Taking Extra Care to Support Volunteers


, , , , , , , , , , , ,


Taking Extra Care to Support Volunteers

The recent spate of natural disasters has cast a light on incredible volunteers across the globe helping people in need.

Although not always news worthy, volunteers daily walk towards a crisis instead of running away. In organizations everywhere, volunteers are doing the hard work, the emotional work. Because they feel so deeply, they are affected by the tragedies they witness such as in this story:  Volunteer shares harrowing account of how Hurricane Irma ripped toddler from woman’s arms

In our training programs, we encourage our volunteers to have empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another) so they can better serve our clients. But can empathy take a toll?

I remember a new volunteer, Jenna and the first time she was present with a patient who died. Jenna had hours of volunteer training. She and I had talked at length about her strengths and capabilities. She was prepared… on paper.

Minutes after she left the room, allowing family members to gather, she sought me out. I was in the middle of some urgent matter that I have long forgotten. I looked up and saw Jenna’s face and I knew. You can’t mistake a face that has been profoundly affected by what was just witnessed. It’s there in the tiny muscles that make up the eyes and mouth. It’s there, deep in the irises that reflect a life altering experience. It’s there in the reverent voice asking for “a moment of your time.”

We found a private spot and sat for several long and quiet minutes while Jenna gathered her thoughts. It was difficult for her to put into words how she felt. She only knew that she felt changed, different, profoundly transformed somehow.

And if you think about it, how does each volunteer cope with the things they witness? Does training and on-boarding take care of the emotional investment our volunteers make when accepting roles placing them in life’s most profound situations?

Volunteers have an amazing resilience and ability to cope when faced with deeply personal scenarios. But what if a situation becomes more personal? In what situations can this happen to a volunteer, even if they have received excellent training?

  • a volunteer works with a person who reminds them of a family member (child, partner, parent, sibling)
  • a volunteer witnesses tragedy over and over and it accumulates
  • a volunteer is dealing with a crisis in their own lives
  • a volunteer is in a situation in which they perceive their help makes little difference (in outward appearance)
  • a volunteer gets caught up in the narrative of the situation
  • a volunteer feels the frustration of the client

We can’t prepare our volunteers for every situation, story and person they will encounter. So, how can we provide extra support for volunteers in order to prevent burnout? A few of the things we can do are:

  • ask clinical staff to be on the lookout for signs a volunteer needs support
  • ask clinical staff to be available to speak with volunteers who may be overwhelmed
  • enlist experienced volunteers to routinely call the volunteers who are working with clients. Experienced volunteers are the perfect candidates to do these check-ins because volunteers are comfortable speaking to other volunteers. (This is a great assignment for volunteers who physically can no longer do the job-instead of “retiring” them, elevate them to mentoring status)
  • create a monthly coffee klatch or tea time and encourage volunteers to share tips, stories and feelings
  • use newsletters to offer tips on self care
  • incorporate stories of volunteers who experienced emotional challenges into training and emphasize that this is not a sign of failure
  • designate a portion of each volunteer meeting to discuss “what’s going on with you”
  • intervene when noticing a volunteer experiencing emotional challenges (this can be personal, professional etc.)

If we make it clear that we are serious about supporting our volunteers, we will help them remain emotionally healthy and keep them from burning out.

This is the irony of non-profit work: We want our volunteers to share in our clients’ pain (Empathy) in order to better support the clients. But that empathy can lead to our volunteers experiencing their own emotional pain. Let’s make sure we support them so it doesn’t get out of hand.






“What I’m doing is not just a job, it’s something that I believe in.”


, , , , , , , , , , ,

Jennifer Lawrence Nelson

Jennifer Lawrence Nelson, CVA


Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with an amazing Leader of Volunteers, Jennifer Lawrence Nelson, CVA. The Manager of Volunteer Services at Maple Grove Hospital in Maple Grove MN,  Jennifer, has an infectious laugh and an approachable aura about her. I literally had to call her back to complete my interview because the majority of the time, we ended up chatting like old friends. I could picture volunteers feeling completely welcomed in her office (which incidentally, has a harp in the corner under a lovely velvet cover).

Jennifer has been leading volunteers for over ten years, four of those years spent at a nursing home facility and now six years at Maple Grove Hospital. She was the first graduate to letter in community service at her high school. Yep, the first.

Jennifer served in the Peace Corps for over two years after graduating college. Her assignment took her to the country of Kyrgyzstan, a rugged central Asian country that sits along the historical Silk Road.

Her Peace Corps experience began with 2 days of training in Philadelphia and then living with a host family for three months, learning the language and culture. While the host family was close to the Peace Corps hub, her permanent site was in a small village where she lived for 2 years.

VPT(volunteerplaintalk): What was your assignment like?

