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.


Volunteer News Stories: Does This Good Press Really Help?


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Emma set her cup down on the table and opened her laptop. She could hear the kids arguing upstairs as they got ready for school. Jenna needed to be picked up after soccer practice, and Harvey still needed to finish his science project or he’d get an incomplete. Emma’s phone pinged. Her mother’s tests came back. The cancer had returned. Holding back the tears, Emma scrolled through her news feed. She clutched at her life spinning out of control, desperately grasping at something to ground her. She read the headlines. So much political in-fighting. Too many vapid celebrity news stories. One heading came from her local newspaper: Volunteer Receives City Council Award. Emma paused for a second, and then scrolled on.

For years, I thought that any story on a volunteer would produce a tsunami of people trampling each other to join our team. “I want to be just like Herman, or Zafir, or Maria,” they’d proclaim, their fresh smiling faces eager to give back. “Pick me! OOOOOhhh, pick me!” They’d come in wearing t-shirts sporting the face of my smiling volunteer. It would be cult-like, but so what, my volunteer was a star!

Having press cover volunteers was so rare, that once a reporter showed up, I was slobbery grateful for any mention at all. I grovelled at the reporter’s Birkenstocks. And so, stories about volunteers receiving some plaque or attaining some milestone were all I could get. I never challenged the content and I always suspected the reporter was being punished by doing a “filler” or “human interest” story and really wanted to get on to digging out news stories about that bank robber wearing the Nixon mask or the mayor’s brother suddenly being awarded a lucrative city contract.

While scrolling through news-feeds this week, it felt like the I was back in the 90’s. I could hear Alanis Morissette singing in the background. Ironically, the overwhelming majority of volunteer news stories are identical to the ones written about my volunteers 20 years ago. Here are some news-feed headlines from just two days worth of searching articles: (names and places removed)

    • Seniors recognized for volunteer work
    • Doing what comes next: Man keeps working, volunteering
    • Volunteering “immensely rewarding” for local woman
    • Duo shares gifts through volunteering
    • Local woman finds volunteering a positive influence
    • Local man honored for volunteering by Service Center
    • Couple’s love of volunteering keeps them on the go
    • SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Volunteering can have numerous benefits
    • Volunteer receives medal for dedication
    • These volunteers provide help, friendship

Have you nodded off yet? And to think I used to titter excitedly, “my volunteer in the newspaper, wow, we’re at the summit of the recruitment mountain! Break out the oxygen!” Seriously, what was wrong with me?

I’ve been reading targeted news-feeds for years. Anything of real substance I share on my Pinterest site, Volunteer Management Talk. But most articles on actual volunteers by actual reporters are frothy little yawn-fests. Yes, they’re positive. Yes, they paint volunteerism in a good light.

But where are the meaty stories that outline the results of volunteering? Where are the intriguing headlines that proclaim, “These Volunteers are Alleviating Homelessness,” or “These Volunteers Are Creatively Saving the Wetlands,” instead of “These Volunteers Have Really Big Hearts and Are as Boring as Their Organization’s Website.” (ok, sure, I made up the last part-sorta)

I was wrong about the recruitment potential of the few articles that were published in my local press. There was no mad rush to volunteer. I didn’t see our phone lines light up, or volunteers stampede in with news that their friends and neighbors were outside, clamoring to join our awesome team. I didn’t yell, “Put more coffee on, guys, it’s going to be a long night!”

In retrospect, I failed to get the real message out. The real message is the impact.
Volunteer managers everywhere are fighting to elevate the volunteer role by changing the perception of volunteer contributions and volunteers. If we want volunteers to be recognized for their work, we have to take volunteers out of the “human interest” column and push it into the “news” division. But, how?

