In anticipation of my workshop at VolunteerMaine’s annual, statewide Blaine House Conference on Service and Volunteerism in Orono next week, I’m guest blogging about how to prepare for and start partnerships that support volunteer programs.
Archive for the 'recognition' Category
Although People Making a Difference (PMD) is often thought of as being the group for individuals and businesses to go to for fun, well-organized, hands-on volunteer opportunities helping community-based charities and their clients in need, PMD also provides needed training and pro bono consulting services (and serves as the fiscal sponsor and leads the Directors of Volunteer Administration (DOVA) ) so that more charities can engage more volunteers effectively.
I’ve been a regular presenter at the annual conferences of VolunteerMaine and the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, plus the Technical Development Corporation (TDC) and the Nonprofit Net (where they recorded my 90+minute seminar) in Greater Boston. (Since the United Way abandoned volunteer management training when it reorganized two executive directors ago, PMD has been trying to fill the void.)
Earlier this month, I offered data, insights, and advice on enabling volunteers to make a difference to a packed workshop organized by Jackie Cefola and her team at Third Sector New England, as part of its free, Bottom Line training series. Originally planned for just 35 participants, it filled beyond capacity within two days of being advertised, and 50+ people actually participated. I suspect that there is such a huge interest in volunteers since donations of time and treasure distinguish the nonprofit sector, everyone is trying to do more with less during the recession, and a typical American’s volunteer involvement has become just 1-2 times a year. Fyi: I began with trends in volunteer (mis)management and had participants base their thinking on key volunteer motivators balanced with their charities’ prioritized needs, followed by targeted marketing approaches/tools. (Email me if you’d like a copy of the handouts.)
Attendee feedback from this workshop was quite positive, and I was delighted to learn that many people appreciated my humorous approach. While I don’t typically think of myself as a funny person, I guess I do use humor when sharing stories of nonprofits and volunteers, particularly cautionary tales, beginning with my own story as a 10-year-old, novice violinist “serenading” captive/immobile residents at my great grandmother’s convalescent hospital.
In my subsequent high school years as Key Club Governor and Lt. Governor of the California-Nevada-Hawaii District, I mostly shared lists of facts and dry logic during trainings and presentations I gave, so I’m glad that my presentation style has evolved to integrate relevant storytelling and humor. People really do remember stories, not isolated information, and humor helps us deal with difficult subjects.
Conversely, What Will Get People to Volunteer? See final paragraph.
One of my pet peeves is when underlying survey biases influence the results. I recently saw another reference to a common reason why people tell surveyors they don’t volunteer, that they say don’t know where to go, in a NYT article featuring Michael Bloomberg encouraging more New Yorkers to volunteer last week.
Is is that they don’t know where to go, or that they haven’t yet made an effort to discover what volunteer placement(s) would make them happiest? (See third and sixth paragraphs of my prior post “What’s Missing from Calls to Volunteer”). Could this be laziness? Should all volunteering be effortless in this way? Certainly PMD’s one-time, 3-7 hour, unskilled volunteer gigs should be fairly effortless, but potential volunteers for multi-year mentoring should demonstrate ongoing commitment and interest, learn about expectations, and receive training and participate in ongoing support, which requires real effort and expert guidance from volunteer administrators.
In surveys that identify barriers to volunteerism and philanthropy, many people respond they are too busy and/or that no one asked them to volunteer, but I think these reflect simple survey questions with more complex answers, a little truth missing unexpressed feelings and experiences.
I believe Malcolm Gladwell once said (in a podcast I downloaded from ITConversations.org) that people generally tend to select the easiest/quickest survey answers and they they have trouble when they have to choose between more than two choices, so my theory is that more complicated answers take too much effort, are not among available options, and could delve into sensitive areas, such as being too busy to volunteer because one has to work several jobs to make ends meet, and/or take care of young/ailing family members, understandably leaving no time/energy. Perhaps a better question would ask people to rank the priorities in their lives, then see where volunteerism/civic engagement falls to understand what competes for attention and where possible blending can occur, such as volunteering as part of a work event? Marketers could target people who could have more time available, too.
