Volunteers and Kintsugi


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volunteers and kintsugi

I met Jake one cold winter day when he came to our volunteer orientation. He continuously looked at his hands and shifted in his seat. He didn’t speak up when the other new volunteers answered questions. Instead he watched quietly from his space.

When orientation was over, I looked forward to interviewing the new volunteers one on one. It helped to know them away from the group setting. I didn’t know what to expect with Jake.

He came into my office and sat down. The air was charged with his story and I pretended that his hesitation was common among new volunteers. Then he began to talk.

There’s a great deal of research and evidence that volunteering increases well-being. It staves off loneliness, offers a life of purpose, aids in skill building, wards off dementia and boosts self-confidence. But there is another aspect to volunteering beyond well-being. It’s a form of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of golden joinery. It recognizes the beauty in broken things. Kintsugi is the art of rejoining broken pieces and dusting them with gold powder. The broken when fixed, becomes more beautiful.

Jake was broken. And through his volunteering, he pieced himself together with dazzling golden powder. He was a phenomenal volunteer who found a way to believe in himself by believing in others.

He worked his way into taking tougher assignments. He built himself up again, one volunteer day after another until he had a supportive group of volunteer friends and had clients who depended upon him because he was dependable again. His broken pieces became a different, but new whole.


Haragayato [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

We are privileged to witness a human Kintsugi in a few of of our volunteers. Their broken parts take on a luster from the golden dust we offer them. And the interesting thing about Kintsugi is the golden repair’s meaning stays with those who gaze upon the new work. Jake’s journey to repair resides within me, a golden nugget that I can roll between my fingers when I need it.

I know you’ve had broken volunteers and I know you’ve seen them heal. Their fractures are a part of their makeup and history and what makes them beautifully empathetic and able to connect.

So, the next time you gaze wistfully at one of your once broken volunteers, see the shimmer of gold that fills the spaces in between and know you’ve had a hand in the repair.





2019: Should Volunteer Managers Look Forward or Look Back?


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person on a bridge near a lake

Photo by Simon Migaj on Pexels.com

Happy New Year!

It’s time for resolutions, optimism and time to drop the pounds from all the volunteer homemade goodies, including Anna’s cheese blintzes scarfed down during full stressed-out mode.

Ahhhh, the new year. It’s full of hope. We seldom hope for a year that’s exactly like the one we just completed, right? Instead, we hope for a better year. So, do we look forward or backward or both ways?

Actually, we can do both and connect the past year with a better future. Looking back can be so much more than feeling good or bad about the year. It can be extremely instructive.

Looking back to move forward gives us an action plan, one that ensures a brighter 2019.

Begin by looking back at accomplishments to formulate a plan to continue those accomplishments. Then build upon methods to expand accomplishments in 2019. What went right? What is the blueprint? For example:

  • Last year, hours by volunteers who were trained to interact with clients increased from the previous year by 10%: So, for 2019, I will fortify and increase training. And for a new accomplishment, I will create a training that can be introduced to increase hours in other areas.
  • Last year, advocating for more resources produced a recruitment budget increase: So, for 2019, I will hone that method of advocating and for a new accomplishment, present supporting statistics to ask for more resources in other areas.
  • Last year, several highly skilled volunteers were recruited through networking: So, for 2019, I will continue networking opportunities and for a new accomplishment, I will look for new networking opportunities to find other volunteer skills.

On the flip side, what disappointing things happened? Instead of trying to forget about these instances, analyze them because they can also be valuable in planning for the coming year. It may take longer and you may have to dig deeper to find causes, but there are reasons for the disappointment. What went wrong? What is the blueprint for avoiding something similar? Unlike accomplishments, disappointments will take more effort to root out the cause (without assigning blame) and more work to change future outcomes. For example:

  • The volunteer appreciation event was kind of lame. Volunteers were once again not properly recognized: For 2019, how can I better show the value of volunteer contributions? How can I set a tone for sincere recognition?
  • Our huge donor gala was a gigantic headache. Last minute volunteer requests and changes to requests kept me scrambling: For 2019, what systems or ground rules can I put into place to avoid this in the future? (For my take on setting ground rules, see Volunteer Department Ground Rules and the follow-up Attention: The Volunteer Department Now Has Ground Rules.)
  • Senior management dropped a new “role” for volunteers onto my lap because we are cutting back. New tasks or jobs for volunteers are created without consulting me for any input: For 2019, how can I educate administration on volunteer engagement? How can I present volunteer feedback that shows volunteers want meaningful experiences?

