8 Ways to a Good Volunteer Manager Poker Face


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Yes, it’s true. We, volunteer managers cannot maintain a neutral expression when we hear a staff member tell a volunteer, “thanks for offering to help sweetie, but this is complicated.”

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’d catch someone watching my face during a meeting when a manager would be speaking and I’d be thinking, “yeah, our volunteer Andre told me you call volunteers ‘window dressing’.”

People would say to me, “ha, you have no poker face,” to which I’d scrunch up my nose and very cleverly respond, “oh yeah?” But they were right. I mean, how can we, volunteer managers actually keep a poker face when all those thoughts are rattling around inside our heads like “WHAT THE HECK IS A PARADIGM SHIFT ANYWAY?”

So, before you can’t stop yourself from busting out laughing when your supervisor says, “I think the volunteers will love our luncheon theme this year: Volunteers are the sprinkles atop our cupcake of caring,” here are my top volunteer manager poker face ideas:

Botox: Personally, I can’t afford Botox so I just slather my face with egg whites (please note-some skin cannot tolerate egg whites, so be careful and I always use organic eggs because I figure my face is organic). You are supposed to wash the egg whites off, but heck, I just leave them on because my face is then frozen into this super shiny mask which is great because it also scares people away and then, well, problem solved.

Argue that it’s opposite day: This one is sooooo easy it’s almost criminal. Anytime you feel yourself giving the “stink eye” to the person who just suggested that “we can enlist volunteers to do the cleanup,” just break into a smile and claim, “it’s opposite day, right? Didn’t you get that memo?”

Look around at the confused faces and say, “so you really meant that staff should do the cleanup, am I right?” (the only problem here is, every time you laugh at something that day, you’ll have to start crying. You’ll probably be forced to see one of the counselors, but that’s when you throw the receptionist under the bus and say that she was the one who told you it was opposite day or maybe she said optimist, who knows).

Enroll in a drama class or at least pretend to: Walk around spouting monologues with exaggerated expressions and claim you are practicing for an upcoming audition at your local community theater’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. (Bonus points if you proclaim, “I’m not just interested in performing, I want to recruit volunteers while I’m there, because well, method actors make great volunteers, don’t you agree?”) When you are caught rolling your eyes in the next meeting, say, “wow that made me think of Blanche Dubois when Stanley yells S-t-e-l-l-a!”

Create a mantra in your head: If you can silently repeat a mantra over and over, it settles the muscles in your face. You look glassy-eyed and creepy (especially if you have egg whites on your face), but hey, at least you’re not scowling. My mantra was always, “don’t take yourself too seriously, cause they don’t, don’t take yourself too seriously, cause they don’t.” Point to your third eye and announce, “I may look like I don’t see you, but I do.”

Fake choking: When you feel your eyebrows rising, start to cough and then fake like you just swallowed your own spit. Bend over and get your face out of view. Someone may try the Heimlich maneuver on you, but a few bruised ribs are a small price to pay (I used to just tape my ribs up and the bonus here was I didn’t have to wear my Spanx shapers those days). Yell, “ow, ow, you’re hurting me,” so that your expression looks like you are in pain and then demand some personal leave time to recover.

Breathe in and pretend there’s a putrid smell: When you notice that tick in your eyelid pulsating, wrinkle up your nose and whip your head back and forth, saying, “do you smell that? Ewwwwww.” (Bonus here is if the person who just said to you, “hey your volunteer was late today,” thinks they are the one who smells, so look directly at them and hold your nose).

Wear headphones: Yes, I know that you are not supposed to wear headphones all the time, but I’d wear one ear bud and let the other dangle down. I’d put little penguin charms on the dangling earbud so it looked like a necklace. Then, when you make that tsk tsk face, burst into laughter and claim you were just listening to a motivational speech (Bonus here is when you then add, “I laughed at the absurdity of the speech, because I realized, working here needs no motivation!” Then rip the remaining ear bud from your ear and don’t forget to pick up all the penguin charms that probably flew off the other earbud and hit a few people).

Do face yoga or face exercises while in meetings: Tell everyone that you are doing facial exercises to improve the muscle tone in your face. It doesn’t hurt if you add that it’s a proven method to lose weight or you can just say that you are entering the Non-Profit Facial Olympics in 2020 and your event is holding a laser pointer between your upper lip and nose while explaining a PowerPoint graph. Be sure to add some grunts or whooshes with your exercises to give it plausibility, sort of like Maria Sharapova when she hits a forehand.