When a reporter shows up to cover that award or story about Jane and Hermione, partners and your volunteers for 10 years, ask the reporter these questions:

      • “Where does this story fit in your publication’s divisions? Why?”
      • “What is the end game of this story? What do you want readers to take away?”
      • “Do you want to know the bigger story, that of the impact on our community?” (be prepared to offer relevant information and if you can, an interview with someone helped by your volunteer)
      • “Can you come back and do a follow-up story on the results of the volunteers’ work? We have some juicy human interest stories to share about the people who have been impacted by our volunteers.
      • If the reporter is doing a story on a particular volunteer or volunteers, (let’s take life partners, Jane and Hermione) prepare some eye-opening stats about them. “Yes, it’s true that Jane and Hermione have been here for 10 years, but here are the stats and stories on the impact they’ve had on our homeless population and by the way, that’s the reason they’ve been here for 10 years. “

I know you’ve experienced this. A volunteer is chosen as the subject of a local newspaper piece because of an award or milestone. The humble volunteer doesn’t want to be the center of attention. The reporter is just on an assignment. You convince the volunteer to do it because it will inspire others to volunteer. You tell them that whatever they say will be inspiring, because hey, they are a great representative of the work, right? Well, maybe they really don’t know what to say.

Well, why not take it one step further and plan with the volunteer what he/she will talk about? Pick out real impact stories to focus on and explain to the volunteer that these stories are the impetus for encouraging others to get involved. Tell them to turn the interview message around from “you can be like me,” to “you can impact our clients too, in these ways.” And throw in, “we can sure use more help.”

Why not help the reporter see that they could turn the story into something more, something with real substance? Plant that “juicy” story in their heads.

There’s a complex mathematical equation that explains the phenomena surrounding news stories about volunteers: It’s tricky and complicated, but it goes like this:

Press Stories on Volunteer+Fluff=Where are the new volunteers?

We have more than just our organizations needing to be convinced that volunteers are not just decorative marshmallows of pillowy goodness. We also have to target press, media and the community.

I’m disappointed and sorry I didn’t do anything about this disconnect before. But, the perception of volunteer contributions needs to change, both within and without. I think that together, we can change this perception, one story at a time.


Top 3 Theme Ideas for Volunteer Appreciation Week


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Top 3 Theme Ideas for Volunteer Appreciation Week

Is it time to buy those cute banners and balloons for the annual volunteer luncheon? Do you wonder which phrase is better, “Volunteers are Priceless,” or “Volunteers Are Helpers Extraordinaire?” Don’t have unlimited resources for volunteer appreciation but need to decorate the halls with messages of thanks? I’m here to help.

You can scour promotional product websites and find some great posters with nice sayings such as “volunteers, work with heart,” or “volunteers put the care in caring,” or “volunteers, you brighten our day,” but it will cost you. And if you’re a budget conscious volunteer manager, or more likely have only the $13 in change from all the times you were roped into running out to get food for senior management meetings, then you’ve come to the right place.

And anyway. why use old cliché themes to celebrate the volunteers? Why not actually save money and create the kind of honest theme that will really resonate with your volunteers? Here are my top picks for this year’s themes.

Volunteers, Love the Box You’re In! Ask friends and family to give you their old boxes, like shoeboxes, used gift boxes, cardboard shipping boxes, etc. Place them in strategic areas under a banner that reads, “We love our volunteers so much, we are keeping them safe in a pretty box!” Plaster copies of your rules and policies on the walls and play games such as “pin the broken rule on the volunteer.” If you’re lucky and can score an appliance box, decorate the inside and create a photo booth. Take pictures of your volunteers and create memes, adding text quotes such as “It’s cozy and safe inside my organization’s box,” and “the mission needs me to adhere to the rules so I don’t run amok!”

Volunteers are the Plastic Bags of Charity.  Who doesn’t have a thousand of these grocery bags stuffed into a closet? Tape them all over the walls next to a huge sign that proclaims, “Volunteers are for using, like plastic bags-we stuff ’em in a closet and yank ’em out for whatever we need!” You can even fill some plastic bags with leftover garbage and picked up dog poop to scatter about the room for effect. (see, these bags have many uses) Give out the golden plastic bag award for the volunteer who completed the lousiest assignment without complaint.