It’s nice to hope that 2019 will be a better year but we can take control of that hope and create blueprints to ensure it will be a better year. By looking back at accomplishments to continue the momentum and looking back at disappointments to formulate a change strategy, we will move our programs forward into the year we wish to see.

Here’s to 2019 and a lot more hope control!




Take Some Volunteer Management Time For Yourself


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children riding bicycle

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s that time of year: Hectic. Chaotic. Long hours. It’s not a time for us to step back, it’s a time when our efforts step up.

It’s also the best time to take back some moments for yourself. As volunteer managers, we pour every ounce of energy into making holidays special for the people we serve. We ensure our holiday volunteers soak up the warm moments as we stand in the shadows, sopping up the feels from afar. But this means missing out on the fuel we need to keep going.

I’m involved in a toy drive and the other day a man quietly rolled a girl’s 20″ bicycle up to the door. “Do you think she’ll like it?” He asked. His eyes radiated the joy of giving a girl he never met the gift of childhood.

I stopped what I was doing. He showed me the teal and pink helmet and explained how he realized she needed one or she wouldn’t be able to ride the bike when she got it because of well, you know, laws and safety and all. He recounted how he searched for one that matched the bike’s mad swirl of colors. He told me how he carefully selected this bike and how he envisioned her riding it through her neighborhood.

He ran his fingers over the handlebar and told me he had purchased a three-wheeled bike for another organization so that an elderly person would have something to ride. And oh, he chuckled at his own sentimentality, he made sure the helmet matched.

I needed that. I needed to stop and hear his story. I needed to fill up with one tale that encapsulated all the good in this world. It was like sitting down and opening a sparkling box that contained a map to the why.

Take time to connect, to fill your own hearts with joy. You work so hard all year and even more so at this time. You deserve at least one humble person to tell you their story and for a few chaotic -stilled moments, let you know it’s all right with your world.


Volunteer Clicks or Cliques?


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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

One of the most prolific skills volunteer managers possess is the art of matching volunteers to not only roles, but to each other. We work hard to pair volunteer personalities that will mesh. We introduce hand picked volunteers to each other knowing that the team will “click.”

I remember getting all tingly when I dropped in on a team and they were chatting away, enjoying the camaraderie with one another. It’s a real perk to volunteering. You can almost hear the team bonding as each person joins. Click, click, click. But some teams will click so well that they shut new volunteers out.

Being a new volunteer is challenging, especially when dropped into an established group of volunteers. The group is an entity unto its own. The group has a rhythm, methods of interaction, unspoken rules and shared history.

Individually, the group members may be welcoming, but group dynamics dictate actions. So, what can we do to encourage socialization among volunteers but at the same time be cognizant of group think?

  1. 1. Do not just drop a new volunteer into the group unannounced, even if it is only temporary. I brought a new volunteer into a group one day and I thought I had walked into a meat locker, the response was so cold. Alert the group beforehand, talk to them in person, or call to keep from putting them on the spot.
    2. Play up about the awesomeness of the group to the newbie and vice versa. Let the group know that this new person considers it an honor to join such a fantastic well-functioning group.
    3. Appeal to the group’s sensibilities. Say to groups, “I wanted Doug to join you because he’s anxious to do well and I couldn’t think of a volunteer group better able to show him the ropes.”
    4. Make it temporary at first. Say, “Doug will be learning from you and I hope that he can join a group of his own once he’s ready.” Sometimes the group will just love the new person and take them in because the decision was their’s to make. If a newbie is not forced upon them, the group is more receptive.
    5. Check in often. Observing the dynamics of the group will tell you everything about how well the integration is working. Check in to let the group and the new volunteer know that you care about their success.
    6. Make it clear that the organization wants to be inclusive of new folks. I’ve used phrases like, “we don’t want to be the best kept secret,” and “we want everyone to be able to have a meaningful experience. With your help, we can do that with our new volunteers.”

But what if the group still rejects new volunteers? I’ve had groups that, when a member or two is out for extended periods of time get angry because the temporary volunteer doesn’t operate like good old Janet or Bob or whomever is missing. Then, when several newer volunteers tell me that they won’t work with that group because of the way they were treated, I know I have a problem, and it’s time for a volunteer intervention.

Have a chat about change (On their time and turf is best). Invest in members’ feelings. The members of the volunteer group may:

  • be worried that their missing member is sick and will never return.
  • be upset that their missing member is cavalierly being replaced.
  • think that new volunteers will come in and critique them.
  • feel like they’re not doing a good enough job, because if someone new needs to come in, what does that say about their competence?