Well, there you have it. Worry no more about your lack of poker face, because any one of these methods should keep you out of trouble. You might get labeled as off your rocker, but hey, at least you’re not negative which we all know is the worst label ever you can have in a non-profit.

So, my friends, don’t get caught being negative. Just be quirky.

You are so welcome.






When a Volunteer is “Ok,” But Not Ok


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person showing fingers

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

I have this friend who prides herself on “being ok” with adjusting to whatever the situation presents. However, at the same time, she makes side comments about having to adapt or being uncomfortable. So, I’m confused. Is she ok or is she not?

It makes me think of certain volunteers I’ve known who do the same thing. “Oh, that’s fine,” they’ll say or “no problem,” when in fact, it isn’t fine and it is a problem. And here’s the thing with these confusing messages. The people who tell you they’re ok when they’re really not believe that they are making it easier on you, when in fact, they are making it way harder, because here you are, spending mental and emotional energy trying to figure out what they need through the cryptic verbal and body language clues they give.

When you ask them to be honest, they brush it off, saying, “it’s no big deal.” But you know better. So, what can we do with these volunteers? Banish them from our programs? Continue to play a part in their game of emotional hide and seek?

For what it’s worth, I’ve developed a few methods over the years when dealing with the “I’m ok, but really I’m not” messaging. They are:

Be direct by addressing the verbal or body language clues: Say to your volunteer, “I appreciate you telling me that you are fine with the change in assignment, but I’m sensing from your comments (or body language or tone) that you’re not fine and that’s ok. I want to make sure we address your concerns because you are vitally important to us and you play a huge part in how we achieve our goal.”

Lay out your ability to spot clues up front: Tell volunteers in training or meetings that it is your job to observe them. Make it funny if you like, but get the point across that you (maybe you say it’s a curse) can spot bulls#$@ a mile away from years of working with people.  You can make it fun by calling it your fib o’meter or something similar. Tell them you will call them out and then jokingly yell, “The fib o’meter says you are not ok!” Everyone will laugh, but the point is made.

Then add the serious element. Let volunteers know that it is your job to make sure they are giving their time free of annoyances, because their experiences should enhance their lives, not complicate them. And, volunteering by grudging acquiescence doesn’t help anyone, themselves included.

Check up on them: Ask questions. Ask clients, other volunteers and staff. Checking in to see how volunteers are faring is part of our job. If you hear that “volunteer Jules is complaining all the time,” then by all means, address it. Job satisfaction is a key component to not only volunteer sustainability, but also key to bringing a volunteer’s best work which is what we want our clients to have.

Enlist staff: Enlighten them on the effects of changing volunteer assignments or time-frames or requirements. Let them know that changing or canceling an assignment at the last moment creates volunteer acquiescence which leads to volunteer fatigue which leads to volunteer burnout.

Make it clear that this behavior is unproductive: If you’ve had multiple conversations and the behavior is affecting job performance, then you have to weigh whether this volunteer is irreplaceable and whether you have to accept any and all behaviors. But also look at the ripple effect. How does this behavior affect other volunteers? What message does the acceptance of negative behavior send to your team?

I vividly remember this one volunteer when I managed a thrift store. Our team was pretty happy most of the time and this new volunteer came in and complained continuously to the other volunteers but told me that “everything was fine.” The team’s mood shifted.

One day, I just couldn’t take any more “I’m fine” talk. It wasn’t so much that this volunteer annoyed me, it was the fact that she was destroying the volunteer team’s productive balance. So, I took her aside and pointedly asked, “are you happy here?”

To my surprise, she hesitated and then said, “not really,” and told me she thought the store was poorly run and the other volunteers were incompetent. I said, “then I don’t think you should be in a place that makes you this unhappy.” I didn’t fire her; I gave her my opinion that she should take the steps to quit and she did. On the spot.

From simply being accomodating to acquiescence to out-and-out hiding displeasure, there are many levels of volunteer flexibility. It falls upon us to determine when flexibility turns into grudging compliance and burnout. The more (with kindness) direct we are with volunteers, the closer we get to their motivations and true satisfaction.

And ultimately by investigating the emotions behind the words, we acheive that intersection between volunteer sustainability and mission transformative work. It’s the place where volunteers give of their time and talents freely, a place where volunteers get back the intangible rewards that fill them with joy and a place where the volunteers’ contributions have a profound effect.