J (Jennifer): My job as a business volunteer was working with craft groups, such as a sewing group. I assisted them in learning business practices. Something as simple as “why do we need a calendar to keep track of projects” was part of my helping.

While I was there, I was able to start a business and training center with the help of a grant and I also wrote a grant to expand the local public school cafeteria to meet the local law requirements regarding providing the mandatory provisions for the students.

I also had the opportunity to concentrate on a second area of work related to a passion of mine so I taught English and started a leadership club for girls. We established the first “take your daughter to work day.”  I also supported English clubs and English camps in my village and state.

VPT: I’m in awe.

J: (laughing) I get that. People respond with the “that’s awesome.”  But I feel like with strength of will, you can do it. I did it.

I will say that being in the Peace Corps gives me street cred with my volunteers. They realize what I’m doing is not just a job, it’s something that I believe in.

VPT: What did the Peace Corps teach you?

J: I learned that I’m tougher than I thought. At the end of my assignment I lived on my own. I found that if there was a spider, I had to kill it (something I would avoid at all cost in the US). It gives you the sense that you have to do what you have to do.

VPT: What else?

J: It changed me. I now have a global view of people. I don’t see the world the same way as I did and I think beyond America and our way of life. I think beyond my life here in Minnesota.

VPT: Can you tell me about the volunteer program here at Maple Grove Hospital?

J: We have so many volunteer opportunities here because volunteers have been a part of our organization since the day we opened.  In so many departments they are truly integrated and are able to do some tasks and take on responsibilities that might not be allowed in other settings.

VPT: Any interesting new programs?

J: We have a pet therapy program started with the help of the North Star Therapy animals that visit our hospital patients. It was started by one of our volunteers and is going well. We have lots of good stories about the interactions. We are careful with who is allowed to come on board, because you have to realize that we need not just well-trained animals, but also well-trained humans. After all, the people are still the volunteers.

We also have quite a few volunteers in guest services, which is a position they love. They thrive on it because it is a bit like being a detective. They have to help people find where they need to go, who they need to see etc. The volunteers take it seriously.

VPT: What are some of the challenges you face?

J: Oddly enough, one of the challenges is the perception that volunteering at our hospital is going to be like the medical shows on TV.

VPT: Really?

J: Yes, I’ll interview a new volunteer and they will reference a show, especially Grey’s Anatomy.  They imagine it will be exciting and glamorous.

Another challenge is helping volunteers understand that even if they are stocking a customer’s room with supplies, they have that 2 minutes to forge a relationship with the customer. It’s something we can all easily forget.

Even with the high schoolers, entering a room and picking up the food trays, they may spend 45 seconds but they too have a chance to make a difference.

VPT: Who does all the training for volunteers?

J: Our experienced volunteers step up into leadership roles and they train other volunteers.

VPT: Do you meet with them?

J: Yes, we have regular meetings to discuss what is working and what can be improved.

VPT: You transitioned from a role at a nursing home to the hospital setting. What was that like?

J: There was a learning curve. I went from a place with long-term residents to a place where customers stay a short time, get well, and go home.

VPT: How did that transition go?

J: I found that our HR department was a good source of help and advice.

VPT: Are volunteer numbers different in each industry?

J: Yes. Maple Grove Hospital is a highly visible and well-known volunteer opportunity in town, especially for high school students who want to meet their community service requirements. We onboard about 30 new volunteers each month.  At the nursing home, I was lucky to get 1 new volunteer a month.

VPT: Any theories?

J: Volunteering for a nursing home is not sexy. Go back to the television shows about hospitals. That’s a lot sexier.

VPT: What type of advertising did you try in the nursing home?

J: I tried everything. I put out ads, used online services, put notices in church bulletins, and even made business cards for the volunteers to give out.

VPT: Did you find there was a difference in those who volunteer for a nursing home and those who volunteer at a hospital?

J: Well, approximately 55% of our volunteers at Maple Grove Hospital are students. Others come because of word of mouth from the volunteers who work here. They tell their friends that this is a great place to volunteer. At the nursing home, which was actually part of a much larger campus consisting of senior health and housing, home health and hospice, I found that volunteers were family members that volunteered for activities while their loved ones were in the nursing home.

VPT: Would they stop volunteering once their loved one was no longer there?

J: Usually, yes. Other volunteers came from residents of the senior apartments on campus. It was convenient and also, they might have friends there or they saw themselves there in the future and viewed it as their community.

VPT: If you could bring something from your volunteers here at the hospital to the nursing home and vice versa, what might that be? What do you wish you could swap?

J: Hmmm, I think from the nursing home I’d want to have the dedication of the volunteers, they were so loyal to the organization and mission. They had a deep connection to the work and they saw the value in their volunteering.  You know, when a resident died, we didn’t just lose that resident and our relationship with them, we also lost our relationship with their families too.

