Volunteer Department Ground Rules


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volunteer department ground rules

In this dream you walk up to a woman sitting at a desk. Behind her, a closed-door is visible in an otherwise blank wall. “I need,” you say to her, “two camels, a box of jellied donuts and a ladder.”

“When?” she says, writing it down.


“I see.” She rips the sheet of paper off the pad and disappears behind the heavy door, closing it with a thud.

That’s volunteer management. Where has she gone? Are there actually camels back there? Will the donuts be fresh? Is the ladder being used by someone else? Is mine the only order she is filling? Will she be back by tomorrow?

This is why there are ground rules. Take baseball. If a batter hits a ball that bounces off the left field grass and goes into the bleachers, that’s a ground rule double. It prevents the runner from unfairly advancing and the left fielder from climbing into the bleachers and fighting the fan who picked up the ball. (well, ok, that’s a bit overblown) But without ground rules, how can anyone requesting volunteer help know what goes on behind the closed-door? How can they possibly know priorities, or time frames, or volunteer availability or the feasibility of their request?

Too often, volunteer departments operate reactively, disappearing behind the door to field multiple requests at a time. Many of those requests are last-minute, some are more complicated than others, and some morph on a daily basis. On top of these requests, the volunteer department is tasked with keeping revolving or permanent volunteer spots filled, spots that are routinely being vacated by volunteers who are absent for a myriad of reasons such as illness, vacation, moving or quitting.

And sometimes, if we are brutally honest, the most reliable and skilled volunteers are paired with the squeekiest wheel and not the most engaging assignment.

So, let’s imagine two volunteer spots are vacant. One spot is for a volunteer receptionist on the weekend when the staff receptionist is off. Phones have to be answered. The other spot is for a volunteer to deliver vital equipment to a client, also on the weekend. The client needs the equipment. Which one of these vacant spots takes priority?

With no ground rules, volunteer managers are expected to fill all spots, every time and in every time frame. It doesn’t matter when the requests are made, or how many volunteers are needed, because there are no ground rules. So what if the volunteer manager is fielding ten requests at once.

Volunteer departments need ground rules in order to end the scrambling madness. We need to outline the process behind the door in order to organize our systems for the good of everyone. With that in mind, what might these ground rules include?

Priorities: What volunteer requests are the most important and need be filled first, should all requests come at the same time? Client based? Permanent or recurring roles that fill in for staff? Recurring roles that make the organization work such as kitchen or receptionist help?

Time frame: Should a request made two days before an event have the same priority as one made weeks in advance? Having a clear chronological order or queue is a necessary ground rule. First asked, first filled will force staff to amend the last-minute request behavior. But wait. What if a volunteer calls in sick last minute for a higher priority position? Does that go to the front of the queue?

Feasibility of time spent: Requesting 20 volunteers who are willing to wait tables versus 5 volunteers to pass out flyers have differing time investments. How can this be addressed? Does a request requiring more time spent finding volunteers take precedence over one that is simpler? Or does one major event attended by potential donors and stakeholders take precedence over smaller, lesser events?

Setting ground rules won’t work if the volunteer department simply types them up and hands them out. There must be a buy in from the CEO on down through the department heads and a willingness to support the volunteer manager in the instituting of them. Asking senior management to outline priorities in say, a task force is not unreasonable and may also have the added benefit of encouraging the hierarchy to outline other organizational priorities as well.

Look at it mathematically. If there are too many requests with too little time frame and not enough skilled volunteers, then some requests will go unfilled, right? With priorities set and ground rules established, the most beneficial, most time worthy and most bang for the buck requests will be filled first.

How many times have we mused that “no one knows how to do our job until they do it?’ We are like that lady in the dream. We take the order and then disappear behind the closed-door. We are hiding the effort, the juggling, the piecing together, the circling back, the reaching out, the doubling down, the soothing over, the listening to, the rearranging, the sorting, the skills assessing and all the other components needed to engage volunteers. We are tearing our hair out behind the door and then smiling, stepping back outside while covering our bald spots with that crazy hair paint.

Ground rules are not just for baseball. Next time: Setting ground rules, or how to prioritize what’s going on behind the door.

Volunteer managers, let’s set some ground rules and play a better game of baseball.





Non-Profits, Your Volunteer Manager Wanted Ads Say A Lot About You


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The Volunteer Manager wanted ads out there remind me of a fish market.  Some offerings are fresh, appealing and beautifully displayed and some just, well, stink.

Let’s ask some questions, then look at recent ad excerpts and what they say about the organization posting them. How do these organizations view the volunteer manager’s role?

Do you view your volunteer manager as a leader? Or as someone who simply fills tasks?

Here is one ad that gets it:

Your role as an executive overseeing volunteer management is thus an important one as you will be there to work with volunteers and support them in their projects. You will also explore ways to help volunteers grow personally and professionally (e.g. as volunteer leaders) so as to enhance their giving experience.