Given how many charities advertise for volunteers and donations, I think not feeling asked is a matter of messages that I am needed in some way not being targeted to me/my cohort. (Charities, no more shotgun advertising that you generally need help.) Beyond the momentum generated by all the broad calls to serve this year, charities must develop volunteer programs with cultures and specific roles that enable volunteers to feel needed and valued.
We already know what motivates people, don’t need surveys to tell us that people prefer to feel needed and valued, and know busy people want their time to be respected, not wasted, so let’s just build this type of culture in our local charities and corresponding volunteer programs!
Deborah Finn, who moderates the Mission-Based Massachusetts yahoogroup, pointed us to a blog entry about Information Age volunteerism by Ben Rigby, a cofounder of the Extraordinaries. It combined with the comments are interesting. Like the commenters, I think that a combination of new and old ways of volunteerism is needed.
I also posted this comment about real reasons why people don’t volunteer:
I founded and run People Making a Difference (http://www.pmd.org) in Boston to remove the common barriers to direct service volunteerism while providing effective recruiting and volunteer group management services that bring real value and non-redundant assistance to the mostly small charities we serve.
Though I am quite familiar with the traditional, survey responses as to why people say they do not volunteer, I no longer believe these for the most part. It seems like respondents are giving the same excuses because the survey instrument offers these standard, superficial choices about not having time, being unasked, etc. when the underlying reason is that most who do not volunteer have yet to become motivated. As Ben points out, if people have time to watch tv (I’ll add: and they are not responsible for caring for family members), then most can and will make time to help with something for which they are passionate (cause or tasks) and for which the experience is positive. And the easier the entry point, the easier it is to get started.
Motivation is a shared responsibility between nonprofits and potential volunteers. As others have already pointed out, nonprofits need to define and to articulate accurately what help is needed, provide the internal support to make it possible, structure/market the opportunities attractively like the Extraordinaries is attempting, and select people best suited to help. (Few for-profits expect their employees to be productive as quickly and stay on staff with as little as the nonprofit sector allocates for volunteers, whether in strategic planning, budgets, supervision, work space, etc.) Likewise, potential volunteers need to figure out, sometimes by trial and error, what inspires them and how they can contribute meaningfully. When they find a rewarding volunteer position, most people will stick with it, finding a way to contribute unless their personal circumstances change (commonly in Boston, they move too far away).
I admit that I am concerned about the statistical “problem” with low volunteer retention, but I wonder if this is partly a side effect of the trial and error when people seek a “volunteer placement of a lifetime.” Just as most people date before they marry, moving on to volunteering somewhere else is not necessarily a sign that the original volunteer position was bad, just that the fit perhaps wasn’t great for that person. And while the nonprofit and person could do more to try to “save the marriage,” the easiest path is usually to split up and try again. (Of course, if the experience is really horrible, some people give up and don’t try again.) People often become unmotivated because they don’t understand how they make a difference, so PMD project managers articulate this a lot before, during, and after people volunteer, which seems to work, but is much easier to implement during 3-7 hour, one-time volunteer experience as compared to once every week.
One last thing: We should make entry to volunteerism easy, but also maintain high standards. At PMD, while we do let anyone sign up 10-31 days before a PMD service project, we promote “informed and responsible volunteerism” to raise the proverbial bar on one-time volunteers since we are investing limited resources into organizing high quality, free service opportunities for both participants and recipient charities. I often talk/blog about doing more good than harm, like the direct consequences of not showing up as committed, and so we have 90-100% participation. No matter what volunteers are expected to do, all nonprofits should set high standards out of respect to the people, places, and others we aim to assist, and explain our rationale. Implementation will vary from requiring 40 hours of technical training with certification to basic reference checking about people’s ability to do what they say they can do to help, then supervision with checks and balances to review volunteer performance along the way.