VPT: So, a long-term relationship with clients has a longer retention?

J: It’s loyalty. And maybe the times are different now. Loyalty is rare, maybe because the speed of life keeps people from being loyal to more than a few people or causes in their life.

But, from the hospital, I’d want to bring the amount of volunteers.

(While we were talking there was a knock on the door. One of Jennifer’s volunteers had brought her a jar of pickles and some homemade corn relish.)

VPT: (chuckling) What was the most memorable thing a volunteer gave you?

J: A couple of volunteers in the senior housing complex when I worked at the nursing home were moving out. They said, “honey, come and shop in our apartment. You’re getting married.” I was at the time. They said, “We want you to have anything you want, we can’t take it with us.” I got 3 large pieces of furniture. I think I still have one of the pieces today. It’s funny, but they viewed me like a grandchild because I reminded them of their grandchildren which was ok. I appreciated how generous they were with me.

At the hospital here, one of the volunteers and her husband did something very sweet. Just after I moved to a different town I mentioned that I wasn’t sure what route I should take to and from work. One day, she and her husband drove to my new town and mapped the route, printed it out, highlighting the best route and gave it to me. I still take that route today.

VPT: That was a really thoughtful gift.

J: It was. My husband said that he never had anyone do anything like that for him. And he’s worked in a church! (laughing)

But he also said to me, “that’s how you know you’re loved.”

VPT: You attended the National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership in July. Is there anything you took away from that experience? Anything you want to share with other volunteer managers?

J: Yes, do not let the momentum from the summit die. Get involved somehow and do something different. Write an article, take a chance, but do something. Be involved.

VPT: Thank you Jennifer, not only for spending the time talking with me, but for your leadership in guiding your volunteers and helping to move our profession forward.





The Volunteer Investor: Is It Their Time or Something More?


, , , , , , , , , ,

The Volunteer Investor Is It Time or Something More

Time=Money. We all say it and that’s why we call volunteers “time donors.” They donate their time, and of course, skills, expertise, talents etc. But is that what they really are? Donors? Maybe there’s a more descriptive word for our volunteers. And what is the difference between the terms donate and invest anyway?

donate: to present as a gift, grant, or contribution

invest: to use, give, or devote (money, time) as for a purpose or to achieve something:

Hmmmm, there’s a subtle, but profound difference in the two definitions.

Volunteers don’t just show up, give a few hours and walk away. But outdated thinking categorizes them in this way. Doesn’t it feel like investing is closer to what volunteers do? Maybe we should start to rethink this whole time donor idea.

Let’s take this further and examine investors. Investors invest money, right? But why? Why do they invest money in startups. non-profits, real estate, stock markets and other ventures. To make more money? Or is it more than that?

Money is a currency. So what do investors really invest? Many things. They invest their future, hoping to be financially secure. They invest their dreams, hoping to achieve a goal. They invest their essence, hoping to give back. They invest their good name, hoping to attach to a cause that is worthy of their currency. They invest employee engagement, hoping to attract great employees. They invest their clout, hoping to further a cause that supports their vision.

Investors invest so many intangibles, and their currency is money. They don’t give startups or organizations money, they devote their money in order to achieve a goal.

How would this apply to volunteers?

If money=currency, then time=currency.

So if volunteers’ currency is time, then what exactly do they invest?

They invest their humanity.  (the quality or condition of being human)

Volunteer managers everywhere instinctively know this. We feel this every day when hearing and observing our volunteers’ intangibles. How do we feel this?

  • by the rewards volunteers tell us they personally feel
  • by their belief in us and our missions
  • by the passion exhibited by volunteers
  • by the camaraderie volunteers forge when bonding with like minded citizens
  • by the commitment volunteers show
  • by the enrichment volunteers gain by volunteering with us
  • by the sense of pride volunteers feel in their work
  • by the support and love they extend to us and other staff
  • by the initiative they take when doing word of mouth marketing in their communities
  • by the care they wrap around strangers in need
  • by the desire they exhibit in wanting us to grow and succeed
  • by the pure joy they infuse into our lives
  • by the amount of time they spend away from us helping us off the clock by recruiting, marketing. finding resources, donating, improving themselves, etc.

Investors, according to experts, want the following things from the areas in which they invest:

  • they want to build a relationship
  • they want to partner
  • they want to invest in a “team”
  • they want to see a better future
  • they want to grow
  • they want to understand concepts

Sounds an awful lot like the wants of our volunteers, doesn’t it? Calling volunteers “time donors” implies that they give time and walk away and are mostly disconnected from us. Nothing could be further from the truth.

So, do volunteers donate their time or devote their time if devote implies giving for a purpose? I think devote wins hands down.