This is an exciting opportunity for you to shape an emerging culture and to inspire impactful collaboration, kickstart new projects and ultimately enable better care with and for seniors in our home.

But then there’s this uninspired ad:

Manages volunteer scheduling, activities, and screening. Processes incoming volunteers to ensure they meet requirements. Maintains volunteer files and matches volunteers with projects suited to their skills. Manages all aspects of volunteer appreciation events and assists with developing the annual budget. Manages volunteer office to include scheduling, providing information, maintaining records, ordering office supplies and generating appropriate reports.

Do you understand the skills needed to engage volunteers? Or do you believe it’s about having tea parties?

In this ad, the appreciation of engagement skills is clearly non-existent: Do they think the leader of volunteers is just one of the volunteers? Or do they mean the VM will not supervise staff, so that tells you something right there, doesn’t it?



But then, here is an ad for a Director of Volunteer Engagement:


Operates with direction from the President / CEO and is given appreciable latitude for independent action and decisions corresponding with the demonstrated ability for following policy guidelines, department objectives, and applicable laws, rules, and ordinances.

Are you forward thinking? Or are you content with outdated programs?

This ad just sounds so dreary: (And they want 5 years of experience-why? Wouldn’t someone with 5 years experience want to take on more leadership?)

Essential Duties and Responsibilities:

  • Oversee the recruiting, interviewing, hiring, training, and scheduling of volunteer workers.
  • Respond to inquiries, schedule, and train volunteers.
  •  Coordinate volunteers by organizing, planning, and managing the volunteers’ assignments.
  • Coordinate with staff in order to ensure all programming has appropriate and timely volunteer coverage.
  • Manage volunteer software and train volunteers on software usage.
  • Solicit and answer volunteer questions and evaluate volunteer performance and provide constructive feedback and positive recognition.
  • Plan, prepare, and conduct volunteer meetings/continuing education and training seminars at least once annually for volunteers to enhance skills.
  • Manage communications and notifications to volunteers.
  • 5 years of experience in high-level volunteer management.

But then, look at this ad. Lead STAFF and volunteers? Be still my heart:

 3. Lead staff and volunteers in building a plan of action, including effective service and serving an increased number of clients 4. Involve staff and volunteers in ways that will bring high visibility and public esteem. 5. Cultivate, develop and maintain a close working relationship with the key leadership in each department to help them effectively achieve their goals and objectives. 

Do you appreciate how passionate and creative volunteer managers are? Or does your volunteer manager take a back seat?

This ad hints at understanding how dedicated VMs are:

  • Passion for a mission of civic engagement
  • Demonstrates a high level of professionalism at all times across a variety of business sectors
  • Demonstrated ability to build relationships and communicate with a variety of stakeholders and cultivate strategic partnerships
  • Strong conflict management skills
  • Entrepreneurial spirit while maintaining the ability to work as part of a team
  • Ability to think outside the box
  • Capacity to develop and implement new concepts and strategies including creating context setting, educational components to enhance existing events and create new program initiatives
  • Able to recognize and successfully navigate the office dynamics of our clients and stakeholders (Political Savvy)

This one, not so much:

  • Recruit, schedule, and retain volunteers for various tasks within the organization
  • Ensure that all volunteers have viewed the Safety training video
  • Coordinate parking for volunteers when necessary.
  • Schedule and coordinate volunteer recognition and appreciation events.
  • Maintain Volunteer Manual
  • Manage and participate in the goals, objectives, and policies affecting volunteers
  • Maintain a database of volunteer workers and record hours of work; prepare monthly and annual reports as required

Do you truly believe in the untapped power of volunteerism? Or is volunteer involvement just “fluff?”

In this ad, one has to wonder if volunteers are just potential donors:

  • Promote T-shirt sales and donations creating a pipeline for volunteers to donors
  • Contribute to development of department budget.
  • Coordinate Volunteer Calendar
  • Responsible for coordination of court ordered volunteers
  • Provide periodic (weekly, monthly, yearly) reports when needed.
  • Submits volunteer data for Annual Activity Report
  • Other duties as assigned.

But then, here’s an ad that does believe in volunteerism:

The Volunteer Program Manager is an important role in our organization. Because our organization values and depends on our volunteers in every facet of what we do, the person in this role will be a key collaborator assisting in the delivery of (our) programs and services.

Want ads say a lot about an organization. Ads reveal the culture, the expectations, the value placed on the skillset of the applicant, the support offered and the perception of the position.

What does your ad say about you? 




