenty Hats to enter.

The deadline to identify a venue is May 31.

Email Elisa if you have any questions and happy searching!

Thank you for all you do.


Luncheon and Food for Thought…


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Luncheon and Food for Thought 001

Get your dancing shoes on! This year, volunteer appreciation week in the US is April 23-29. It’s coming up in May for Australia, and June for the UK and New Zealand.

If you have a luncheon planned, you’ve long ago selected the venue and contacted the speakers. You’ve ordered the cute online mini calculators for giveaways. (of course your calculators were shipped late because the vendor mixed up your order with one from the company, “Meals on Wheelies” who is actually a pizza delivery joint in Appleton Wisconsin) You will give up your Friday night tickets for the punk concert, “Zombie Brains Munchfest” and instead, you will sit alone, wrapping the calculators in cute purple tissue paper (which serves nicely to dab your tears) because your friends and family say they are tired of being unpaid labor.

Volunteer appreciation events vacuum up our time and emotional energy like giant tornadoes trailing balloons. Expectations are high. Is the food great? Are the speeches sincere? Will I be able to make each volunteer feel special? But what about the volunteers who are out-of-town or are ill or just can’t come? What about the day after the event? The week? The year? Do the speeches and chocolate fountains last?

I’m not against events. Not at all. I am though, for grabbing any opportunity to improve volunteer engagement. What if we made volunteer week a kickoff, rather than a stand alone event?

Why not use volunteer week as a brightly colored launch to enlist staff support for acknowledging volunteers all year-long? It makes sense to jump on the festive events as a springboard for a volunteer recognition calendar. With our orchestration, ongoing volunteer appreciation can become a learned behavior within organizations.

While the “we heart volunteers” posters are up, the splashy balloons float in the hallways, and the staff is sampling that star shaped cherry cheesecake, it’s time to pounce! As these vibrant visuals draw attention to your volunteers, it’s the perfect time to visit each department and share your recognition calendar for the year.
A sample calendar can look something like this:

The Volunteer Department Yearly Calendar of Volunteer Recognition!
Every first of the month I will pass around birthday cards for the volunteers who are celebrating birthdays. I would appreciate your signature. The cards will then be mailed to the volunteers. These simple but effective cards remind each volunteer that the entire organization appreciates them on their special day. Individual recognition goes a long way towards volunteer retention.

Every third Wednesday of each month I will visit one department to write down testimonials from staff on the incredible impact volunteers have on supporting our mission. These testimonials will be published in our volunteer newsletter which is shared with all volunteers. In addition, the testimonials will serve to recruit prospective volunteers as well. Here is the list of scheduled departments for the next twelve months. Please be thinking about our volunteers and their contributions. Your testimonials serve to reinforce the volunteer support your department deems beneficial. (Bonus: keep all the testimonials for other purposes such as recruitment ads, speeches to groups etc.)

Every quarter I will be videotaping several staff members expressing a simple ‘thank you’ to our volunteers and I will be showing the videos at the beginning of our volunteer meetings. These videos will serve to remind the volunteers that they are important members of our team. (Bonus-you can show all of the videos at next year’s luncheon)

I will remind everyone in an email blast the first of each month. Thank you for participating in our plan to retain our valuable volunteers and to encourage new volunteers. Staff appreciation is a motivating factor in cultivating a supportive team.

Your written plan can include:
A-what and when (the schedule)
B-how (the particulars)
C-why (the benefit to volunteers and organization)                                                                       D-in addition, your reminder schedule

Volunteer recognition is meaningful and fun on event day. We serve up praise along with chicken salad and we may even give awards for volunteer of the year. But awards look backwards. Let’s also look forwards. Let’s develop a plan to set the tone of appreciation for the coming year. Heck, maybe announce that at next year’s luncheon, there will be an additional award for the staff members who excel at engaging and recognizing volunteers.

Now wouldn’t that be something to truly celebrate?

New Words Added to the Volunteer Management Dictionary


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Added to the Volunteer Management Dictionary

It’s that time of year when the Committee to Define Volunteer Management gets together at a back table in Pete’s Bar, Grill and Bait Shop. Together, these brave members scratch their heads over several pints and attempt to come up with a succinct explanation of volunteer management. This year, they gave up once again after rejecting the phrase “herding cats,” but they decided to add the following words to the dictionary of volunteer management.

Volvorce: When a volunteer divorces the organization as in “No, I just can’t go get new volunteer Dinesh, because since no one called him back about getting started after I introduced him to finance, he volvorced us.”