Assure the group that you care about the missing member. Reinforce the group’s strengths. Make inclusion a source of accomplishment.

Here’s another part to this: Do we, volunteer managers sometimes play favorites without knowing it? It’s natural to engage volunteers who are “super volunteers,” but it’s our responsibility to look out for new people and integrate them into the team. How can we show that we are inclusive?

  • look at everyone in the room when speaking.
  • when chuckling over inside jokes, explain the context to everyone and make everyone part of the fun.
  • when discussing past events, give a synopsis of the event. (and heck, even long-term volunteers don’t know everything about every event)
  • introduce new volunteers in meetings.
  • when asking questions, call on new volunteers.
  • use welcoming and inclusive verbiage.
  • speak to accomplishing mission goals together.
  • enlist long-term volunteers into mentoring new volunteers.

There’s a delicate balance between “clicking” and “clique-ing” and integrating new volunteers into established volunteer groups takes nuanced persuasion.

But then again, ‘Nuanced Persuasion’ is our middle name.

This post is an update from a 2015 post, Click, click, clique


Reject a Volunteer, Gain an Advocate


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A lot of well-intentioned people advise volunteer managers to treat “hiring” volunteers in the same manner staff is hired. It is not that simple and last week’s post explored why. Here is the list again:

  • Unlike staff, we do not have a limit on number of volunteers we can accept, so it becomes much harder to turn away a volunteer. (Because volunteers are viewed as “free help” and the more, the merrier)
  • Qualifications for volunteering are viewed as much simpler and broader than for staff. (meaning there’s a much wider base of volunteers and well, all people want to volunteer right?)
  • There is this perception surrounding volunteering that anyone who offers their time is fit for the job, which is a complete opposite of the perceptions of staff hiring. (warm body theory)
  • Unpaid work is viewed as simple, easy and can be done by anyone. (luke-warm body theory) It’s also, the (they can’t hurt anything because they’re not doing anything impactful theory).

Let me add another big one to the list: Managing human capital. Let’s say there’s an open, full-time paid position for an IT person at Organization X. HR interviews candidates and offers the job to an experienced IT person who on-boards.

Now let’s say Organization X needs a volunteer to man the reception desk 20 hours per week. The volunteer manager will interview candidates but that’s where the similarities end. To fill that position, the volunteer manager must “hire” multiple part-time volunteers along with back-ups for the days volunteers are absent. A volunteer manager’s process is exponentially more complex and fluid and requires a much larger amount of human capital to fill a position involving less hours worked.

Another difference lies in retention anchors. HR has salary, benefits, upward mobility, and positive recommendations that hold the IT person in place. Volunteer managers rely on volunteer engagement. We have vastly different, much more time consuming work involved in keeping a volunteer. (and don’t get me started on the work needed to keep a volunteer at an organization who does not require everyone to engage volunteers)

In mathematical equations it looks like this:

1 employee x 4 variables = success!

1 volunteer x 17,892 variables + vol mgr coaching ÷ meaningful job ≥ staying at home watching “Dancing with the Stars.”

It’s no wonder volunteer managers have a hard time saying no to a volunteer beyond the niceness quotient. We have a more labor intensive recruitment and retention process and every volunteer we turn away equals losing those hours we’ve spent.

It’s not a surprise when volunteer managers back peddle and put in a “warm body,” especially when hounded by comments like “I guess you don’t think we need more volunteers or you’d be out recruiting them.”

But we must find the best people for each volunteer role. This doesn’t mean we have to reject potential volunteers from our organizations. And it doesn’t mean all those recruitment hours should go to waste. We can first classify every potential volunteer as advocates by structuring our recruitment to lay out advocacy and expectations from the start.

Messaging that says, “we need you and everybody else in the world,” sets us up for failure when we don’t need that guy, the one who sneaks a shot of bourbon during breaks in training.

Begin at the very beginning. Start by introducing service to your organization as, “we need more advocates for our mission.” Volunteering for our organizations, as we are told by volunteers is a privilege. Set up the expectation that volunteers are elevated advocates. Make orientation and open houses about advocacy. Welcome the attendees and tell them what actions they can do to help. Give them an advocacy sheet outlining your mission, your work and verbiage to use when advocating. Equip them with pamphlets to pass out. Show them your interactive website.