For years and years, we have been trying to equate time donation with money donation. Time and money are simply two different types of currencies. And besides, we all know that volunteers do so much more than give their time to a task. They also raise money, find resources, advocate, broadcast, recruit, and market for us. They have chosen to invest a huge chunk of what makes them human in our missions. They have chosen to connect their precious humanity to us.

Let’s stop constantly trying to shove volunteers into the round money hole by equating time spent with dollars saved, which isn’t a true measuring stick at all. Let’s erase the idea that volunteers have no more connection with us than a few hours here and there.

time donors=minimal involvement

volunteer investors=fully engaged

Instead, let’s elevate the volunteers’ role as investors. Investors who devote their time, money, skills, talents, resources, passion, commitment, expertise, experience, knowledge, drive, zeal, perspective, and so much more to helping us further our causes.

Humanity Investors.

What could be more important than that?


Volunteer Coordinator Needed: Read the Fine Print


, , , , , , ,

Volunteer Coordinator Needed read the fine print

Have you ever looked at recruitment ads for volunteer coordinators? What do our organizations think we do and what skills are they looking for? Here is a sampling of the ones I have seen lately.

The Volunteer and Program Coordinator will oversee all volunteer coordination and client training activities. Duties include on boarding, training and coordinating all volunteers and providing backup support in case of volunteer absences.

Must have own cell phone, laptop computer and reliable transportation

Ability to work long hours, weekends, and holidays (with time off during the week)

Must live locally and be available immediately.

COMPENSATION: $28,000 – $34,000

That makes me wonder, who exactly is filling in for the absent volunteer? And here is another pull from a recent ad:

Event Planning & Management – Food Drives, Events, Food related Events

Volunteer Recruitment, training & Management

Public Speaking Engagements

Warehouse Experience

Strong Personal Skills

Strong Organizational Skills

Salary Level: $15.00 per hour

Classification: This position is classified as part time

I love the warehouse experience, it’s usually the top skill a volunteer manager possesses.

Check this one out:

Desire to work collaboratively with staff, volunteers and clients a must.  Ability to follow directions, work independently, prioritize, follow-up and accomplish a variety of tasks, projects and responsibilities simultaneously in a busy work environment.

Excellent attention to detail.

Huh, so we are a typical crazy busy non-profit. But don’t let that be your excuse. And then, there’s this:

   Administration: Ensures compliance and maintains records of all paperwork for volunteers (applications, waivers, clearances, etc.); Monitors the Volunteer Coordinator email and phone number and responds to all inquiries in a timely and courteous manner; Attends meetings relevant to the Volunteer position including the monthly Program Managers meeting, monthly Development meetings, quarterly all staff meetings and others as identified.

Wow, so administration duties for a volunteer coordinator is basically office work. That’s not very managerial, is it? Then, there is this one:

Responsible for the recruitment, training, and supervision of volunteers to assist employees in the efficient running of our organization. Maintains volunteer records and coordinates volunteer schedules. Responsible for the management of orientations, volunteer training, and liaisons with community to attract volunteers.

Special Skills: None specified.

I think I might cry at that one.

But, not all is doom and gloom.  I also found this one:

The responsibility of Volunteer Coordinator is to welcome volunteers and ensure an excellent, safe, and rewarding experience that motivates an ongoing connection as members, donors, outreach volunteers, and advocates. This person provides a superior level of customer service, representing our core values with enthusiastic professionalism. The person in this position works collaboratively with other staff to fulfill volunteer needs and deepen volunteer engagement cross-divisionally. Collaborates with department leadership in the development of volunteer engagement strategies to support organizational needs.

Now that makes me feel hopeful. I think they kind of get it. And here’s another:

• Lead volunteer engagement and impact strategy: As an active member of the Leadership Team, develop an office-wide philosophy and strategy of volunteerism, and provide training and benchmarks to ensure the office is increasing in capacity to engage volunteers, including professional volunteers.
• Training and development of staff: Provide coaching and matrix accountability to volunteer coordinators and other employees who interact with volunteers and interns, focused on volunteer role development, recruitment, interviewing, placement, retention, encouragement, and recognition. Supervise staff members who are involved with volunteer processing and screening. 
• Team Leadership: Regularly convene staff who work with volunteers to ensure shared vision and approach to volunteer support, evaluate volunteer engagement impact, collaborate around shared projects and concerns, and coordinate volunteer recognition efforts.

Yes! I LOVE these folks!!!!!! Thank you for putting volunteer management on the Leadership team!

Job postings can be telling. Sometimes organizations do not take a hard look at their recruitment ads, nor do they bother to update them to show that they are moving forward.

I sincerely hope that organizations think about the role of their volunteer manager and at least take a look at their ads when recruiting someone who will be adding value to the mission. If all they focus on is the minutiae and not the incredible potential leadership skills needed to cultivate and engage volunteers, then they’d better plan on keeping that ad posted for a long time.

