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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.

-Meridian