And The Gold Medal Goes To…


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And the gold medal goes to

By any chance, did you watch the Volunteer Manager Olympics last night? Oh my gosh, it was exhilarating. Volunteer managers from all over the globe participated in events showcasing the best practices in engaging volunteers. In case you didn’t get a chance to see it, these are a few of the event highlights:

Negative News Delivery to a Volunteer Curling: Wow, this is a tough event that takes skill, straight forward delivery, an eye for “spot on” results and messages that stick. Volunteers had to slide their “message stone” onto the button and curl around the “objection stones” in their way.

Volunteer Manager Juan deftly took gold by sliding his message stone onto the button (bullseye) when he took an errant volunteer aside and showed her a copy of the policies and procedures manual outlining the reasons she couldn’t accept jewelry from the client. He curled around her “objection stone,” her objection being that “the client insists and I don’t want to seem rude.” His stone was spot on because, when he explained the importance of clear boundaries, the volunteer not only understood the policy without getting angry, she vowed to help educate other volunteers on boundaries. Go Juan!

Volunteer Manager Darise took silver when she curled around a teen volunteer’s snide objection stone (“Don’t forget, my mom’s a senior manager!”) and stood her ground, saying, “no, you are not allowed to bring all your friends to hang out here, this is an organization doing meaningful work and we expect everyone to comply.” Darise said that she often practices in the mirror before having difficult conversations. Sure seems like that practice paid off!

Avoiding Disruptions and Setting Priorities Giant Slalom: This is an event that rings true for all volunteer managers. Barreling downhill towards a finish line, these Olympians had to get by the gates of distraction.

Volunteer Manager Gwen took her first gold medal in this event. She deftly navigated around the distraction gates by posting a sign on her closed-door that read, “Volunteer Planning Session 1:00-2:00 in progress. I will be available at 3:00.” This year she added a new skill and only checked her email twice in a day, which meant that she actually got some work done on a project. When Gwen accepted her medal she said, “I’m accepting this for all those volunteer managers out there who are struggling with constant disruptions and want them to know that they too, can set priorities.”

Volunteer Recruitment Snowboarding Halfpipe: This crowd pleasing event shows off volunteer managers’ creativity and flexibility. On the halfpipe of volunteer recruitment, volunteer managers perform their best tricks.

The gold went to Volunteer Manager Amir after the judges scored a record 95.7 for his recruitment run. Putting down tricks such as ‘creating a volunteer recruitment task force’ and ‘revamping the organization’s website to include easier access for prospective volunteers’ gave him a solid start. But the biggest cheer was when Amir threw in his signature trick, the “Amir Woo a Volunteer” where he equips staff and volunteers with business cards that read, “We Want You to Volunteer, call this number.” Amir told reporters, “trying new ideas paved the way for my gold medal run. Not everything works, but I’ll try it and see what does.” Thanks Amir, you make me want to try something new!

Volunteer Sustainability Ice Dancing: In this visually stunning event, pairs of volunteer managers from unrelated organizations perform a volunteer retention ice dance together to inspire volunteer sustainability. It is the epitome of cooperation and working in unison for volunteer engagement.

Two newcomers and this year’s gold medalists, Volunteer Manager Jason and Volunteer Manager Yumiko took the arena by storm when they ice danced to “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. Jason, who manages volunteers at a museum and Yumiko, who leads volunteers at a woman’s shelter performed a magical twizzle. They cooperatively shared volunteers by assessing their volunteers’ talents and referring idle volunteers to each other. They also alternated providing training and continuing education to both groups of volunteers which built a camaraderie and inspired volunteers to help both organizations. Jason and Yumiko received a standing ovation.  At the podium, a joyful Yumiko said, “It’s so great to see our volunteers working to help both of our organizations. It makes Jason and I proud when our volunteers get together and share ideas.” Jason agreed as he hugged Yumiko. “We feel it’s about thinking of the volunteers’ needs and not about being selfish.” Congrats Jason and Yumiko, you two are the future of our sport.

Wow, I’m hoarse from cheering. What a great representation of our sport, er profession. The future of volunteer engagement is looking bright.





Don’t. Do. This. Ever.


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Don't Do This Ever

from: floridastateparks.org

Sometimes misdeeds are huge, indefensible and devastating. Take the ongoing scandal involving Oxfam for instance. It’s big.

But slippery slopes lurk everywhere, like alligator eyes floating above the river, waiting to take you down. Misdeeds can begin innocently and maybe they won’t make the front pages, but they will ripple through your water when that gator pulls you under.

Melanie was a volunteer coordinator who cared deeply for her volunteers. She personally interviewed each one to get to know them and understand their strengths. She attended birthdays, took volunteers to appointments and helped when volunteers needed assistance.

One of her volunteers Dorothy, was a widow, her husband having died a few years before. Melanie invited Dorothy over for dinner a few times a month and introduced her to her husband and children. They welcomed her, making Dorothy an honorary family member. Taking care of Dorothy made Melanie feel really good about her role as a volunteer manager.