It’s a magical place where everyone wins.






Volunteer Management Chess


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black and white chess pieces on chess board

Photo by Charlie Solorzano on Pexels.com

Do you ever dream you’re playing a game of chess and your volunteers are (wait, you were going to say the pawns, weren’t you-I see where you’re going with this) the pieces? You murmur, “still think our volunteers are sweet,” as you dream you’re capturing the king with your mighty diverse volunteers.

Maybe some volunteers are the knights and others are the bishops and the office volunteers are the rooks. Do you ever lie awake at night and plot your next move? I’m guessing probably not, but let’s ask this question. Should strategy play a part in managing a volunteer initiative?

Well, only if you have a vision for your volunteers. And I’ll bet you do.

We all say things like, “I wish people understood how important volunteers are,” or “I want staff to recognize volunteers on a par with donors,” or “I wish volunteers were treated with more respect and given more meaningful roles.” Aha, you know what? There’s a vision lurking in each of those statements.

Strategy is comprised of the calculated moves that bring you closer to your vision.  When we, volunteer managers have unfulfilled visions, we can end up running around in chaos wondering why things are the way they are. Visions are what we strive to accomplish. Strategies focus on how we get there.

Imagine your vision coming true. The first step in seeing your vision materialize is to formulate a strategy. Picture yourself as this genius chess player who skillfully moves each piece with an end game in mind. Each move brings you closer to capturing that elusive goal.

Let’s say your vision is for your organization to utilize volunteer skills in better ways. A tech firm has contacted you and offered pro-bono services. Your organization is hesitant to let these folks into the inner sanctum (they are outsiders) (see Resting on Nonprofit Laurels) so your immediate supervisor says, “Let them do some data entry in finance.”

“No,” your thoughts race in your mind. “Here’s an opportunity to engage some volunteers who bring expert help. Have you actually looked at our website lately?”

Now you could simply offer the tech firm the data entry, knowing that they are capable of doing so much more or you can see them as important pieces in your strategy. What concrete and measurable tactics can I employ with this tech firm to show my organization that engaging volunteer skills is beneficial?

So, you move your pawn and ask them to do minimal data entry to get them in. But then, you move the knight by devising a way to show the benefits this tech firm brings. You ask the firm to do a social media analysis for you. They work up a sample social media campaign that would benefit your organization.

You move your bishop by testing the social media campaign on your volunteers and their friends who overwhelmingly give it positive feedback. You move your rook by reporting to senior management that data entry is going well and the firm is helping reduce the amount of late data by 30%.

And then it’s time to move the queen. You tell senior management that the tech firm is honored to be working with your organization and would love to help further. That’s when you present the compelling statistics on the sample campaign and explain the small to large steps the tech firm is willing to do.

Pawns are the simpler things we sacrifice (like agreeing to ask corporate volunteers to do data entry in the above example) in order to move your vision forward. Your real power lies in strategizing your other, more powerful pieces such as impact reports, feedback, influences and outcomes.

When you create a vision and focus on a strategy, your tactics will fall into place. How do I get to where I want to be? It’s important that we have visions for our volunteer initiatives because it makes us work hard towards elevating our volunteers instead of just working hard.

Strategy has an important place in our profession. The next time you wish something would change, envision it changing. Then focus on creating a strategy to capture it with carefully calculated moves.











Why Have Volunteer Department Goals, Objectives and Actions?


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business charts commerce computer

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week, we touched on how setting specific volunteer department goals can help us gain more control of our volunteer programs. The key here is to control the path to achieving the goals.  This path consists of two subsets: Objectives and Volunteer Actions.

No one knows how to effectively engage volunteers more than the volunteer manager (VM). Every VM knows what motivates their volunteers and understands their volunteers’ capabilities. Volunteer Managers also mentally catalog their volunteers’ diverse skill sets and look for ways to unleash volunteers’ potential. This extensive volunteer knowledge is why a VM is so much more innovative in creating the actions (tasks) that fulfill the objectives that meet program goals (an area we will explore next time under strategy).

So, let’s imagine a very simplistic scenario. You are the VM at a crisis shelter. One of your volunteer department goals (and unique goals can be set for each area your volunteers are involved in) is to alleviate weekend staff’s workload.

The first step is to interview weekend staff and ask questions such as:

  • What do you spend most of your time on?
  • What do you wish you could spend less time doing?
  • What do you wish you had more time to do?
  • What duties are you comfortable with turning over to someone else?
  • What qualities would be most helpful for any volunteer who comes in to assist you?
  • What do you believe volunteers are capable of doing well?