Volunteers, Thanks For the Time, But It’s About Donations! This one is easy. Buy a pack of construction paper and cut out dollar (or pound sterling) signs and tape them all over the place. Invite the fund-raising arm of your organization to hover around the meeting room and hit up volunteers for money. Instead of reading out stats on volunteer hours given, (pffft, who cares anyway, right?) read out the names of volunteers who haven’t donated money lately. Then, play pass the basket. You might even want to enlist your cousin Dwayne, who is an amateur body builder, to stand at the exit door and look menacing.

No matter what theme you choose, volunteer appreciation week can be a real source of stress and frustration for any leader of volunteers. Do all these sweet messages printed on candy hearts and breast of chicken lunches really convey true appreciation for volunteer contributions? Do you feel the burden of making the volunteers feel valued fall onto your shoulders? You’re not alone.

This week creeps up on every volunteer manager. I know, I used to scramble to make appreciation meaningful. There’s not enough time nor brain power to do the job of the volunteer manager and plan mind-blowing events at the same time.

So, I’d end up relying on silliness, weird dancing and my general refusal to be embarrassed. We always had fun. And sometimes, that can be enough. Fun is a bonding experience.

Please don’t stress yourself too much. (I know, easy to say) Try to have some fun with your volunteers. Try not to wonder if it’s all enough.

And maybe, we, volunteer engagement professionals, will all keep moving collectively towards pushing organizations into strategically recognizing volunteer contributions. As one strong voice, we will keep pulling organizations into the twenty-first century and move them to abandon outmoded ideas on volunteer services so that you don’t have to scramble during this week every year and volunteer appreciation becomes organic. We will keep advocating as a tightly knit body of experience, so that leaders of volunteers are an integral piece of strategy planning and volunteer recognition is woven into all organizations’ grand schemes.

Now, that would be something worth celebrating.



5 Things Your Volunteer Manager Isn’t Telling You


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  1. I’m the one who convinces volunteers to stay after they are ignored or are treated poorly. Yep, that’s me calling volunteers to convince them that it was just a one-off or that a staff member had a bad day. It’s me you see when you walk by my office, sitting and having a long heart-to-heart with a volunteer. You may think that I’m just socializing, but in reality, I’m doing my job. I’m retaining a good volunteer who is on the verge of quitting.
  2. I may look like I’m just having fun but I’m hard at work ensuring the volunteers are connected to our mission. Uh, huh, it may look easy, but creating an inclusive, welcoming atmosphere is exhausting. I can’t have a down day; I have to be “up” and empathetic and positive at all times, no matter how I feel. I’m the one running all over town to get the balloons, ordering a cake, creating signs with positive messages that I say come from staff, but really it’s just me making them up because staff is too busy. I make sure I learn about every volunteer, their motivations and interests. I keep dates of volunteers’ birthdays in my head, along with their favorite books, or the heartfelt stories they tell me about clients. I juggle so much information because each volunteer wants to personally connect with our organization and most of the time, I am that connection.
  3. You may think I work 9-5, but actually, I’m recruiting volunteers and answering their questions at all hours, everywhere I go. Um, yes, I recruit at my kids’ soccer game when I meet a dad who has a big heart, at the gym when I meet a lady who is organized, and at my place of worship when I see a person who makes everyone feel welcomed. Besides, my open door policy means I am available to the volunteers whenever they need me. I’m not complaining, but don’t ever think that I’m not working at all hours towards creating an excellent department. I am. I just don’t broadcast all the things I’m doing. It’s not about me, but know I’m doing so much more than you can imagine.
  4. I can’t make volunteers do what they don’t want to do. Sigh. Nope, I can’t. Don’t forget, they’re not paid and I can only encourage, beg, convince, cajole, or promise so much. If your request is something they don’t want to do, well, they won’t. They know when I’m trying to “sell” them on an assignment. Volunteers are quite perceptive and I teach them to have boundaries and to not say yes to everything because it keeps them from burning out and we need them for mission centric work. I’d truly appreciate help with making sure volunteer assignments are worthy of our volunteers’ interests and skills so that we don’t drive them away. And actually, my time is better spent engaging our volunteers with meaningful work than trying to get them to do something no one wants to do.
  5. I know our volunteers’ potential and you need me to plan their involvement. Yes, it’s time you understand this. I know the volunteers inside and out and if you want them to support our mission, then I’m the one who can shape their roles so that it’s a win-win for all. The reality is, only I can design the roles our volunteers want to fill. I can create positions that make volunteers want to do more. I want our organization to succeed, and engaging our volunteers is a leap towards excellence. Let me be of greater service by planning our volunteers’ involvement together, with you.