I’ve been training a lot this autumn, and it’s been a pleasure to work with people who genuinely want to improve their volunteer management skills and thus their agencies’ effectiveness. With the incoming Obama administration promoting more people volunteering, we’ve really got to increase and to improve our capacity to attract, screen, manage, and recognize (and thus retain) more volunteers, regardless of whether the government invests any resources in our generally underfunded, volunteer programs.
In October, I traveled to VolunteerMaine’s 22nd annual, state-wide conference on volunteerism (Sadly, Massachusetts does not regularly organize anything like this, which makes me wonder about its commitment to increasing the volunteer capacity of all nonprofits in the Commonwealth, not just ones with AmeriCorps and Commonwealth Corps members.) to give a workshop on developing partnerships to a “sold out” audience. In a nutshell, I compared the process to dating and using an approach like eHarmony’s to promote your strengths and help you clarify what you seek in a way that is attractive to potential partners. This is contrary to the typical way charities seek support, by leading with needs. Later, on 11/6 I also shared my philosophy and handout with 30 people who attended the DOVA meeting on corporate partnerships. Note: I also heard Jean Twenge discuss her meta-data-analysis for Generation Me, so look forward to DOVA’s May ‘09 topic on subsets of Millennials/younger volunteers.
I also organized a workshop at the first conference of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network for four Directors of Volunteer Administration (DOVA) members to share their approaches* for tabling at community events. From the large, fairly unique New England Aquarium and Greater Boston Food Bank to educational charities Boston Partners in Education and Generations Incorporated, we shared why we table and our rationales for using specific items and staffing. *I don’t write that we shared our “best practices” since I’ve grown to think that one organization’s best practices only work in the complex environment of that organization.
All in all, I’ve worked with volunteer managers representing 80+ charities this autumn, so am hopeful that I’ve been able to help them think differently about the way their agencies do things so that they can find more well-matched volunteers and partners who help them make a difference in New England.
While current economic problems may make many in the nonprofit sector want to oppose, not adopt, most business practices at for-profits like American automakers, many entrepreneurs have good practices that make sense. Brad Feld highlights Ted Rheingold at Dogster (where you can learn more than you ever want to know about Vesta, Ben, and the late Nyx) makes a great point about hiring slow and firing fast (#9).
Most of us in volunteer management focus on recruiting volunteers, so it behooves us to make a real effort to ensure there is a good fit between potential volunteers and our needs and agency cultures, particularly during the screening/selection and probationary periods. Otherwise, as I have heard from countless charities complaining about “problem volunteers,” we waste precious time and energy trying to salvage situations rather than aiming high at the beginning. Instead, we should focus our post-recruitment resources on recognizing and thanking our excellent volunteers so that they stick around and help us attract additional volunteers like them.
Today I had the honor of preparing a brunch for PMD’s dedicated project manager volunteers: Jennifer, Aimée, Phil, Michele, and Mary. Just as they bake homemade cookies each time they lead a group of PMD volunteers to help a local charity, I annually host an elaborate brunch for them in appreciation for all they do.
While it would be more convenient and economical to take them out to brunch at a restaurant (and I wouldn’t have to clean and de-clutter my apartment), the act of cooking something special just for them in my home is important since they work so hard as PMD project managers, enabling groups of many other PMD volunteers to engage in good works effectively, safely, and enjoyably.
It was my pleasure to do something nice and somewhat unique for these dedicated people. PMD can’t afford to compensate them monetarily since they are worth so much, both in their professional lives and in their impact on PMD’s capacity to carry out the mission. It is the least PMD can do since being a project manager is very challenging: engage a group of strangers with no assumed skills or experience to work productively and effectively immediately to address the special needs of a local charity.
There was good camraderie, interest in each other’s lives, and positive karma on a very cold, subzero/just-stay-in-bed winter day. Midway through their omelettes, Michele joked that they would be returning for brunch again next weekend. And while I know that it will be impossible to get these busy volunteers together again until next year, I can’t help but wish we could do it again next weekend.