By canvassing the staff that will be working with your volunteers, you not only will discover exactly what it is they need to reduce their workload, you will ensure their buy-in from the start. Because their input is the basis for creating your volunteer objectives, staff will be more receptive to the volunteer actions you initiate.

So let’s imagine that by canvassing staff, you learn:

  • Staff is continuously interrupted by phone calls and can’t spend quality time addressing shelter residents’ needs.
  • Staff is not comfortable with volunteers who have not had extensive training working with shelter residents, especially the residents who are new to the shelter.
  • Staff is very attached to the residents and, as a result, are reluctant to let outsiders (volunteers) in.

Now it’s time to set your objective and create actions. And what is the difference between goals, objectives and actions?

A goal is the destination whereas the objective is the path to get there. Actions are the steps along the path. While goals are broad, objectives are measurable. Actions are the concrete steps to get to the objective.

So, you have a goal: Decrease weekend staff workload. Now you need a measurable objective.

Because you have surveyed staff upfront, you take their comments into consideration when determining the objective. Instead of recruiting volunteers in a generic way (to help however staff directs them) you specifically recruit volunteers to man the phones so that staff can spend their time tending to resident needs.

So, let’s say, your measurable objective becomes: Decrease staff’s time spent answering phones by 20% so they can spend more time with shelter residents.

So now we have a goal and an objective:

Goal: Alleviate weekend staff workload.

Objective: Decrease staff time spent on phones by 20% (which BTW, also increases time spent with residents by 20%).

Once your objective is set, you create the volunteer actions.

Actions: Answer phones so staff can spend time tending to shelter resident needs. You now recruit both new and existing volunteers to answer phones at the shelter 20% of weekend time.

When we enlist volunteers “to help” departments, it is difficult to measure the volunteer impact under broad terms. What does help mean? File? Run errands? Answer phones? Data entry? Cleaning the desk?

When we break goals down into objectives (outcome by a measurable unit such as percentage) and create specific actions (file, answer phones, sit with clients) then we can quantify impact. A simple example of impact is:

This month, volunteers spent 20 hours on data entry which allowed staff 20 more hours in analyzing reports. Volunteers increased staff’s ability to analyze reports by 12.5%.

Quantifying impact is just a mathematical way to show results or outcomes or success. Measurable outcomes create easily understood and digestible visuals. The more we can show impact, the more we can steer our programs.

This doesn’t mean that every objective and series of volunteer actions don’t take into consideration what volunteers need and want. Instead, it means you are being very strategic in setting an atmosphere to get what you want. And strategy is essential to volunteer program success.

Next time: Everything is strategic.





Do Volunteer Managers Implement or Manage Volunteer Programs?


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Do Volunteer Managers Manage or Implement Volunteer Programs

“I am a volunteer program manager,” I’ve said countless times to confused faces at networking events.

“Oh, that’s nice,” The person who just asked me what I do for a living would mutter and then turn to find someone who has a job that is understandable and doesn’t take a lot of martini sipping time to comprehend.

What does the job title “volunteer manager” mean, anyway? What do I manage? Is it people as in, you know, get people to do things? Or is it work, like filling the tasks that need to be done? What exactly am I in charge of?

There is a huge difference between managing a program and implementing a program. This is just semantics, I know, but in semantics we find perception, so please, just stick with me a moment, ok?

Most volunteer managers implement their volunteer programs. The word implement means “carry out” which implies the volunteer manager fulfills the directives from non-profit boards and senior administration who determine how volunteers can be helpful.

This creates a contradiction: Although most volunteer managers are encouraged to think in strategic ways, they are primarily expected to fulfill requests from key staff or departments which leaves little time for vision or innovative engagement. And strategic innovation is the basis for leading a program to full potential.

Let’s examine how volunteer management normally fits under organizational missions. Words such as “enhance,” “expand programs,” “enrich experiences,” and “enable increased staff output” define the volunteers’ participation. But vague idealism is like telling your child to “just go out and be good.” Should they wear clean underwear or be polite to the next door neighbor or stop trading their lunch for six candy bars? What is being good?

Non-specific phrases are so broad they become meaningless. And meaningless phrases lead to implementing a volunteer program versus managing it.