But one day, Melanie came to work and was called into the CEO’s office. It seems that Dorothy’s daughter, who lived out-of-state, came to visit her mother and went through some of her mother’s finances. She discovered Dorothy had loaned Melanie money to pay for a soccer clinic for the kids. Innocent, right? Melanie was put on probation, paid the money back and more tragically, never recovered her exuberant spirit. She became cautious, bitter, not sure how she could ever be close to her volunteers again. She quit.

What is your gift/loan/money policy at work? Does it include volunteers? We tend to make sure our volunteers know their boundaries, but do we have policy regarding staff’s (including us, the volunteer manager) boundaries with them? (for an example of employee gift policies, see the balance)

While we seek to forge deep relationships with our volunteers, we have to keep this in mind: We are the volunteers’ supervisor. Not a peer, not a friend, not a counselor, not a family member, not the fixer of their lives. We are their boss.

As their boss, we must define gifts to and from a volunteer. Is a card ok? A cup of tea? Seriously, these items all have a monetary value and defining value helps to create policy and creating specific policies regarding gifts between staff and volunteers will save any misinterpretation down the road.

If a volunteer offers money, or a gift card, tickets to an event, a new blouse they bought but don’t like, say no. All of these items are alligator eyes peering at you from beneath the water. They all have monetary value. Instead, ask that volunteer to donate the money or item to the organization in your name and for heaven’s sakes, ask them to write a note accompanying the donation saying how awesome and ethical you are.

But NEVER take money from a volunteer for any reason. It’s the grand poobah of slippery slopes. And having that policy in writing gives you all the backup you need to say a polite but firm “no.”

Some misdeeds will be headline news, will damage a charity’s reputation and set the great work done by so many other dedicated staff and volunteers back by years. That’s a tragedy. These misdeeds may be so egregious that they are obviously wrong to the rest of us, but, then, there are the minor little innocently begun misdeeds that also damage good intent in subtle, but very real and lasting ways. Every day simple mistakes ruin good careers.

Be involved with and care about your volunteers, but when it comes to money, Don’t. Do. This. Ever.






It’s 38 Degrees Outside, But It Sure Feels Like 19


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Its 38 degrees outside but it sure feels like 19

Brrr, when its bitter cold outside, we dress for the “feels like” temperature index, right? This apparent temperature takes into consideration the way wind speed, relative humidity and actual temperature feel like on the human body. If humidity is low and the wind is strong, 38 degrees feels like 19 degrees.

Maybe we, volunteer managers need our own “feels like” index based on the “feels like” temperature index utilized in weather forecasts. Let’s call it the “Intent Index.”

Our “feels like” intent index is based on the addition of tone, (TO) and preconceived notions (PN).

So, in other words, what someone says to us can feel quite different from their words alone convey, based on their tone and preconceived notions. We, volunteer managers are really used to hearing these underlying intents.

Some examples are:

Volunteer Todd: So, that was an interesting assignment. I suppose you had a good reason for putting Humphrey in charge of us.  (did you just feel the temperature drop?)

click to hear what Todd is really saying:

Marketing staff member Zoe: Thank you for getting those five volunteers last-minute. We managed to muddle through. (get your coat, it’s getting colder in here)

click to hear what Zoe is really saying:

Corporate volunteering partner Dana: I’ve already been told by other volunteer coordinators that volunteer organizations can’t accommodate fifty people on short notice. I guess we can send twenty. I’m sure our CEO will understand. (oh my, the temperature just plummeted!)

click to hear what Dana is really saying:

When you feel the tone and preconceived notions at play, the question then becomes, should we ignore the intent index and just let these things go? Or, just as we dress for the “feels like” temperature outside, shouldn’t we be prepared to address conversations that have underlying messages?

What to do? Well, when we feel someone utilizing tone and preconceived notions as a not so subtle message, it’s ok to ask about it, to get these intents out in the open so as to find their origin, dispel the myths and clear the air.

We can counter with statements and questions such as:

  • “Thank you for that feedback, but I’m hearing something else too. Can you tell me what you felt went wrong?”
  • “That’s very helpful. But I’m wondering about your other statement which seems to imply something else. Did you experience something or hear someone’s negative experience that makes you think that?”
  • “I’m glad you brought that up. I’m perceiving some dissatisfaction and it’s my goal to provide excellent volunteer experiences. I’d love for you to share with me the reasons you are dissatisfied.”

Now, none of these responses mean that we have to fix or agree with everything we hear. These are simply meant to open a dialogue so as to understand these underlying intents. From openness, we can begin to show, educate, resolve and repair.

When it feels like 19 degrees outside, we get out the gloves and mittens. There’s no reason we can’t also prepare ourselves for the drop in meaning when confronted with the “intent index,” and take charge to address the intent.

Feels like something a leader of volunteers would do.