There, I said it.


Let’s Design Mission Centric Volunteer Engagement


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Let's Design Mission Centric Volunteer Engagement

Strategizing priorities when receiving volunteer requests ensures that volunteers are engaged in meaningful, mission critical work. (see Attention: The Volunteer Department Now Has Ground Rules )  By creating a weighted system around organizational priorities, volunteer services becomes focused on mission centric volunteer engagement. But there is one huge caveat that needs to accompany the priorities for volunteer requests. One very big one.

After strategizing mission centric volunteer engagement priorities, the areas that rise to the top are most likely:

  • working directly with clients
  • supporting the smooth day-to-day running of the organization
  • supporting work with key stakeholders

These three areas are where organizations spend the vast majority of their time, resources and efforts and the areas where volunteers’ contributions create the biggest impact.

So, why a caveat in these three areas? What is missing?

It is the inclusion of the volunteer manager in the planning, creation and continued input into the volunteer positions within these areas. Edicts, directives and mandates that exclude the input of leaders of volunteers are doomed to be ineffective or worse, fail.

Creating volunteer positions without the volunteer manager’s input is like a team showing up to a baseball game without bats, balls or gloves.  The players just stand there, unable to hit home runs and unable to catch a ball. The gear is integral to playing the game with success. We, volunteer managers possess the gear.

We, the equipment holders have to take a stand. Our volunteers need us to champion their involvement. Our organizations need our knowledge. Our clients need the excellence only we can provide. When advocating for a seat at this planning table, continually refer to the benefit of having you there.

My knowledge of our volunteers’ skills and motivations is necessary to strategize the most effective volunteer involvement. I bring our volunteers’ passion and will elevate the ways we can move forward while saving time, money and effort. I will shape these positions so that our volunteers are invested and will not only stay, but want to do more. I have the experience necessary to design each position in order to boost volunteer interest.

The most important volunteer positions must be defined by the person who leads volunteers, not only to maximize program results, but in order to ensure volunteer satisfaction and sustainability. Volunteer managers have the equipment needed to unlock volunteer potential while increasing results and retaining volunteers.

What happens when organizations fail to include the volunteer manager in planning volunteer engagement?

  • skilled volunteers quit due to lack of meaningful roles
  • potential game changing programs never get created
  • a vicious cycle of recruiting volunteers as “warm bodies” is perpetuated
  • the organization is viewed as archaic and out of touch
  • highly motivated volunteer managers quit
  • clients are denied excellent support
  • a toxic negativity borne from frustration prevails
  • organizations become stuck in outmoded ways

We, volunteer managers have to be willing to lobby for our seat at the planning table, not only for ourselves, but for our volunteers, clients and communities. Our organizations promise to deliver quality service and it is up to us to ensure that the volunteer piece provides excellence.

Mission Centric Volunteer Engagement means strategizing the priorities that further the mission, deliver the most bang for the buck, and ensure volunteer sustainability. None of this can happen without volunteer manager input at the planning table.

I’ll take my seat now, thank you.