Being governed by broad phrases creates this gigantic task soup. Anything and everything can be thrown in, including the kitchen sink (think “hey, we have less staff now, let’s get the volunteers to run errands.”). But does this soup actually taste good? Is it a defined recipe for success or is it a chaotic mess?

This is why we, volunteer managers need to step in and take some control. We can’t (and hopefully don’t want to) alter the mission, so how can we get away from broad concepts and control implementing managing the volunteer portion? The answer is actually found by breaking the mission down into its subordinate parts: Goals and Objectives. The break down looks something like this:

Mission statements are lofty and broad. For example, “To eliminate human suffering due to unsanitary conditions.”

Goals are what we are aiming to achieve. For example, “To reduce the number of people who have no clean water.”

Objectives are the steps to realizing goals. For example, “To raise funds to purchase 100 installed water filters by end of year.”

As we break our missions down into tangible goals, we can then begin to craft concrete objectives that we have control over. Setting goals with organizational administration will give you the flexibility to create the objective steps that will fulfill those goals.

Invite senior administration and/or your board to meet with you in a planning session. Ask for specific volunteer department goals for the year. For example, if, under your mission statement your volunteers “enrich clients’ lives,” ask for a defined goal to achieve that lofty ideal by defining what that will look like.

Let’s say that by end of planning session, the goal becomes, “by end of year, 20 clients will experience less stress through volunteer involvement.” Bingo! That’s a measurable outcome that you can own and control through your creative objectives.

And, by owning the objectives, we control the volunteer actions that accomplish the objectives that meet the goals that support the mission.

Next time: Goals, Objectives, Actions in a yummy whole-grain wrap called Strategies.








Experts Among Us: An Interview with Katherine Arnup, Author, Volunteer Part 2


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Experts with skills and talents to share are everywhere, including the many experts within our volunteer programs. Last week, in our first part of this interview, Katherine Arnup, author of the new book, “I don’t have time for this,” shared her story in both caring for loved ones and volunteering at her local hospice.

In part 2, Katherine gives us insight into how we can encourage the experts among us.

VPT: How can organizations recognize volunteer contributions?

K: I think volunteer contributions are not easily measured. Organizations can miss out on all the things volunteers contribute by not recognizing the whole person and what they bring. I used to speak to other hospice volunteer appreciation meetings. I would have volunteers come up to me afterwards and say, “thank you so much for understanding what we do and thank you for validating us and our work.” The volunteers were so grateful to be fully heard and understood beyond receiving lip service or a pin for hours volunteered.

VPT: How can volunteers help other volunteers?

K: I taught new volunteers in the training course. They learned from my experiences and I wasn’t afraid to share mistakes with them. I made fun of myself and was known as the volunteer who couldn’t make poached eggs. (laughing) This comes from a story I would tell about my failed attempts at poaching eggs for patients. I would actually try and convince the patients to order scrambled eggs, but the story made an impression in training because volunteers would say to me, “oh you’re the one who can’t poach an egg.”

I would talk about how at first I would get mad at myself for making mistakes, but then I learned that we are not perfect and I wanted volunteers to know that, so I shared my mistakes with them.

VPT: How can organizations support volunteers who have talents to share?

K: I think it’s important that organizations not be afraid to celebrate what volunteers are doing. For example, the hospice where I volunteer recently started including volunteer stories in their newsletter. But I think there’s this common perception that by recognizing particular volunteers, others may feel left out.  I don’t think that’s the case.

A long time ago, I spoke at a staff meeting where I told them the story of why I volunteered. Afterwards, one of the staff came up to me and said, “I had no idea why you were here until you told us.” Volunteers should be encouraged to share their stories at both staff and board meetings.

Every volunteer has a story to share. We should be posting these stories and celebrating the whole person. What organizations need to realize is volunteers are out there talking up the mission. Instead of merely issuing statements like, “we couldn’t do what we do without volunteers,” staff need to realize that volunteers are spreading the word about the organization and that reflects positively on staff.

When I taught the first year seminar, “Contemporary Controversies in Canadian Society,” I was working full time as a professor and volunteering four hours a week at the hospice. I included a segment in the seminar on disability, aging, death and dying, something the first year students were initially uncomfortable with. They didn’t know how to talk about death and dying, although most all of them had suffered some sort of a loss. Although they did not want to talk about it, they shared their experiences and afterwards they told me it wasn’t so bad.

When I tell people that I volunteer at a hospice center, they usually say to me, “this must be a very good place, because here you are, working full time with a family and yet you make time to volunteer.”