Because none of us will want to work for them.



The Volunteer Periphery


, , , , , , , , , ,

The Volunteer Periphery

Sea of peripheral volunteers

I have a friend who never seems to see the people around him. He lets the door swing shut just as an elderly man is about to walk through and he never sees the mom carrying a baby needing to get by as he blocks the aisle in the store. It’s as though he has no peripheral vision. It got me to thinking about managers of volunteers and how we develop our peripheral vision to the point of hyper awareness.

You know what I mean. You’re the kind of person who:

counts the number of people behind you in the buffet line at a friend’s party and then you mentally divide up the pasta portions in the pan to make sure that you don’t take more than your share.

looks around at a concert, sizing up the height of the crowd and then squeezes into a spot that ensures you don’t block the petite woman to your left.

Does this sound like you? I thought so.

We all have peripheral volunteers. These are the volunteers who are episodic, temporarily inactive, retired, yet to be trained, prospective, or absent. And unlike the world of paid staff where rosters consist of those receiving paychecks, our peripheral volunteers remain on our stats and radar.

We don’t have the luxury of ignoring them because they are potentially contributing volunteers. Or they may have given years of service and we owe them our attention. They float around in the periphery, bobbing in and out of view because we have a fluid connection with them. And how about the guilt that comes with not paying proper attention to them. (Yep, just think of how you felt when you forgot that volunteer’s 80th birthday, the one who gave twenty years of service to your organization)

What can we do with these outlying volunteers? How can we keep them in view as we scurry about in our busy day? Where do they fit into statistics?

This is one area in which:

  1. technology serves us well
  2. volunteers can assume pivotal roles
  3. stats reflect the monumental balancing we do
  4. volunteer message sharing can actually help

When lists that capture prospective, episodic, absent, retired, ill and every other category meaning non current pile up, it’s time to create some systems that help.

Create categorized email lists-prospective volunteers, group and corporate volunteers, temporarily inactive volunteers etc. Decide which groups get which messages, e.g., upcoming training sessions, newsletters, notices about volunteer events or vacancies, etc.

Recruit volunteers to oversee the periphery-lists are only helpful if they are accurate. It’s humbling when you take a call telling you that volunteer Dave died a year ago and his family keeps getting mail addressed to him. A volunteer or volunteers in charge of overseeing other volunteers on the periphery can focus on keeping lists up to date. They can also make phone calls, interview, do impromptu surveys, offer new opportunities, gather information and compile statistics. The scope of the potential work can fill a full-time position or several part-time positions.

Report your time spent managing peripheral volunteers-this is an invisible area that requires a lot of time so report it as part of your recruitment, retention, and cultivation. Refer to your efforts to engage “prospects”, retain episodic volunteers, build community awareness, increase visibility, maintain good relationships, cultivate donors, supporters etc. This nuanced area of our work is critical and should be accounted for.

Share messaging with other organizations, but be careful. Bombarding potential volunteers with multiple messages can be off-putting, so don’t overload emails with “spam.” Instead, co-op with other volunteer organizations and include “other good work opportunities” at the end of every other month newsletters (or other scheduling) with contact information. As your volunteer opportunities are added to the internals at other organizations, you’ve just exponentially increased your recruitment efforts.

Volunteer management casts a wide net. Presiding over the sea of active, potential and former volunteers is daunting. Systems in place to oversee peripheral volunteers will help to ease the overwhelming burden and free us up to concentrate on innovation and solutions.

Out nets are huge and always jumping with activity. If our eyes and hands are always on every inch of those nets, then we can’t steer the boat.







Innovation and Sustainable Volunteering


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Innovation and Sustainable Volunteering

What would sustainable volunteering look like? Besides many of the innovations already being implemented, what would nurturing a volunteer garden shared within our communities involve? Is this a 180 degree leap or is it more of a naturally occurring shift that we have been moving towards all along? Are we, volunteer managers coming together in an organic movement to help one another and therefore all volunteers and all good work?

What can we try? Will this take extra work, headache and heartache to achieve? Just as in gardening, there are necessary steps to achieve a bountiful crop.

I’m going to list some ideas in a season of planting using the gardening metaphor.