Introduce volunteering and donating as forms of elevated advocacy or the next step. Explain that potential volunteers will go through an interview and background check process. Show examples of volunteer roles but stress required qualifications and skills. Introduce your policies and procedures and impress upon the advocates your commitment to providing mission value. Make volunteering for your organization a coveted position, one that advocates will want to aspire to, instead of expecting to be automatically accepted because “hey you need someone, right?”

Capture each new advocate’s email and keep them in the loop with email blasts, updates on mission work, new initiatives etc. Encourage them to send in their advocacy hours-anything they have done to further the mission by speaking to friends, leaving pamphlets at clubhouses, businesses, etc. Most likely, you can’t record those hours because these advocates are not official volunteers, but so what? Record them on a separate spreadsheet and share them with the advocates in an email.

Design a report that shows all the advocate relationships and their hours. This report highlights two important but seldom understood volunteer management accomplishments:

  1. time spent schmoozing with people is not just “having fun” but rather, has purpose.
  2. relationships forged in volunteer services extend mission outreach and awareness.

Invite advocates to events and if your organization is on-board with having them work the event, then invite them to participate in a small way. Label episodic groups “group advocates” because a goal with one time and corporate groups is to create partnerships with folks who will advocate for us once they’ve completed a volunteering assignment.

Let’s say an advocate interviews for a volunteer position and you deem them not a good fit for the role. Tell them that this particular position is not right for their skills or talents. It’s more palatable to be told that you aren’t right for a position than to feel like an organization is rejecting you altogether. It’s subtle, but less harsh.

Tell the person you appreciate their advocacy and their willingness to help (because it’s the truth). Making advocacy about action is giving people a way to be involved versus telling them “no, you can’t volunteer,” and then shutting the door.

Let them apply again for another position. The point is, we create relationships with people beyond filling a task. Let that work for you. Ask advocates to recruit more advocates (and potential volunteers). The message then becomes, “We appreciate your willingness to help. There are many ways to help including, but not limited to volunteering.” It’s inclusion versus an all or nothing approach.

Reach out to other agencies who are looking for volunteers and see if there are opportunities open as I suggested in this post from last year, Innovation and Sustainable Volunteering.

Clearly this is not meant for the potential volunteer who is destructive or wildly inappropriate. It is for those potential volunteers who are on the cusp. Forging a relationship with them as advocates doesn’t slam the door in their face and who knows, they may eventually become volunteers or bring in volunteers or donors or more advocates.

We, volunteer managers don’t have to accept that we have an all or nothing approach. When faced with challenges, we find ways to overcome them. Volunteering is about action. Advocacy is also about action. Creating an advocacy role that uplifts volunteering to an elevated form increases mission awareness and reach. It also gives us more control over volunteer engagement and assignments.

And heck, I’ll admit it: I know I have to, but I just hate to turn people away.













Can We Reject a Volunteer?


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We need volunteers. We say as much, in ads, to staff, to other volunteers and to the woman behind us in line as the barista makes our coffee. So, how can we justify rejecting anyone who steps forward and raises their hand? Because, as much as we want every person who even mutters the word “volunteering” to succeed, we need volunteers who will make a positive impact on our missions.

What do you do when someone applies to volunteer and you realize they will not work out? Do you practice avoidance because you’re a nice person and nice people don’t reject other people, especially to their faces? Do you accidentally lose their paperwork? Do you string them along by saying “every job is closed right now due to an internal audit and I’m not sure when the jobs will open back up so hang in there,” in hopes they will get tired of asking?

Or do you accept them and just hope the problems won’t be too big? Do you keep them so close that they’re practically an extension of you and then you fall behind on deadlines? Do you place them with great volunteers, hoping constructive influence will remake them?

Ok, I’m not proud of it, but at one time or another, I’ve actually used every one of the above “strategies.” And, yes, you guessed it, every one failed. These strategies failed because they were not sound to begin with.

We, volunteer managers are often faced with difficult choices, ones made more difficult because we are working with volunteers. Unlike an HR department that hires staff, our situation is much different in these ways:

  • Unlike staff, we do not have a limit on number of volunteers we can accept, so it becomes much harder to turn away a volunteer.
  • Qualifications for volunteering are viewed as much simpler and broader than for staff.
  • There is this perception surrounding volunteering that anyone who offers their time is already fit for the job, which is a complete opposite of the perceptions of staff hiring.
  • Unpaid work is viewed as simple, easy and can be done by anyone.