VPT: That’s a very powerful message.

K: Volunteers are ambassadors for their organizations, at work, at school, wherever they are. Organizations should realize that fact and celebrate their volunteers.

VPT: Thank you Katherine, for your wonderful book, your expertise and for sharing your insights with us.

Every organization with a volunteer component has experts, passionate people, dedicated advocates and potential game changers in their midst. As Katherine said, recognizing volunteers does not diminish the enormous contributions staff make. On the contrary as she points out, volunteers who talk up the mission, spread the word and contribute to achieving goals reflects on staff and the organization as a whole in positive ways.

We have to move our organizations into embracing volunteers and volunteer contributions as reflections on the importance of the mission and the work being done to achieve goals, no matter who is doing the contributing. As Katherine pointed out, we must get to know volunteers as whole people, a practice that just might lead to amazing outcomes.

For every volunteer who contributes in profound ways such as Katherine has, how many volunteers with potential languish because they are “just volunteers?”

Or maybe the better question is, “how much more quickly and efficiently can organizations solve societal challenges if they embrace everyone (volunteers included) who passionately wants to see them succeed and are willing to work hard to further mission goals?


Katherine’s bio:

Katherine Arnup is a writer, life coach, speaker, hospice volunteer, ukulele player, and retired university professor. She writes about matters of life and death on her blog at https://hospicevolunteering.wordpress.com/.  Her book about caring for her sister and her parents as they were dying – “I don’t have time for this!” A Compassionate Guide to Caring for Your Parents and Yourself – is available online at Amazon and Chapters and at independent bookstores in Ottawa. http://katherinearnup.com/


Experts Among Us: An Interview with Katherine Arnup, Author, Volunteer


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Part One of Two:

Recently, I was fortunate to catch up with Katherine Arnup, author of the new book, “I don’t have time for this,” a practical, yet emotionally supportive book that guides caregivers through the difficult process of caring for aging parents.   Katherine’s amazing book is available here: “I don’t have time for this,” by Katherine Arnup.

Katherine is an example of the highly talented volunteers who contribute to their organizations far beyond the hours recorded. These volunteers ambitiously advocate for their chosen organizations and work behind the scenes to create awareness.

For years, Katherine has been a strong voice advocating for terminally ill people and their caregivers.

In this two-part post, we have the opportunity to learn from Katherine’s story, one which formed her dedication to spreading awareness of the hospice mission. Like Katherine, mission experienced volunteers give our organizations the opportunity to gather important feedback about how programs are working and determine future direction.

VPT (volunteerplaintalk): Thank you for speaking with us, Katherine. Your book is inspired; full of practical wisdom, but tempered with the emotions that come along with care-giving. What prompted you to write this book?

K (Katherine): I have always been a writer. My sister had been sick with cancer for many years. When it progressed to the final stage and was obviously fast-moving, I was on sabbatical from work at the time. It was then that I committed to making the 4 hour trip to Toronto every week to care for her.

The experience was transformative for me. I had always been frightened by death ever since I was little and now that I was confronted by the impending death of my sister, I couldn’t be frightened any longer, so I pushed through. I literally sat with my fears. At one point my sister said to me, “you’re going to be an expert at this by the time you’re done with me!”

And I said to her, “Maybe, but I don’t want to learn it from you.”

It was inevitable that I write this book. I had learned so much. I’d written small pieces during her illness. Four years after her death, in 2001, I started volunteering at my local hospice in an 8 bed care facility. That same year, I began to write about my experiences. I suppose you could say it was cathartic. I had all these stories in me.

Then, in 2003, my father, who was 92 at the time, became ill. My father, a retired judge had never met an obstacle he couldn’t overcome in his life, until that year. Getting sick was the one thing he couldn’t overcome. He tried though and did well, but eventually he did die. Once again, I would travel the 4 hours to Toronto to see him.

VPT: How was that experience?

K: I learned different things from him while he was dying. I learned he needed company even if it was only to watch golf or curling on TV with him. I learned how to just sit and be with him. My father was a slow speaker so that gave me the opportunity to write while I sat with him. In contrast to my sister whose disease moved rapidly, his came in increments which gave me more time to be with him, and to process and write.

Shortly after my father died, my mother got sick and I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I thought, “oh my God, not again.” Once again, her death was a different journey. My mother had an aneurysm many years before and had been disabled for years before she got cancer. I wrote about my mother in a piece I titled, “Not My Mother,” because the aneurysm had honestly already stolen my mother from me.