TILLING THE SOIL (preparing to garden):

  • Make a list of agencies and organizations in your area that utilize volunteers and reach out to introduce yourself to each leader of volunteers
  • Join any clearinghouse agencies such as United Way, and Volunteer Centres in your area
  • Join a DOVIA (Directors Of Volunteers In Agencies) or a similar group in your area or if none exists, reach out to another volunteer manager and start a peer group
  • Create a list serve or simple newsletter to share with your fellow volunteer managers in your locale

PLANTING (seeding the way):

  • Share your volunteer opportunities with other volunteer managers (at your peer group and by list serve) and ask for theirs-regularly check in to gauge the fluidity of roles, etc.
  • Discuss volunteers’ skills and interests at peer group meetings. Offer other volunteer managers the opportunity to contact one of your volunteers if their mission or opportunity more closely aligns with your volunteer’s passion
  • Share background checks if you are able in order to cut costs
  • Pair up with other organizations to conduct a visible volunteer project and involve local media to cover the event
  • Create volunteer educational conferences with other volunteer managers to benefit all volunteers in area-share space, costs of snacks or printed materials creating more bang for the buck
  • Share cost of a national speaker with other volunteer programs and invite all volunteers in area-have plenty of information on volunteering opportunities available

FEEDING (nurturing the collective):

  • Bring your volunteers to another organization on Make a Difference Day or another day of service and help that organization-build that camaraderie, use positive press to show cooperation:   Days of service include:
  • Good Deeds Day – April 15, 2018 (USA)
  • National Volunteer Week – April 15-22, 2018 (USA)
  • 911 Day of Service – September 11 (USA)
  • Make a Difference Day – October 28, 2017 (USA)
  • Family Volunteer Day – November 18, 2017 (USA)
  • MLK Day of Service – January 15, 2018 (USA)
  • Volunteers’ Week -June 1-7 (UK)
  • National Volunteer Week -21-27 May 2018 (Australia)
  • National Volunteer Week -April 15-21 2018 (Canada)
  • International Volunteer Day -5 December 2017 (UN)
  • National Volunteer Week -18-24 June 2017(2018 not published yet) (New Zealand)
  • Create a summer circle of volunteering for out of school students so they can sample the various opportunities in your area and participate in a well-rounded service learning experience
  • Conduct partner training sessions with other organizations
  • Partner with another organization to create a group of volunteers to cross-volunteer (a really rudimentary example – library volunteers + homeless shelter volunteers = a reading program for school aged children in the shelter. Library volunteers finding appropriate books, shelter volunteers utilizing them and perhaps some library volunteers venturing out to read to the children while shelter volunteers conduct a fundraiser for the library-and no this isn’t simple or easy but it can be a start)
  • Mentor new volunteer coordinators in your area
  • Offer your highly seasoned and trained volunteers to train/mentor volunteers at another organization
  • Partner with other volunteer managers to create a presentation that educates organizational staff on the nuances of volunteer engagement-allow all volunteer managers in your area to utilize
  • Create partnership recruitment efforts by sharing speaking engagements

Future Bounty (what might come of this?)

  • Increased satisfaction and sustainability of volunteers
  • More flexible options for prospective volunteers
  • Sharing of best practices between leaders of volunteers
  • The showcasing of cooperation between non-profit agencies
  • Increased volunteer involvement in organizational planning and innovations
  • More good work accomplished within communities
  • Cooperative think tanks springing up
  • Less stress on volunteer managers

We, volunteer managers are unique, innovative and forward thinking. Why wouldn’t we bond with one another and forge a new, co-operative garden in order to create sustainable volunteerism?

Besides, we are generous and big picture oriented by nature. Let’s co-op.








Sustainability and Volunteerism


, , , , , , , , , , ,

Sustainability and Volunteerism

Retention: the continued possession, use, or control of something.

Does that sound like the volunteerism you know? Not to me either. Maybe it’s time to rethink using the phrase “volunteer retention,” because it conjures up images of a stagnant retention pond. It also rhymes with detention which is closely related to imprisonment. (shudder)

So, if we stop using that phrase, then do we have to rethink the old principles behind it such as:

  • make the volunteers feel welcomed
  • say thank you a lot
  • be mindful of their time

What???? But wait. Just because these principles are fluffy and nice, it  doesn’t mean they are still the best for the changing landscape of volunteerism. Maybe it’s time to retire volunteer retention and instead, embrace volunteer sustainability. Ok, so swapping phrases does not make for innovation. I get that.

What is the difference then, between retention and sustainability? Well, we’ve all been moving away from the strategies that worked with the WWII generation for some time now.  Why not update our verbiage to match the creative ideas being implemented out there by so many forward thinking visionaries. And while we are embracing these changes, let’s go even further.

Volunteer Sustainability vs Volunteer Retention


*This is where sustainability is radically different from volunteer retention. Sustainability, unlike retention is the ability to maintain a healthy balance while avoiding depletion.  Sustainability, as it is being applied to agriculture, economics and ecosystems implementation implies that there is a larger network to be considered. It implies that resources are not hoarded (retention) and depleted.