“We want to work with staff who have drunk the Kool-Aid,” an interview with Laura Rundell, CVA


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An Interview with Laura Rundell, CVA

Laura Rundell, CVA with a mug of Kool-Aid


Recently I had the pleasure in chatting with Laura Rundell, CVA, the Volunteer Coordinator at LifeBridge Community Services in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

VPT: Laura, tell us a little bit about your background in the volunteer management sector.

L: I’ve been involved in the volunteer sector since 1999.  During grad school where I received my Master’s in History, I worked part-time for the Park service. I have also worked for several other organizations, including the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History in Weston, Massachusetts, the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania and I am currently the Volunteer Coordinator at Life Bridge Community Services in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

VPT: And how long have you been at Life Bridge?

L: I’ve been here since 2014.

VPT: What brought you to volunteer services?

L: It was at the Phipps Conservatory that I began to fall in love with volunteer management. I had come from a smaller organization to Phipps and found out they had over 500 names on their volunteer list, so the scope changed dramatically.

VPT: And how did you come to be at Life Bridge?

L: I moved to Connecticut and landed at Life Bridge in 2014.

VPT: You’ve had a number of experiences thus far. What have they taught you?

L: Not all my experiences were perfect. An already challenging job is much harder when the goals for the program and the roles for volunteers are less defined.

I appreciate where I am as a volunteer manager now and loved my time at Phipps because they support the volunteer program and there are clear expectations and specific roles for volunteers.

VPT: Can you give us an example?

L: Yes. When I was invited for an interview at Life Bridge, I noted that the person who would be my supervisor had the CVA credential. It was clear they had put thought into their volunteer program and knew what it would take to make it successful. In my third interview, I was sitting at a table with all of the staff who would utilize volunteers in their programs. I was really impressed that they put so much thought and effort into recruiting for this position and knew then it was an organization I really wanted to work for. I was delighted to be offered the position.

VPT: That is impressive.

L: And, just recently, our Executive Director asked for a volunteer to be involved in researching best practices for a project. That shows commitment to engaging volunteer help at all levels of our organization.

VPT: I’ve noticed you are weighing in on articles and blog posts more and more and that is great; we need more voices. What do you feel is the future of volunteer management?

L: I see so many non-profits stretched thin and need more volunteers to take on a greater role.

VPT: That’s a good thing for increased volunteer participation, right?

L:  Yes it sure is, but I think the number one challenge for most volunteer coordinators is recruitment. It will be an even bigger challenge moving forward to keep filling those roles with qualified and committed volunteers. It means we all have to “step up our game”.

VPT: Are you seeing changes in the volunteers who are stepping forward?

L: There are more episodic volunteers, more students who are seeking career experience, and more individuals in the midst of a career change seeking resume enhancers and references. There are also more opportunities to recruit corporate and college groups.

VPT: Are there inherent challenges with episodic volunteers?

L:  We have had some really great short-term volunteers. Not every role is appropriate for someone who may only be with us a short time though. Some roles require clearances that can take 4 weeks to get back, so we really hope the person in that role can stay with us for at least a year. We’ve also gotten some really great college and corporate groups. However, walking that balance between offering the flexibility large groups may require and making it a meaningful opportunity that adds value to the organization is a challenge.

VPT: What have you discovered about recruiting volunteers that you can share with us?

L: You have to respond promptly when an applicant contacts you. When I relocated to Pittsburgh from Massachusetts, I contacted several organizations to volunteer and never got a return call. That was really frustrating.  After that first contact though, the applicant has to be invested — it has to be their choice to move forward. I have learned you can waste a lot of time spinning your wheels if an applicant doesn’t respond to a request to meet with you, doesn’t show up for an appointment or doesn’t follow up afterwards.

VPT: Changing direction, do you feel as though volunteer managers are starting to build a community with one another?

L: By the time I became a CVA, I was linked to a community of volunteer managers. But, often, a volunteer manager is a department of one and is isolated. When I was in Pittsburgh, I reached out to similar volunteer organizations and we volunteer managers would get together a couple of times a year to have lunch and share best practices. Here in Connecticut, we have Volunteer Square and they have done a wonderful job in creating a Professional Development Series for volunteer managers. I’m honored to serve on their advisory board.

VPT: So, there are some steps being taken.

L:  You know there is an Association of Fundraising Professionals (www.afpnet.org/) for those who are in the fundraising end but we have no association for volunteer managers.  I wish we had one nationwide organization. Not everyone can attend a national conference, but if we had a national association, we could have branches in our areas that we could connect with and could set national standards for our profession.

VPT: What do you see as future challenges for our profession?

L: As non-profit funding continues to decline, there will be more and more dependence on volunteer programs to pick up the slack and organizations will be utilizing volunteer services more. As everyone scrambles for a piece of the ever-shrinking pie, we need to have a unified voice instead of competing against one another for limited resources. For instance, if we all required that courts who refer mandated community service applicants to our agencies provide the funding necessary to fully vet, train and supervise these applicants, we might make some real changes in how court mandated service is assigned nationally.