I continued to write and I created a blog, “Hospice Volunteering”  in 2011. And I’ve been writing there ever since. I cover the gamut of topics from what we do as hospice volunteers to how to be with the dying. I’ve included book reviews, reports on visits I’ve made to hospices throughout my province and conversations with other volunteers.

VPT: Did you tell your hospice about your blog, which by the way, I highly recommend reading?

K: I did. I encouraged them to share it with the other volunteers. Other hospices heard about it and did share with their volunteers, especially when I wrote about issues important to volunteering. I knew my experiences would help new volunteers in their work with hospice patients. For example, conversations with patients will change on a week to week basis. I wanted new volunteers to know that you have to let go of expectations and be fully present with the patient as they are in any given moment.

VPT: How do you think your book furthers the hospice mission?

K: (pauses). The hospice mission supports people to live as fully as they can even as they are dying. It’s about staff and volunteers supporting people and their families. It’s about not just caring for a person and their illness, it’s about caring for a person’s whole world. We call it a “circle of caring.”

I would say to other volunteers and even administrators, slow down and remember the moments of joy. We are all so busy checking off the items on our “to do” lists that we miss the opportunity to feel joy. We need to find ways to support one another.

VPT: Next time, part 2 of our interview. Katherine and I talk about the ways organizations can support volunteers who bring expertise and we discuss how embracing talented volunteers lift up everyone.


Katherine’s bio:

Katherine Arnup is a writer, life coach, speaker, hospice volunteer, ukulele player, and retired university professor. She writes about matters of life and death on her blog at https://hospicevolunteering.wordpress.com/.  Her book about caring for her sister and her parents as they were dying – “I don’t have time for this!” A Compassionate Guide to Caring for Your Parents and Yourself – is available online at Amazon and Chapters and at independent bookstores in Ottawa. http://katherinearnup.com/

The Universe is Listening


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the universe is listening

Confession time: I’m not proud of the fact that I used to inwardly giggle at all the staff who embraced aromatherapy, Reiki, mysticism, healing touch, energy transference and psychic connections.  I’d mutter under my breath about “woo woo” stuff while flippantly asking, “hey is that lavender I smell, what should I be feeling, ha ha,” because frankly, I was ignorant and a jerk.

But then, the coincidences started piling up. I especially began to notice “out of nowhere” help with seemingly impossible volunteer requests. I’d get this urgent, off the wall request for something like, “send a volunteer that can teach a patient to knit, but they have to speak Romanian.”  I’d sigh and after mumbling about pulling volunteers out of my #$@, I’d be sitting at my desk, wracking my brain with this impossible volunteer task when the phone would ring.

I would pick it up and as I said “hello,” the answer would somehow manifest. The caller would be a volunteer who had been on extended leave. She would tell me that she was cleaning her bedroom closet a few moments ago and her old volunteer orientation manual fell off a shelf and bonked her in the head, so she took that as a sign and she decided to come back and volunteer. And yes, she knitted and spoke Romanian. Or the caller might be a new volunteer who wanted to chat and out of the blue, tell me his passion was creating numerical filing systems which of course was something we needed like yesterday. This happened over and over again, so much so that I began to take notice.

I remember hatching an idea for a gigantic, very ambitious project and I enlisted the help of several trusted volunteers, although none of us had the specific expertise we needed. (talk about working backwards). After the thrill of setting up a core group of committed volunteers faded, I sat back and wondered how the heck we were going to pull this off. (Yeah, ok, smarty pants, now what?)

Two weeks later I was teaching new volunteer orientation and just happened to mention the new project. After class was over, one of the new volunteers came up to me and told me she not only had all the exact expertise and experience we needed, she said she’d be thrilled to join the group. Bingo, we were on our way.

Now here’s the thing. The more we, volunteer managers share our needs with everyone, (even the annoying person behind us in line at our coffee shop or the coach of our son’s soccer team) the more chance we have finding the right volunteer. The more “feelers” we put out, the further those feelers will reach. It’s like casting a net-you may scoop up a bunch of bait fish, but there also could be a lobster in there.

Talk up your needs often, in meetings, on the phone, to staff and to new and prospective volunteers. You never know who just might surprise you and want to help in unexpected ways. Or who may hear about your need and call you while your forehead is down on the desk.