Perceptions of volunteers and their contributions hinder our ability to be choosy, but we must. We are responsible for providing volunteers who positively impact our missions. But there’s another reason to be choosy. As we advance our volunteer engagement programs, we have to tighten up our methods for maximum impact and move away from being overwhelmed by unproductive ends.

The first step in finding solutions is to examine our own objections to having a difficult conversation with a potential volunteer. The difficult “rejection” conversation is different from having a talk with an existing volunteer (see Difficult Conversations with Staff or Volunteers) in these ways:

  • We don’t know the potential volunteer as well as we know an existing volunteer.
  • We haven’t given the potential volunteer a chance.
  • We’ve work hard to recruit the volunteer and now we’re rescinding that invitation.
  • We don’t know the approach that works with a volunteer we barely know.
  • We feel like we’ve failed because our recruitment strategy didn’t capture the perfect person.

We can’t keep using avoidance or risky strategies. Those counter intuitive strategies waste everyone’s time and create ill feelings when our goal is to create positive relationships. And we can actually create a relationship with a rejected volunteer.

The first thing we need to do, is to stop using the word “reject.” Reject is a harsh word, meaning deny, eliminate and dismiss. Instead, let’s look at reshaping the potential volunteer. Let’s view every person who comes to volunteer as our chance to create organizational advocates. Not everyone has to volunteer to become an advocate. Heck, one-time volunteers or people who tour your office can be advocates.

Volunteer managers excel at building relationships and rejection just doesn’t fit our style. Once you rethink rejection as potentially building a relationship, then prepare yourself to “reshape” the prospective volunteer by:

  • Reminding yourself that not all people will fit the volunteer role, but all people can be advocates.
  • Reassuring yourself that your goal is to create an advocate, not a person who feels mistreated because of avoidance strategies.
  • Giving yourself permission to feel disappointed, but assure yourself that you are a proactive leader who is finding the best solution for all.
  • Reminding yourself that it is more cruel to set a volunteer up for failure than it is to find an alternative solution from the start.
  • Viewing the opportunity to mold your engagement program.

We, volunteer managers are not comfortable rejecting volunteers so let’s stop looking at it in this way. We want everyone to excel. But not everyone has to excel in the task boxes our organizations have created, so it is up to us to invent new boxes.

If we develop a volunteer engagement system that allows for avenues, reshaping becomes much more palatable for us and for the new advocate.

A very dear colleague used to use the phrase, “let’s part as friends,” when turning down a job applicant. We can take that one step further and say to any potential volunteer who may not be right for a particular task, “let’s advocate for a cause we believe in.”

Next time: Systems in place to turn a rejection into a reshaping.




A Different Thankful


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Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on everything we are thankful for. We are inspired by volunteers, our community and each other.

But, can we be thankful for challenges? Can we be humbled, yet encouraged by the things that give us fits? For volunteer managers, our challenge lies in the paradox that is our place in the non-profit world.

We’re thankful for the profound connections our volunteers make but not thankful for the twinge in the pit of our stomachs when fellow non-profit staff say things like, “be glad you’re not in management,” or “my son stayed home from school today. Please be a dear and give him some volunteer stuff to do while I work.”

We’re thankful that our efforts produce real solutions, but not thankful when we are expected to fill-in for absent volunteers.

We’re thankful that our community is richer because of our volunteer engagement program but not thankful when we’re told that we are classified as a 40 hour position, yet on our time off we field phone calls from volunteers who weren’t given clear instructions.

We can rage at the moon or we can do something. We can look at our challenges as an opportunity to enact change, one that will elevate our programs, our volunteers and ourselves.

Volunteer managers are the antithesis of the “woe is me” crowd. Action is our middle name. We are in motion all the time.

Let’s take this opportunity to fix the paradox. Let’s do this for our volunteers, for the people we serve, for our communities and for the leaders of volunteers who will come after us.

Let’s be thankful that we, here and now have been given this opportunity.  Let’s find one another, unleash a united movement and elevate volunteers, volunteer management and volunteer managers.

Thank you.


Volunteering Backwards


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In the U.S., the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday signals retail’s frenzied push to profit and the beginning of the holiday season. For me it was always more of a Frazzled Friday because I was never quite prepared for the outpouring of love for mankind by hopeful one time volunteers after the stupor of eating too much turkey and mayo on leftover oven biscuits wore off.

Ahhhh, that giving spirit warms the heart or maybe it’s indigestion from cranberry sauce with whole berries, (cause they ran out of the regular) I’m not sure. You know what I’m talking about. People are in the mood to do a good deed.