VPT: What advice do you have for new volunteer managers?

L: After I moved to Connecticut, I remember talking to a volunteer I worked with in Pittsburgh and the volunteer said, “We want to work with staff who have drunk the Kool Aid.” If staff is unhappy, or does not believe in the work, then volunteers pick up on that. If an agency has a lot of turnover and has difficulty retaining paid staff, than recruiting and retaining volunteers may be an uphill battle.

L: I would also say, make sure you connect with other volunteer managers in your area. I have learned so much from my colleagues. Just an hour spent talking with another volunteer coordinator over lunch or coffee can be invaluable. You can learn “It’s not just me…others have this problem too” Also, obtaining the CVA (certified volunteer administrator) is very helpful. I feel like the CVA credential has given me more of a standing in my organization. The CVA gives me ethical standards to adhere to and by virtue of my having it, my volunteer program is elevated.

L: Also, you need to have rules and policies in place and stick to them. If someone wants you to waive the requirements for a new volunteer, remember this: There are bad actors who seek out vulnerable populations. This is why we don’t bend the rules. Make sure you have a volunteer manual, written policies, and an agreement letter for the volunteer to sign.

VPT: What makes a difference for you?

L:  I feel blessed to do what I do. Yes, there are challenges, yes there are frustrations, but a well-run volunteer program can leverage the passion and talent of volunteers.

L:  I’ll leave you with my favorite story about a volunteer. Before I was at Phipps, I was in charge of an exhibition opening of student art work in Pittsburgh. The students, their parents and the artist they worked with were all on their way, along with a volunteer to help at the reception. Right before the event, we had a severe storm warning and most of our staff left the building. Meanwhile, our volunteer drove through the storm to be there. The kids and their parents all had a great time at the exhibition opening because the volunteer made a commitment and the storm wasn’t going to stop her from coming! That is just one of the stories that keeps me motivated and gets me up in the morning.

VPT: Thank you Laura for your insights and for sharing with us today. We look forward to hearing more of your voice in the volunteer management arena.



Why are Volunteer Managers So Darned Repetitive?


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I Repeat Why are Volunteer Managers So Darned Repetitive

“See you then!”

Oh those 3 innocent words, words we utter in good faith. We’ve made sure the assignment is solid, and we’ve handpicked the volunteer. What could go wrong?

Yuri, a new volunteer manager excitedly forwarded the city council’s emailed invitation to her volunteer, Chase. He had been chosen to receive the Samuel P. Goldman annual award for charitable work.

Yuri sent the email, adding that she would meet Chase there. She arrived early that day and took a seat in the audience. When the council meeting got underway, Yuri kept glancing towards the door, watching for Chase. With growing unease, she finally tiptoed out of the room and stood in the outer hall, where she pulled out her address book, and dialed Chase’s number. “Where are you?” She whispered into the phone.

“I’m here, at the Goldman Center,” Chase answered, “and there’s no one around. Where are you?”

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, crap. The email she had forwarded wasn’t particularly clear on details. Chase had assumed that the award ceremony would take place at the Goldman building instead of the city council chamber. Since it was too late for him to get there on time, Yuri accepted the award in Chase’s absence, all the while kicking herself. Not only was there a missed photo opportunity, there was the disappointed council and now she had a dejected volunteer who had lost a chance to be recognized for his hard work. It was a trifecta of volunteer management disasters.

One lifelong habit learned the hard way from managing volunteers is to be clear and repeat, as often as necessary. Even now, my emails or conversations with friends contain the repetition I developed as a volunteer manager.

“Hi, Linda, thanks so much, it sounds like fun, would love to get together. I’ll see you next Tuesday the 27th at 3pm at Barnaby’s, the one on Mission street near the stadium. I’ll grab a table if I’m early and let the hostess know you are coming. It’s not a shiny, new, bold idea, but in the back of my mind I can still see the time I arrived at the county building while everyone was at the district court building for the event, over thirty miles away.  Yeah, missed my volunteer’s naturalization ceremony as a new US citizen. Can’t get that back.

When a pattern of miscommunications pile up, (and it doesn’t matter whose ‘fault’ it is, it just matters that it happens) we, volunteer managers quickly develop a system to prevent miscues and false assumptions. Usually, the system entails:

  • transcribing the volunteer task, repeating it, then emailing the requestor with the details to make sure we have all the correct facts.
  • emphasising each detail with the volunteer, making sure that time, date, place, length of task, expectations and any particulars such as “the front door will be locked, go around to the side entrance,” is understood.
  • repeating the volunteer confirmation back to the requestor, usually by email, with the added benefit of asking for any changes they may have neglected to pass along.
  • a reminder to the volunteer, highlighting the details again, and asking if there are any questions or issues.
  • framing conversations and correspondance to highlight necessary details.

