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.
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.
Jenny Hibbard blogged about “Volunteer Hoards: More Work Than Help” and Brad Feld blogged about “Saying No in Less than 60 Seconds” this week, so in this spirit of of maximizing the time/effort that one spends on what’s important, I think more volunteer managers need to educate the public as to what their charities need AND say “No” quickly and often, so they can spend time on potential and current volunteers who could/do make a difference to their charities, rather than distracting offers to do unrequested, less needed things, unless, of course, all current volunteer needs are addressed.
First, more charities need to think and plan their volunteer programs critically:
- Assess and articulate their volunteer needs using comprehensive position descriptions
- Determine and allocate charity resources to support a volunteer program that engages volunteers who will address these needs
- Target groups/places with the most likely candidates (rather than a random, shotgun-like approach), using real marketing techniques
- Encourage people to self-select, to apply for specific roles, based on sharing the criteria of each, specific volunteer need
- Maximize staff time spent on people most likely to become (or who already are) great volunteers and be (or keep them) satisfied in these roles
Beyond the aforementioned volunteer program “must haves,” this means learning how to quickly intake and assess nonstandard offers*, and to thank but reject: “Thanks for your kind offer, but your
*This probably means eliminating a general volunteer application form as a first contact a potential volunteer has with a charity, since these forms tend to create more work, like requesting more information, unless a charity has sufficient staffing to review and respond to the volume of general applicants quickly. Lately, I’ve been recommending tailoring forms for specific positions AND only offering them to applicants who have attended an open house or have already completed an unskilled volunteer task for the charity, and thus already learned the basics about a charity and its needs.
Open communication is key to good service project development, particularly since we at PMD are good problem solvers, plus tap resources and connections when things are not going as planned. Most of the partner charities PMD assists need more than simply volunteers recruited to help them.
For example, last year one of our long-time charity partners asked for our assistance with a new activity, we were excited to expand to something different, and many people signed up to participate even though an earlier-than-normal start time required many to leave paid work early. However, when I arrived 45 minutes before the project began, I learned that 90% of the envelopes, a progress-limiting supply, was missing. Had I learned about this sooner, I could have brought a few hundred from home (since I often have card stock around given that I’m a letterpress journeyman) and informed the charity how it could easily order and have more delivered from Paperworks. Finding out the problem upon arrival was too late for me to be of assistance, and our volunteers would have completed the task in a matter of minutes, not three hours as scheduled, which is unacceptable when people make time in their busy lives to volunteer. (Fortunately, at our urging, additional charity staff identified alternative work for our volunteers that still made a real difference, just not what the volunteers originally expected.)
Another example is a previously town-funded, environmental effort that sadly was not funded this year. PMD volunteers loved volunteering for this service project in 2007 and 2008, and we already had nine people signed up for the 2009 project when we were informed that it was canceled due to lack of funding, only three weeks in advance. Had the funding problem been shared with me 1-2 months earlier, I would have fundraised to make this popular project possible in 2009. We could have asked the dedicated volunteers and companies who participated in this project in years past, as well as small foundations known to support environmental efforts like this. Sadly, it’s too late to save this project and too late to schedule an alternative service project to help another charity on the date we reserved.
So you don’t think that PMD is lost in the theoretical land of “should of, would of, could of”, we’ve purchased and solicited donations of sugar pumpkins and delivered them for past community Halloween parties for Hawthorne Youth & Community Center when the pumpkins they ordered did not arrive as scheduled. Furthermore, during our service projects, PMD project managers are empowered to purchase additional supplies should the absence of a supply limit volunteers’ progress.
If you volunteer for a few PMD projects a year, it’s tempting to focus on the tasks for these isolated activities, not what PMD is doing throughout the year. (The PMD board and project manager volunteers govern and lead year ’round, so they have a better sense of this bigger picture.) Plus, PMD annual appeals (and I when I’m planning a service project) focus on direct services and details, like feeding the needy and helping the illiterate through specific, ordered steps.
PMD is much more than a clearinghouse (or an online database), connecting volunteers with existing service opportunities. PMD plans the tasks, amasses the tools and materials needed, as well as recruits, prepares, orients, and manages the volunteers who participate in service projects that serve 2/3 of the charities with which PMD partners, since these charities have no ongoing volunteer programs with staff and resources to support them–with these limitations, the 20+ charities PMD serves annually cannot engage volunteers effectively.