Use your voicemail or answering system to leave updated messages outlining the current needs and encourage volunteers to call in when they feel they have some extra time or just want to explore other opportunities. Call it a volunteer jobs hotline or a better, catchier name. (Mission Possible?)

Send email updates or texts or use a messaging service to blast out current available tasks or projects. Broadcasting the crazier, more niche requests actually serves a purpose. They show volunteers that unique skills and talents and interests are welcomed and important to mission goals. That potential volunteer just might think, “hey, maybe they could use a volunteer who can yodel!”

And every off the wall volunteer request filled that showcases volunteer talents encourages staff to look for more talents (as opposed to viewing all volunteers as tools to do meaningless work like sweeping the floor after a party for donors). Because there’s a huge difference between crazy, meaningful, mission-aligned requests and crazy meaningless tasks that do nothing to further the mission and suck the lifeblood from volunteers.

Put your best volunteer recruiters together in a room, ply them with sweets and tea (or vegan wraps and energy drinks or wait, maybe sweets and energy drinks), give them the list of impossible jobs to fill and ask them to use their considerable powers of persuasion to find suitable volunteers.

Advertise open available roles on your website. This is also a visual for prospective volunteers and shows them what the needs are, how they change and how many ways there are to be involved.

Post your needs on your door so every volunteer who comes to chat sees them (Maybe post a sign that says, “READ THIS BEFORE ENTERING”).

I’ve always been rooted in finding practical solutions. Yet at the same time, I’ve come to think that a sincere attempt to provide goodness in the world gets a little help from somewhere (call it divine, the universe, karma, or whatever you subscribe to). So, I don’t refer to all the new age stuff as “woo woo” anymore.

Because I’ve come to believe the universe is listening. Woo!




My Volunteer Manager Then is Hopefully Your Now…The Disruptive Volunteer Manager



Have you ever said to yourself, “If only I knew then what I know now?” It’s frustrating, isn’t it? We learn by doing, by experiencing, by searching and by making mistakes.

And all that accumulated knowledge can be shared with one another in hopes that it helps.

When I started in volunteer management, I knew absolutely, unequivocally nothing about working with volunteers. NOTHING. Why did I get the job? Because no one else knew anything either and so it boiled down to, who could be the nicest person to the existing volunteers. (Wait, maybe I was the only one who applied, hmmmm)

So it became one gigantic university of hard knocks, successes, failures and profound moments. I learned a new volunteerism language, a new volunteer physics of attraction and motion and new applied relativity.

I hope that you look at anyone’s advice or experience with a discerning eye: Does this apply to me or more aptly, how can I learn from this? I used to tell hospice volunteers, “you have a wondrous opportunity here, to listen to the stories of people at end of life, to hear their joys and regrets and to discover what their experiences mean in your life, a life you still get to live.”

Sharing knowledge or experiences is a powerful thing. We, volunteer managers need to do more of it. The key to receiving knowledge from others is how you apply it, how it works for you.

Over so many years, I did discover a few things and I believe it is time for volunteer managers to disrupt our archaic system. Hence, the title for my book which is now available. I hope you will consider it and you will continue to apply knowledge from one another.

The Disruptive Volunteer Manager: digital_book_thumbnail (1)

Digital Version


Thank you. Keep sharing.



The Disruptive Volunteer Manager


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I’m really excited to announce my new book, “The Disruptive Volunteer Manager” will be available in a few days, both in paperback and in Kindle version.

The power of volunteers and volunteer initiatives is amazing. From witnessing a single volunteer deeply connect with someone to seeing hundreds of volunteers come together for a noble purpose, it has been life altering. It’s as if volunteering is a living, breathing entity, one that appears each time common goodness unfolds.

“The Disruptive Volunteer Manager,” lays out six steps to increase awareness of volunteers and to elevate volunteerism by disrupting the volunteer management norm in a forward moving way. It is a step by step journey to setting a new normal, one in which leaders of volunteers unleash the potential that awaits.

A few of the questions the book answers are:

  • What is volunteer role scalability?
  • What is volunteer synergy and why is that so important?
  • What is a volunteer block chain and what does this mean for volunteer management?

I believe 2019 is the year that sets up the coming “Decade of Volunteerism.” Yep, I’m that hopeful sure.

So much has changed in just the past few years and although change is difficult, the end result is going to be amazing. We can solve our frustrations and elevate volunteer value by proactive solutions.

Get ready. Volunteer managers or wait, Leaders of Volunteers (LoVols) have arrived!