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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.