PMD also mobilizes its volunteer recruitment tools (i.e., web site, email list, blog, and Facebook Group and Cause) to assist established volunteer programs at the remaining 1/3 charities (~10/yr) when they have seasonal volunteer shortages. PMD is building awareness of these neediest times so that people will develop new volunteer traditions beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Furthermore, PMD sees its service projects as opportunities to help all programs improve their volunteer programs by more effectively engaging episodic/one-time volunteers. PMD has collaborated to produce Standards of Excellence for individual volunteers, group leaders, and charities to clarify key elements that contribute to mutually successful volunteer experiences for the faith-based community and others, and provided targeted, pro bono training (see 11/22/08 blog post) and consulting services to help established volunteer programs near (like the National Braille Press behind Boston’s Symphony Hall) and far (like RightRides For Womenâ€™s Safety in NYC) adapt specific strategies that PMD has developed during its 16 years engaging nearly 4,000 volunteers and 23 businesses who have directly helped 109 charities and their clients.
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.
Then I gave my semi-regular clinic on volunteer management at TDC, where I addressed concerns from from five, local charities. There was a bit of a scheduling snafu, so I didn’t receive people’s questions in advance, but the clinic pretty much covered everything from developing position descriptions to probationary periods, followed by recognition, based on the primary things that motivate people to volunteer as usual.
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.
They expect primarily new Americorps volunteers to attend, which is why my workshop on building community relationships will assume basically starting from scratch. Although PMD is 15 years old, we are newbies compared to established charities like hospitals, museums, and those founded at the last turn of the century.
What originally drew me to this VolunteerMaine conference is the keynote address by Professor Jean Twenge about “Generation Me”, a group born in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. I’m particularly interested in (dis)satisfaction as it relates to retention.
While there are many things that I like about Senator Barack Obama, his plan for universal voluntary service which aims to â€œset a goal for all American middle- and high-school students to perform 50 hours of service a year and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a yearâ€ if he’s elected president misses the mark like many other programs mandating service hours.
The nonprofit sector lacks the infrastructure/staffing to screen, train, supervise, and physically host many of the volunteers it currently engages (hence the abysmal 1 out of 3 who volunteered in 2006 but didn’t return in 2007, as reported yesterday), let alone all high school and college students.
And rather than compensating college students $4,000 (or $40/hr), most of the nonprofit organizations who host them require at least $30/hr if not alll of it to develop adequate work space, trainers, and supervisors for all of these mandated volunteers.
While Obama’s plan does indicate interest in investing in the nonprofit sector, it assumes that the resources are available to carry out what has already been identified by the Urban Institute and many others as best practices, when this simply is not the case. Two-thirds of the charities PMD volunteers serve lack the staff and other needed resources to develop and to maintain their own, ongoing volunteer programs.
In the end, whether a volunteer has a positive experience, not how much s/he is compensated, will determine retention.
When I reflect on the common barriers to why I don’t volunteer more, I think that deficiencies in the recruitment and the management process contribute most. Long gaps without any communication about the application process while seeing/hearing advertisements that a charity needs volunteers which leads to my feeling personally unneeded, having my time wasted/disrespected, and not having adequate resources to serve as an effective volunteer are the most common reasons why I bail out. (On a more petty level, horrendous traffic has also taken a personal toll on my participation.)
Some things, like traffic, cannot really be addressed for one volunteer*, but adequate staffing of the recruitment and screening process certainly can, as can good supervision and resources.
*MIT senior Kevin Vogelsang thinks that transportation is a significant, limiting factor to college students volunteering, and I observed this with fellow WriteBoston writing tutors at the West Roxbury Education Complex this past school year, so organizing transportation may address barriers for small groups of college students so they don’t face spending 1.5 hours or more each way to volunteer.
Despite PMD’s requirement that people participate for the entire, PMD project time span, which addresses our ability to complete all tasks as well as each volunteer’s level of satisfaction, I think that if the government is going to mandate something, it should be the quality of the volunteer experience, not the quantity of hours, as the real determinant. If a volunteer experience of 7-100 hours is required in order to be able to understand different perspectives beyond one’s own, then so be it. This can be conveyed (and measured) through a portfolio of work reflecting one’s experiences.
I can’t afford a subscription to The Chronicle of Philanthropy to read theÂ latest study about giving to the poor, but I’m not surprised that it concludesÂ “Many donors say they want to support charities that help the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, but their giving patterns donâ€™t support that goal,” since many people say that they want to help the homeless, for example, but then these same people are uninterested in volunteering to help this population.
Volunteering in direct service gives participants first-hand experience in shelters and other programs that serve the needy. These experiences, while short of actually personally utilizing these services, make lasting impressions on PMD volunteers.
Our younger volunteers have even gone so far as to tell us that they think that everyone should have the awareness-building experience of volunteering in a shelter, despite the obvious greater issue of eliminating the need for homeless shelters.
And while many people will decide to try to help the needy in more ways than direct service volunteering, I think that their early experiences do shape and influence how they do so, whether by voting choices, personal and corporate philanthropy, etc.