It only takes a few disasters to force us to find a better way. While repetition may seem old school, it can mean the difference between smooth volunteer engagement and costly missed opportunities or errors.

Luckily, technology helps.

Calendar reminders to “check with Giovanni for Wednesday’s event” aids in the process, especially when a volunteer agrees to an assignment more than a few days out.

Blast emails about a large event with clear, emphasized details in bold can be sent daily, right up to the event, with each new email eliminating fluff and narrowing down to time and place.

A volunteer making “reminder calls” can intercept problems before they occur. They can go over details with the volunteers or leave messages reiterating the particulars.  When the assignment or event is over, the volunteer can then make “feedback” calls and ask for future availability.

Good intentions cannot guarantee success. Instead, the habit of clearly stating directions, and repeated checking in may be cumbersome up front, but in the end, it saves us from embarrassment and disastrous outcomes. And when it becomes a routine habit, it doesn’t take much time at all.

Yep, sometimes old school has its advantages.




A Volunteer Manager’s Hidden Cupcake New Year’s Resolutions.


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a volunteer managers hidden cupcake new years resolutions


New Year’s resolutions? Who keeps them? Anybody?

There’s a whole science out there that studies why we make resolutions and the deep psychological implications of why we don’t keep them. It’s called FeelGoodForOneMinuteAfterMidnightEveryYearology and researchers have forged careers observing this phenomenon.

There are so many reasons why we fail to keep our resolutions including:

  1. we have unrealistic expectations
  2. we hate being told what to do, even if we are the person doing the telling
  3. our motivations are not in sync with the resolution
  4. habits are very hard to break
  5. we don’t like change or we’re afraid of change, or we’re resistant to change or we can’t change or we don’t know how to change or we think change will actually change us and we’re pretty much ok with who we are at this point in life. (fine, I made that last one up.)

The point is, there are lots of factors working against us, even if we have the best of intentions. We make resolutions to feel good, at least for the moment. Hmmmmmm, kind of like that second cupcake hidden under the covers…

So, if we aren’t going to keep our resolutions anyway and the whole resolution thing is about instant gratification, then why don’t we just make enormous impossible, overblown hidden cupcake resolutions and feel super good for an instant, right? Yeah!

With that in mind, here are my Volunteer Manager New Year’s ENORMOUS, IMPOSSIBLE, OVERBLOWN HIDDEN CUPCAKE resolutions for 2018.

  1. The next time I’m in a staff meeting and the discussion turns to new year housekeeping which means shredding all the reports that are over seven years old and someone says, ‘I know, let’s get a volunteer to do it,” I’m going to flip the table over, spilling all the caramel macchiatos and cinnamon lattes, and storm out, fist raised, yelling, “I’ll bet you want volunteers to clean up this mess too!”
  2. I’m going to wear a Guy Fawkes mask and make my own protest sign that reads, “Volunteers are No Longer the Tools of Your Authoritarian Requests in 2018” and stand in front of my building every day until my list of demands are met. I won’t bathe, so this should end pretty quickly. My list of demands includes designating all the upfront parking spots, “For Volunteers Only, Because Their Time is Valuable Too” and renaming the office building “Volunteer Towers, The Office that Volunteers Built.”
  3. I’m going to put together a “Staff Appreciation Luncheon” this year instead of a Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon. The volunteers will walk around, and they will flippantly throw out phrases such as “we couldn’t do the work without the help of staff,” and “we love our staff, no really, we do.” The volunteers will all sit together at the front table, eat their lunch while chatting and ignoring everyone else and then they will excuse themselves before any awards are given out, claiming that they have “important work to do.”
  4. I’m going to rip up all my ROI reports and next time I have to present stats, I will calmly get up and say, “in lieu of standard reports, I am going to sing a song about volunteers, in hopes that you feel their value in your heart and not on paper, which really does no justice to all the intangibles they bring.” I’ll proceed to sing “You’ve Got a Friend and change the word friend to volunteer. I’ll sing every verse acapella, although I might be able to coerce volunteer Gordie into accompanying me on his harmonica, just for added effect.

The lyrics go something like this:

You just call out my volunteer name, if you know what it is, and you know wherever I am like at work or even at my own wedding
I’ll come running or maybe I’ll drive or take the bus cause the car’s in the shop to volunteer again

Winter, spring, summer, or fall or during last-minute events that you forgot to tell me about until the morning of
All you got to do is call or email or even send me a letter where you misspell my name again and I’ll be there to volunteer
You’ve got a volunteer

Ahhh, I’m not going to lie, those resolutions felt pretty darn great, at least for the moment, but I know I won’t be keeping them, except for the hidden cupcake, that is.

So, now what?

How about, we just make a resolution to work together to keep the momentum from 2017 going.