It could be the steaming cup of hot cocoa or the search for the perfect gift for Grandma Maria or the filled seats in a place of worship that stirs the soul into thinking of others. It could be instinct and we humans, like birds migrating, have an internal clock that collectively ticks towards helping.

No matter the reason, you brace yourself for the stampede of human kindness.

Alicia calls to say her three kids need to come in and find out just how good they have it by seeing people less fortunate than they are. Can you pick out a few good down on their luck folks to show them?

Mrs. Bancroft stops by, wanting to donate the leftovers from her holiday book club party. She needs help getting the half eaten cake with “Hap Hol” written on top and large tub of spoiling fruit salad out of her car. When she closes her trunk she winks, “Give it to the hungry people. They’ll love it.”

Celia shows up with her trumpet and says she wants to “cheer up” all the poor folks with her rendition of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.”

Andre, a photography student drops in unannounced because he had this dream last night and he wants to photograph sad faces and share his work with the world.

Yep, love for fellow man is filling up hearts like giant blow up Santas on motorcycles. You remember the last health department inspection and schlep all the food to the trash after Mrs. Bancroft has gone. You politely lie to Alicia and say you’re sorry but you’re standing knee deep in water because there’s been a water main break and no one is allowed in the building for the foreseeable future.  You tell Celia that all the “poor folks” are allergic to music and tell Andre that the sad people are down the street at city hall.

The holidays bring out more one-time volunteers with requests than we can handle. It’s easy to dismiss their naivete and motives when you and volunteers are busy balancing the light and dark that holidays bring to your clients. Holiday one timers don’t get that we have processes; that they can’t use our clients for a feel good moment.

We can wonder where that desire to do something nice for our fellow citizens hibernates all year. We can wave our hands in front of puzzled faces and say, “you’ve got this all wrong! If you would come in and take volunteer orientation, I can show you volunteering’s real meaning.” We can mutter under our breath, “seriously, you want to hand out pictures of your son, who has a bit part in a movie about a homeless man to our families as inspiration?”

Can we just bottle this enthusiasm, pour it into our volunteer engagement brew, stir it up and come out with a perfect volunteer? Maybe we need to serve turkey or figgy pudding or hot cocoa all year round.

Or maybe we can find some solace in the absurdity and know that there’s good in most everyone, even if it doesn’t show in an appropriate volunteering way.  As hopeful beings, we can continue to hand out our volunteering pamphlets and invite everyone who breathlessly calls us with a need to do something good to come and participate in a real way.

And, we can remind ourselves nothing is perfect, we can’t make every person understand how volunteering works and we have real work to do for our clients who are both hurt and hopeful during the holidays. We can be kind but still tune out our inner voice that whispers, “you’ve got to try. Make this person see how magical volunteering can be.”

The holidays are wonderful, stressful and overwhelming without the addition of added pressures. While you are humming “Jeremiah was a bullfrog,” formulate your strategy for making this season work for you, for your volunteers and for your mission.

And for all the Alicias, Mrs. Bancrofts, Celias and Andres out there, you’ve got it kinda backwards, but thanks for caring.


More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative


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On the 12th October Rob published an article raising five questions about a new corporate social responsibility (CSR) pilot from Starbucks in the USA. By happy coincidence, this appeared two weeks after Meridian Swift had published another article challenging leaders of volunteers to be aware of and engage with corporate volunteering. Both articles shared common threads so it seemed sensible to work together to develop the thinking further.

Rob and Meridian got their thinking caps on and devised some further questions that they felt needed asking. These relate not just to the Starbucks pilot, but to employee volunteering more broadly as well. What follows is the product of Meridian and Rob’s joint efforts to try and provide some answers.

How will this affect me, in my office, in my town, and what do I do about it?

Meridian: It’s reasonable to think that since there are only 36 employees participating in 13 cities across the United States, it won’t really affect me at all. However, if you live in the areas served by this initiative, it might. The Points of Light (POL) network affiliates involved in this initial pairing are:

HandsOn Atlanta; HandsOn Bay Area; Boston Cares; HandsOn Broward, FL; Chicago Cares; VolunteerNow (Dallas); Volunteer Fairfax; Volunteer Houston; HandsOn Miami; HandsOn Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul); HandsOn Greater Phoenix; Seattle Works; and United Way of Greater St. Louis.