What larger network is there to consider when engaging volunteers? The larger network is all volunteer organizations and individual volunteer satisfaction. With that in mind, let’s ask these questions:

  • Why do we keep volunteers on waiting lists if we cannot use them in a timely manner or cannot find roles for their passions?
  • Why do more volunteers equal better volunteer engagement even if some volunteers are in name only?
  • Why do we stuff volunteers with specialized skill sets and interests into non-matching roles? Or try to tweak a role just to keep the volunteer?
  • Why do we cling to volunteers as though they are 23 year old offspring and we just can’t bear to see them fly?
  • Why do we blame ourselves when volunteers leave?

It is time we, volunteer managers, think of other volunteer managers, our volunteers, all volunteer opportunities, all clients in our area, and all missions as a network serving the greater good.

It is time we viewed volunteerism as a regenerating community garden that needs tending by all of us so that the bounty of volunteers is nurtured, regrown and sustained.

It is time we added collective volunteer engagement, sharing and referral to our innovative methods in order to cultivate volunteer sustainability.

How many times does a volunteer get frustrated and drop out when they have to wait too long to share their time and skill? Or how many volunteers quit because their passion is not being fully utilized? How are we serving our communities when we deplete our volunteer base by clinging to the archaic notion of volunteer retention?

Next time: We can be the leaders of a sustainable movement.



Hey Corporate Volunteers, Where Are You From Again?


, , , , , , , , , , ,


“Uh Meridian, you really blew it! You missed a whole point about corporate volunteers,” a friend of mine said on the phone a couple of days ago. “You talked about thanking groups and connecting them to the work, which is great, but you completely forgot a big one and guess what? It just happened to me.”

Ouch. What did I forget? Tell me what happened.

“Well, it was our corporate retreat and twenty of us just completed a one day team building volunteer event at a local organization.”

That’s great. How did it go and what did I miss?

“Well, it was ok for the most part, but honestly we’ve done other projects and had better experiences.”

What went wrong?

“Well, nothing went really wrong, but let me explain. We all drove to an organization that gives cribs to families in need. Our firm had purchased about forty unassembled cribs and we drove to this warehouse to put together the cribs we bought.”

And how did that go?

“Well, we were met by the woman in charge. She kind of acted like we were interrupting her day. She gave us some quick directions and left. She would come and go. But there was something that bothered me a lot. She kept getting the name of our firm wrong. And she kept referring to us as bankers. None of us are bankers. Our company is an accounting firm. Granted, we work in the financial industry, but we are not bankers. It just felt like she didn’t even take the time to learn who we are or what we do. I mean, we reached out to her organization, why didn’t she ask a few questions? I felt, I don’t know… used. Am I being too sensitive and picky?”

No, my friend you are not being too picky. Because if a group walks away from a project feeling like they were just ancillary labor, then the next time they look for a project, they will most likely look elsewhere. Pure and simple. We can argue all we want that a group is too needy, or picky, or they just don’t understand. The feeling they walk away with will determine whether or not they come back.

It all boils down to: Do we want them to come back? Do we want them to spread a good word? Do we want them to become partners or champions or supporters? If not, then we should not waste their time or ours. That’s why limiting episodic volunteer groups to a manageable number versus taking everyone is the better way to go.

And since I did miss that big one when listing things we can do to connect our group volunteers to our projects and missions, let’s list it now.

  • Learn something about the group. At least we can call them by their correct name. We can know a little about their work. (an application process asking pointed questions should help)
  • Be genuinely curious about the people who are helping. Ask questions throughout the duration of the project. Let them tell you who they are, what they value etc. This also helps you to tailor your stories and feedback to fit within their culture.
  • Send a follow up survey and gather feedback on the project. Ask questions to help you hone future group projects.
  • Thank them for their input. So much research has been done on the increased by-in of groups who participate in planning and improving work conditions. Why not apply this to episodic volunteers and encourage them to help you plan new projects by asking for feedback?

Connecting episodic volunteers to our missions ensures they walk away as new supporters.

But, after all, we can take our own advice when engaging episodic volunteers. They’re people, not tools.


Hey Corporate Volunteers: How Great is Weeding?


, , , , , , , , , , , ,


A recent article from Business News Daily cites a study finding that “89 percent of employees think organizations that sponsor volunteer activities offer a better overall working environment. In addition, 70 percent believe volunteer activities are more likely to boost staff morale than company-sponsored happy hours, with more than three-quarters saying volunteering is essential to employee well-being.”

But here’s the kicker from the article: “Three-quarters of the millennials surveyed said they would volunteer more if they had a better understanding of the impact they were making, compared to 61 percent of those of all ages.”

Huh. So, it isn’t obvious that volunteering for a homeless shelter actually helps homeless people is it? Or wait. Maybe it isn’t obvious that weeding the garden at the homeless shelter actually helps the homeless.