Meetcolepsy: When too many meetings cause you to simply fall into a stupor at the thought of another talk-fest as in “No, I couldn’t make that fourteenth meeting about using the volunteers to stand by the back door in case someone gets confused because I contracted meetcolepsy. Want to see my doctor’s slip?”

Latespectation: A last-minute request for volunteers that is expected to be filled as if you were given weeks to prepare, as in “Oh, so you need 5 volunteers tomorrow morning for an assignment that you said was extremely important? Your latespectation is showing.”

Creditjacking: When another staff member takes credit for a successful endeavor that you or your volunteers accomplished as in “Yes, I’m glad you praised that project during the senior managers’ meeting, but let’s not creditjack the volunteers’ work, ok?”

Duhtistics: Stats that are so incredibly obvious, like volunteers are super nice as in “I won’t bore the board with duhtistics that you’ve heard before. No, instead I want to point out some new and exciting projects we are undertaking.”

AVOL: A volunteer who inexplicably does not return calls, emails or letters as in “I’m glad you noticed volunteer Myrna has been missing lately. I’m trying everything in my power to get in touch with her. Right now she’s AVOL.”

Volunteer Lite: A request for a volunteer to do a menial, mindless task as in, “You’re asking me for one of our highly trained volunteers to clean out the storage closet so you can use it for your supplies? You don’t want a full-bodied volunteer, you want a volunteer lite.”

Miracalls: Calls made to volunteers for an especially challenging or late request as in, “Woah, that’s a really challenging request (or time frame). I’ll be holed up in my office for the rest of the day, making miracalls.”

Informashunned: (pronounced in-for-may-shunned) Not given the essential information needed to properly place a volunteer as in “I have recruited four of our best volunteers for that assignment, but my pleas for crucial information have been ignored. Right now, our volunteers are informashunned.”

Nopinion: Volunteers wanted, but not their opinions as in, “I’m glad you were able to use volunteer Mark’s expertise, but he felt rebuffed when he offered additional knowledge. I guess you really want an expert but nopinion volunteer.” 

Vombie: That volunteer everyone is afraid of and no one wants to council or fire, as in, “I know Janey is a handful and she’s been here for what, twenty years now. I guess she’s been allowed to attain Vombie status and now that I’m here, I will deal with it in a professional manner.”

Callwaiter: The notion that volunteers sit by the phone just waiting to hear from us as in, “It is Friday afternoon and most of our volunteers have already made plans for tomorrow. I’ll make some miracalls, but our vibrant and diverse volunteers aren’t callwaiters.”

Marathonitor: The running around, checking, double-checking and rechecking to ensure that volunteers have all the information and tools they need to succeed as in “Our fifteen volunteers are ready for Saturday’s important annual event, but in order for them to excel, I will be marathonitoring their involvement, so I won’t be attending any meetings tomorrow or making miracalls to fill latespectation requests.”

Well, there you have it. As one of the senior members of the Committee to Define Volunteer Management said after several glasses of Pinot Grigio, “Dang, defining volunteer management is really impifficult.”


Volunteering is All About Helping, Isn’t It?


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Volunteering is About Helping, Isn't It

Let’s hope for the best

“No good deed goes unpunished.”   … Oscar Wilde

“I couldn’t stop, not after I’d been with her for so long.” Volunteer Jill spoke of her decision to keep seeing the client assigned by her volunteer manager, even though the client was no longer on the program. “Aren’t we supposed to be helpful? I mean, I have a strong connection with her and her family. I can’t just pull the plug.”

“I didn’t see the harm,” said Miranda, Jill’s volunteer coordinator. “I felt it would be cruel to keep Jill from continuing this great connection. But then, my CEO summoned me the day this former client called in to complain. It seems that Jill gave the client some advice and the client thought she was back on our program.”

What do we do with volunteers who want to stay with clients after the client no longer is receiving our services? If we’ve made a meaningful match between volunteer and client, then we understand how hard it is for the volunteer to pull back. Severing the relationship seems cruel. Besides, don’t volunteers have free will?

Although this situation appears muddy, it really is crystal clear: The relationship forged with the client belongs solely to the organization. Staff, contractors, and volunteers all participate in the organization’s relationship with a client. None of us would have created a connection with this client on our own, therefore we do not have a personal relationship. When the organization severs that relationship, we are done.

It is one of those tricky realms where clear boundaries, policies and documentation is crucial. If you no longer provide support for the volunteer’s efforts because the client is not in your care, the volunteer is then free to establish their own boundaries and set their own limitations.