The affiliate organizations listed above act as clearinghouses for local volunteer programs. If your volunteer engagement program has a relationship with one of the above affiliates, it’s conceivable that your organization benefits downstream from this resource.

Starbucks has plans to increase their volunteering commitment next year and if successful, they could extend it into other countries as well. In support of this first pilot cohort, the Starbucks Foundation awarded POL a grant and a portion of that grant provides each of the Fellows with an hourly stipend – much like a national service placement awards their living stipend. These 36 Starbucks partners spend up to 20 hours each week at one of the placement sites listed above.

We must realize this initiative will grow and begin to prepare for future changes in how we cultivate and engage volunteers. We have become accustomed to corporate groups seeking one-time projects for team building and to increase their CSR (corporate social responsibility) visibility, but the Starbucks Service Fellows are a whole new level of corporate participation.

Should we be prepared for more of this? Is this where corporate volunteering is going?

Meridian: Oh, my gosh, yes. Consider this direct quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light: “We believe this bold program, designed in partnership with Starbucks, will redefine corporate engagement and the private sector’s ability to support civic engagement.”

Others are already jumping on the bandwagon. A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Indiana recently made news when the owner decided to pay his employees to volunteer while his store was closed for remodeling.

We are in a corporate volunteering pivotal time. No, I take that back. Due to societal shifts and social media, we are about to be hit by a tidal wave of corporate volunteer participation. The private sector is getting deeply involved, as I alluded to in my blog post in September. If volunteer engagement professionals do not get on top of this trend right now, corporations will become frustrated at our lack of preparation and ability to provide the level of engagement they are looking for in a partnership. The sad reality is, they will bypass us completely, and they have the talent and money to do it.

Are there going to be businesses who admire Starbucks and want to be like them, so they will attempt to model this initiative?

Rob: Almost certainly, yes. Here’s another quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light:

“Starbucks’ investment in the 13 communities served by this initiative will not only spark positive change through more than 17,000 hours of community service, but it also serves as a model for an employer-led capacity-building program that Starbucks and other corporate partners can scale globally in the future.” 

It’s important to remember that this pilot seems to be driven primarily as a way to attract millennial employees. As the UK’s Guardian newspaper stated in their coverage of this story:

“18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”


“According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, one-third of Millennials surveyed said that their companies’ volunteer policies affected their decision to apply for a job, 39% said that it influenced their decision to interview, and 55% said that such policies played into their decision to accept an offer.”

Employers of all sizes and all sectors are facing the challenge of providing incentives to hire millennial staff. Baby boomers are ageing into retirement, leaving a shortage of labour thanks to the smaller cohort of Generation X. Competition for millennials will, therefore, increase and we shouldn’t be surprised to see businesses looking to volunteerism related options as a way of winning the recruitment battle.

In fact, the question isn’t really whether we’ll see more of these kinds of initiatives from corporations, but whether the public and non-profit sectors might follow suit as they try to pry some of that millennial talent away from the private sector.

What exactly are these “Service Fellows” doing? A regular volunteer’s job? A regular employee’s job? Or something that can’t replace anyone already there?

Rob: Good question. Right now we don’t really know. However, as our colleague Jerome Tennille pointed out when commenting via social media on Rob’s blog post:

“This model of service is similar to AmeriCorps, and most non-profits are familiar with how to integrate them in. The difference here is that it’s funded by a private entity.

If Jerome is right then we can expect to see Starbucks Service Fellows stepping into roles similar to those undertaken by AmeriCorps members.

Back in March 2010 our colleague Susan J Ellis wrote an article encouraging managers of volunteers to engage with the then emerging AmeriCorps programme to ensure the roles provided didn’t have negative effects. Chief amongst Susan’s concerns was organisations would hire AmeriCorps members to lead volunteer management, rather than making long-term, strategic investments in this important function.

We would echo Susan’s call today, eight years on. Leaders of volunteers have to engage to make this scheme a success for everyone, not just Starbucks. It is essential that volunteer managers at non-profits are part of the planning as these innovations in corporate giving develop. We need to make sure our voices are heard, influence these schemes for the good of our organisations and clients.

In fact, Susan’s concerns are perhaps more acute for the Starbucks model where placement will only be for six months. Imagine getting a new (and possibly relatively inexperienced) service fellow coming into the organisation twice a year – would your organisation benefit or suffer from that turnover in the leadership and management of volunteers? Please don’t just dismiss these schemes as not volunteering, burying your head in the sand in the hope they will go away. Get involved, speak up or it may be your job that service fellows take

Did they consult a volunteer engagement expert? What arrangements are in place with the POL affiliate nonprofits?