We most definitely can keep that one. Cheers to an even brighter 2018.







Sometimes, You Fight the Good Fight and Sometimes, You Go


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Sometimes, You Fight the Good Fight and Sometimes, You Go

I had a different post all ready to go, and it just didn’t feel right today, not after the lunch I had yesterday with a very good friend and volunteer manager. Ironically, I had just read the brilliant post by Elisa Kosarin on her blog, Twenty Hats about a note to self: When your volunteer mindset needs a boost.

Elisa talks about the disparity between a volunteer manager’s salary and the value we assign to ourselves. Are we valued? Can we overcome the perception that we are not worth much?

But back to my friend. She’s done. She’s looking for another job, outside our field.

And she is one of the most naturally talented volunteer managers I have ever met. She knows people. She understands motivations. She is passionate about her mission. She embraces projects. She works hard.

She told me she just wants to be in a place where her talents are cultivated. She just wants to stop having to explain over and over her worth and the worth of her program, just to be shot down when she needs resources. She just wants to feel supported by her supervisors. She said she felt like a prop, one in which her caring face hid all the cavalier attitudes behind her. She just wants to be paid a fair wage.

It hurt to the core to hear how miserable she is and even though a part of me wanted to say, “But the work! The work is why we do this,” I couldn’t. It would have rung hollow, after all she has been experiencing.

So I agreed with her. Leave. Find a job where they appreciate your talents. If that is at another non-profit, then great, but if not, go where your soul is happy. We talked about how she could help a for profit company invest in community service. With her list of skills, enthusiasm and creativity, she will shine somewhere if just given the chance.

Thankfully, not all organizations that engage volunteers are as difficult. Most are serious about cultivating volunteers. Sadly, though, some just give lip service to volunteer programs.

Now, I wish for my friend a position in a company that recognizes her talents and I weep for the volunteers at the non-profit that caused her to feel this way.

She deserves better. Their volunteers deserve better.

Our profession deserves better.

And what’s really sad is that even though we are making great strides in elevating our profession, it’s too little, too late for my friend.

Sometimes, you just have to go where you will shine.


The Best of 2017, Volunteer Manager Style


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The Best of 2017 Volunteer Manager Style

Goodbye 2017! Hello New Year. But wait, was 2017 just another blah year for volunteer managers?

The biggest take-away from 2017 I believe, is that volunteer managers across the globe are finding and connecting with one another to share, learn and most importantly, become strong advocates for the profession.

Some pretty amazing events took place in the volunteer manager sector last year. Here are just a few highlights to give us some real hope for the future:

November 5th was International Volunteer Manager day: The theme for 2017 was “Be The Voice” and volunteer managers world-wide took the pledge to be the voice for volunteer management. Symbolic gestures of solidarity can be the impetus for real change.

Lisa Dyer, CVA, in conjunction with International Volunteer Manager day and the theme, “Be the Voice,” hosted a Blog Carnival which featured 12 volunteer manager blogs all advocating for volunteer management. We are learning that we share common challenges and goals, which points to more collaboration in the future.

In July, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration MAVA hosted the National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership in St. Paul Minnesota. Over 500 professionals gathered to learn, connect and brainstorm the future of volunteer engagement leadership. The need to strengthen connections was one of the many take-aways.

VolunteerMatch continues to provide free resources for volunteer managers on the blog Engaging Volunteers while providing matching opportunities for prospective volunteers and organizations seeking help. Currently, there are 1.3 million monthly visitors.

Alive, the Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement and VolunteerMatch, two dynamic volunteer leadership organizations, are partnering to further volunteer engagement resources. We are looking forward to the future of this pairing.

Points of Light Conference on Volunteering and Service was held in Seattle in June, and the volunteer engagement track highlighted five trends.  These trends include ‘volunteer management can make or break an organization’ and ‘everyone has a role in volunteer management.’ It is great to hear these trends discussed on a large platform.

At the Volunteering New Zealand’s annual conference in Auckland, Rob Jackson’s keynote speech centered on stop being so bloody nice. Rob argues for the advancement of our profession by adopting professional attitudes and practices.

Over and over, we have learned that millennials are attracted to companies with strong cultures of giving which means volunteerism among millennials is a high priority. This up and coming generation gives us hope for the future of volunteerism.

A Twitter hashtag campaign gave us #volmgmt and #LOVols to tweet about all things related to creating great volunteer programs.

Everywhere, our neighbors, friends and fellow volunteers rushed to help those in need.

After Hurricane Harvey, volunteers rushed to help in historic proportions.

Goodwill exists: An army of volunteers rush to help.

After Hurricane Irma devastated Puerto Rico, volunteers are still on the ground.

People step up and volunteer: They fill the need.

The above events are just a sampling of the enormous strides being made in volunteer engagement and leadership.

I’m excited for 2018. I hope you are too.