Here’s the question: Should a mishap occur, will the family have a clear understanding that the volunteer is not representing your organization?  That lack of understanding can become a liability nightmare.

What steps do we need to take when a volunteer feels they must continue to help a former client or family member?

  • Include organizational ties vs. personal ties during orientation, induction and training. Make sure each and every volunteer is aware that they are part of a team, and not individually forming relationships with your clients.
  • Have a clear policy already on paper. The strictest policy would be to fire the volunteer. Or, you may place the volunteer on a temporary leave. Or you might place the volunteer on suspension. Or, you could trust the volunteer to act in a professional manner and monitor their behavior. The point is, have a policy to follow.
  • Communicate with everyone involved. Communicate your policies and boundaries with your volunteer.
  • Speak to the former client. Explain that your volunteer is continuing to be involved as a private citizen, but this means your organization does not support or back the volunteer’s actions.
  • Explain to staff. Be up front, tell appropriate managers and staff and show them the steps you have taken to ensure no harm will befall the organization, client or volunteer.
  •  Document every step of this process. Draft a letter to the client outlining the conversation you had with them and keep a copy in the volunteer’s file. Have the volunteer sign a statement absolving you of all responsibility concerning their actions.

Connecting volunteers with clients is one of the most satisfying outcomes of our profession. Witnessing a bond formed between volunteer and client is immensely gratifying. Having to cut those ties can be frustrating and painful.

But we have to remember that not all aspects of our jobs will be easy. At times, we must do the hard things, the necessary things in order to maintain a professional program.

Leadership means developing the strength to confront and manage the harder parts of engaging volunteers. And elevating volunteer management means becoming a strong leader.


Induction vs. Orientation: The one year volunteer committment


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Induction vs. Orientation

Two volunteer managers, Jessup and Chloe were both excited when the brought in new volunteers.

Jessup, who manages volunteers for a start-up, said, “I was asked to find volunteers to help with our kick off campaign. I brought in a trio of talented volunteers and one of our marketers patiently showed them what needed to be done. The volunteers did exceptionally well, but they didn’t stay with us very long. I had to recruit again and again.”

Chloe, meanwhile, who manages volunteers at a different start-up said, “I recruited a few volunteers to help with our kick-off. I was a bit worried because the volunteers were from varied backgrounds and had really different talents. But, you know, although it took them a bit to get going, all the staff here helped out. Those volunteers are still with us today.”

Volunteer retention is a nuanced and complicated concept. Some parts of it can be controlled and some cannot. But one thing we can control is induction and orientation. Why does a seemingly perfect volunteer become disinterested? Why does another volunteer fit in like a glove? How do volunteers gel with the mission?

Let’s look at induction and orientation: Can we get away with offering one and not the other?

Induction is the formal process in which to introduce a volunteer to their job. (the mechanics)

Orientation is the integration of the volunteer into the organization. (the gel)

Jessup’s organization lost volunteers because they did not orient them. Chloe’s on the other hand, used both induction and orientation.

As volunteer managers, we need to use both induction and orientation to retain great volunteers. And, our entire organizations must be involved. Here is an example:


  1. Volunteer manager shows volunteer where break room is, supplies are kept, what the policies are, etc.
  2. Staff member who best knows the job shows volunteer how to do the work, where bathroom nearest station is located, etc.


  1. Volunteer manager welcomes, presents organizational goals, history etc.
  2. CEO welcomes volunteers to organization, emphasizes contributions from volunteers.
  3. A seasoned volunteer is paired with newbie to mentor and encourage.
  4. Staff introduces themselves to volunteer, thanks, offers assistance, assures volunteer they are appreciated and part of team.

Both induction and orientation are vital to engaging volunteers. If we make them feel a part of the team, but do not give them the knowledge and equipment to do their jobs, they will leave. If we give them all the training in the world, but do not integrate them into our mission, they will also leave.

And here’s the thing. Most of us toy with the idea of having a volunteer sign a one year commitment. But maybe that’s just backwards. What we might do instead is ask our entire organization to sign a commitment for each and every volunteer. This commitment would look something like this:

I, the undersigned, ___________________________ commits to do my part in  orienting, inducting and engaging each and every new volunteer for as long as that volunteer is ethically representing our organization and mission.

Ask the CEO to require each staff member to sign this commitment. And maybe if you are feeling a bit ambitious, you can point out that volunteer engagement should be part of each employee’s yearly evaluation.

Woah, be still my heart.