Meridian: I have reached out to Starbucks press and a few of the local affiliate organizations who are recipients of the Starbucks Service Fellows, but haven’t yet had a lot of luck in connecting.

I realize that this is a new program and they may not have enough good information to share at this point but what I have gathered is Starbucks and Points of Light are striving to change the way corporations think about employee engagement and the use of their human capital/resources to support strengthening nonprofits and communities. Since Points of Light is the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, they are experts in volunteerism, so my guess is there was a good deal of consulting between these two giants in their respective sectors.

Since this is a joint partnership between Starbucks and Points of Light, it naturally follows that Points of Light would choose affiliate partners across the country. There are more than 200 volunteer mobilizing organizations or affiliates, which share a common mission, goals and approach. The affiliates may pair Starbucks Fellows with local non-profit partners, but that is yet unclear.

Is this one of those lofty, not thought out edicts from above that will make a volunteer manager’s life a living hell because no input was asked for?

Rob: As we’ve already noted, Starbucks are doing this because they want an advantage when recruiting millennial employees. Points of Light are doing it because they have affiliates who will “benefit from focused volunteer efforts that align with Starbucks’ global social impact priorities, with a focus on opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.” 

Whether we agree with those motivations or not (and who are we to judge?), that’s what we know.

Boards and senior managers will rush to engage with corporations with the volunteer management professionals likely to be the last to know what they’ve been signed up for.

This is especially true with CSR programmes where the impetus comes from fundraising colleagues – in the hope the corporate will make cash donations – or communications colleagues looking for a public relations coup.

For schemes like this to be a success the volunteer manager cannot just be the poor schmuck who gets responsibility for making it work dumped on them. That may not have been the case in the Starbucks example, but we can see it happening in future, to the detriment of all involved. Non-profits need their leader of volunteer engagement involved from the get-go and we need to be making this case now, before it’s too late.

Will volunteering be on-site or is it project based off-site?

Meridian: We have no evidence at this time. Whether the service fellows will follow a prescribed national plan or will be allowed to meet local needs remains unclear. It appears they will volunteer in the areas that align with Starbuck’s philanthropic priorities, which include opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.

Hurricane Michael recently devastated the areas around Mexico Beach in Florida and according to the Starbucks press release, a Starbucks shift supervisor from Florida will work on hurricane preparedness and hurricane relief with HandsOn Broward. Their involvement may be according to local needs but we just don’t know yet.

What role should bodies like Points of Light have in future, representing non-profits and Volunteer Managers?

Rob: The role of a broker in corporate volunteering can be a really important one, as Dr. Joanne Cook and Dr. Jon Burchell highlighted in their 2015 paper, “Employee Supported Volunteering: Realising The Potential” (summary article available here):

‘The challenge is finding what people in the business will engage with, and the skills that the charities want, identifying this is the challenge and that’s where the brokerage comes in.’

In the Starbucks initiative, POL played a brokerage role between the company and their own local affiliates, matching needs and priorities between both parties. Yet as schemes like this develop and spread the importance of brokers will grow, with a neutral party necessary to help match corporates and non-profits in a fair manner. Key to this will be supporting non-profits to assert their needs rather than just capitulating to whatever business requests. As in any volunteering relationship, mutual benefit is essential, so brokers will need to ensure a level playing field as both parties negotiate the details of corporate volunteering relationships.

We also think brokers and intermediaries have a responsibility to ensure the volunteer management voice is heard in non-profits. As noted before, all too often the desire to work with business is driven by the lure of a cash donation, marginalizing the input of a volunteer engagement professional in favour of corporate fundraising priorities. This mustn’t happen! If volunteer managers are left out of the planning loop then they will struggle to deliver on what their bosses and corporate partners want and need, weakening the relationship limiting the potential for success.

If we were Volunteer Managers on the receiving end of this, what would we like to know?

Rob: OK, over to you. This is your chance to collaborate with us on this article and move the debate forward. Imagine your organisation is looking to get involved in something like the Starbucks / Points of Light initiative. What questions would you have; for the corporation; for your board and senior managers; for other paid staff colleagues in your organisation (e.g. HR, fundraising); and perhaps for your existing volunteers and those coming from the business?

Leave a comment in the comments section below with the things you’d like to know and add your voice to the debate.

We look forward to reading your thoughts.

Rob and Meridian