Oh, yeah, now I get it. Maybe for corporate volunteers, the cleanup or painting or weeding the garden doesn’t scream “OMG, this made all the difference in the world to our clients! You have changed lives like no one else ever has in the history of volunteering! Ka-bam!”

We, volunteer managers, can be caught in a nether world of finding projects while assuring these episodic volunteers that we really need them. And once you manufacture a project just to accommodate a group, is that truly meaningful work?

So what can we do since corporate and episodic group volunteering will most certainly grow in the future?

Well, we need to do some serious planning, be methodical about our episodic volunteers and complete the legwork before we take on groups. We can:

  • Create a plan before accepting groups. Decide how many group members can be accommodated at a time, the age range you are comfortable working with, the time frame that works for you, what supplies the group needs to bring, the number of groups per month or year you can accept, etc.
  • Create an application process for group volunteering: Gather information on the group, ask pointed questions on the application that will help you understand their motivation, interests, skills etc. Then decide if and when they will fit into the projects you have or can create.
  • Create an impression that you value quality over quantity and busy work: We don’t have to take everyone. As each group you engage comes away with a positive experience, word will spread that your organization is the one to contact for quality volunteering.
  • Develop a narrative to go along with each project. Prepare impact stories to accompany each project. Highlight the contribution and results of the project.
  • Utilize client testimonials to recruit and thank corporate volunteers. Tie these into the activity. It may take some creative interviewing to elicit these testimonials, but it will be worth it.
  • Follow up with a letter outlining the impact of the completed work. Reiterate the improvements for clients, staff and other volunteers.
  • Send a thank you letter from your CEO to the corporate CEO or group leader. It can be a general thank you created ahead of time and tweaked for each group. But, have the CEO sign it each time and encourage them to write a personal note.
  • Take pictures-make memes, add text boxes, thought clouds etc. Send them to the group, post them on all social media outlets.

No matter what, the connection between the project and the impact on clients is critical. Take weeding the garden at the homeless shelter. We can say to our corporate volunteer group, “Imagine the first night you are homeless. Imagine what that feels like, having nowhere to go, no stability, no safety and you arrive at our shelter and all you see are the weeds in an unkempt garden. It says to you that we don’t care. It reminds you of the tangles that threaten your existence. How would you feel? Remember, every little thing can be the one big thing that makes someone feel safe.” Then read testimonials from clients who felt safe.

A lot has been said over the years about making corporate volunteering fun. While fun is important, it is secondary to meaningful work. Corporate and episodic volunteers deserve to know that even by pulling weeds in the garden, they have created a beautiful safe space for those facing a difficult time in their lives.

We know the impact of each job, no matter how inconsequential it may seem at first. If we are thoughtful about episodic volunteering and prepare well for group volunteers, we can create a win-win for everyone.





Let’s Leave Volunteer Management in Better Shape Than We Found It


, , , , , , , , , ,


Action words to strengthen the future of volunteer management

For three days, leaders of volunteers came together at The 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership to collectively share and brainstorm the future. This summit actually extends far beyond “national” as we were joined by leaders from other countries such as Rob Jackson from the UK.

This energy of collective purpose is akin to swigging a chilled bottle of sports drink after a long grueling run through the blistering desert. Sometimes we can feel isolated. Often we may feel that progress is slow. Many times we feel as though we make no perceptible difference in the scheme of things.

But, each one of us makes an impression on our surroundings. Each one of us creates ripples that travel in circles radiating outwards. Each of us eventually leaves our profession behind. How will we leave it?

Recently I said this in a post: “What we say and how we treat our volunteers, no matter how brief our encounter, has a lasting effect on them and ultimately on us.”

But wait. I think those of us who engage volunteers can take this one step further.

Just as we impact each volunteer we encounter, we also leave a lasting effect on our profession.

What might that effect be? Do we owe it to each other and future leaders of volunteers to leave the profession in better shape than we found it? Do we owe it to our volunteers?

Even if the title “manager of volunteers” is temporary, or a stepping stone, or a detour in a career, there is an entire network of individuals working diligently to elevate this profession. So what can each of us do?

  • Don’t remain isolated. Join a peer group in town, find leaders online to connect with, web groups to join etc.
  • Advocate professionally. Use your voice to advocate for resources and the tools you require.
  • Share your impressions and experiences. Blog, comment on posts, add your expertise to articles on non-profits. If you read a post on non-profits that blatantly ignores volunteer engagement, point that out in the comment section.
  • Use your influence. When you do leave, remember your time as a leader of volunteers and use your influence to advocate for this profession.


Your professional essence is left behind as you move on, retire, or seek other opportunities. How you treat this “job” goes far beyond your own perceptions and needs at the time. And while it might seem so, we are not working in silos.

If each one of us leaves volunteer management in better shape than we found it, imagine the future of volunteer engagement.