Improve the Process of Recruiting/Screening Bone Marrow Donor Volunteers

This morning I trudged a mile in the snow (over many unshoveled sidewalks) to participate in the Alexander Phan Bone Marrow Drive and completed a long paper application form, only to be soundly rejected due to diagnosed sleep apnea without corrective surgery. It was a frustrating experience, but if the process were revamped, there would have been several opportunities to build good will even if I could not volunteer/join the registry.

While I totally believe that bone marrow donation and a registry program are quite valuable, the recruitment and screening process leaves much to be desired. I’m frustrated because they wasted my time, so am going to go out on a limb and make suggestions based on this one experience.

I heard about this drive via email and facebook, which did a good job of personalizing it to help a particular boy (when, in fact, the greater pool of patients in need will be served), but neither source directed potential volunteers to online links to help self-determine whether they would be (dis)qualified. There are many medical guidelines to ensure the health and well-being of donors and recipients, so it would be nice to share the major requirements like Beautiful Lengths does for potential donors of hair for wigs for cancer patients. If this were the case, then I could have self-selected myself out of the process early on and saved everyone the time and effort. Instead, there was pressure to show up no matter what the weather/road conditions rather than to click to check and see if you could be of help.

Though the National Bone Marrow Registry cannot control social media players, they still had several more, preemptive opportunities to conserve effort and to build good will in the process. Initial signage at the drive should name all of the required medical criteria–sleep apnea/breathing disorders were absent-not just the major ones like criteria already associated with blood donation–particularly when this drive’s organizer has sleep apnea and knows he cannot be a marrow donor. (I’m an occasional blood donor, so I knew that I was acceptable in this regard.) The lower third of signs was dedicated to gross obesity charts, apropos for our overweight nation, so I could check and see that I fell within the acceptable range.

After reading the signs, I was thanked for showing up, given 10-pages of paperwork to read and complete, and asked to consider making a $25-$52 donation to cover the cost of my tissue typing. Instead, I suggest that the National Bone Marrow Donor Program reorganize WHEN one talks with the trained staff and volunteer screeners and RECEIVES and COMPLETES written information:

  1. Before filling out any forms, direct me to read the registration and consent for HLA typing so any disparity between what the registry requires and what the potential volunteer is willing to do is resolved or participation is preempted right away. These four pages were sandwiched inside the six-page application form, which also duplicated two of the key pages at the very end.
  2. A real person, not a form, should explain the purpose of the specific medical guideline questions before the form is completed. No one can argue with expert criteria for the well-being of donors and recipients, and understanding makes potential rejection easier to accept. Then a potential bone marrow donor should describe/check off conditions and be counseled/rejected for any conditions that could be or are unacceptable. At this point, the potential volunteer has invested very little effort, so can walk away “no harm, no foul” and still feel good about trying. (It was deflating to have my detailed application form given back to me to destroy due to all of my personal information in it.–It felt like there was absolutely no point in my showing up and completing the detailed form.)
  3. If the potential bone marrow donor volunteer seems like a good candidate, s/he should then be required to fill out detailed personal, employer, contact persons’, and other information before moving on to a cheek swab and request for a donation to cover part or all of the cost of his/her tissue typing.

PMD is much more than a clearinghouse.

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 Women’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.

Training/Learning Improves Volunteer Programs

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.

For-Profit Advice that Makes Sense for NonProfits and their Volunteers

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.

I’m Guest Blogging for VolunteerMaine

I’m a guest blogger for VolunteerMaine today, in anticipation of their October 14th conference in Orono, where I will be presenting a workshop.

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.

It’s the Infrastructure/Barriers, not the Hours!

While there are many things that I like about Senator Barack Obama, his plan for universal voluntary service which aims to “set 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 year” 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.

Thoughts on Volunteering as a Commonwealth Corps Reviewer

Earlier this month, I figured that I had a civic responsibility to do more than just criticize the governor’s new Commonwealth Corps (CC), so I volunteered as one of nearly 100 citizen grant reviewers, to make sure that our tax dollars are spent as effectively as possible.

Our task was to read (in 4.5-6 hours) eight proposals, then come to consensus in one of ~20 small groups about their relative ranking. Actual funding decisions will be made by the commission.
What made this RFP unique were parts about what corps members would specifically do to generate more volunteers for the recipient charities, beyond direct service to people in need, which is presumably addressed by their existing volunteer pools.
Sadly, of the eight nonprofits whose proposals I read, only a couple indicated any existing infrastructure to recruit, screen, manage, and expand volunteer roles, and I heard similar observations from two other volunteer grant reviewers. While I don’t doubt that some corps members may have human resources/recruiting talents, none of the proposals I read targeted these professionals, and I am doubtful that a 9-12 month stint by 3+ corps members will change this capacity of these nonprofits for the long term.

As I wrote in December, I believe that what is really needed are resources made directly to nonprofits to develop their capacity to work with potential and actual volunteers effectively (like developing a strategic volunteer plan) and the staff (or part-time equivalents) to carry out the plan would make a more lasting difference.

Since there were many more applicants than funding, my fellow small group readers and I wondered whether the CC Commission will offer training and resources to the many nonprofits that will not receive funding but still need more volunteers to service their needy populations throughout the state. Commissioner David Roach indicated some interest to me after he noted that the commission does not have any hands-on volunteer managers serving on it yet, but the commission’s first, big milestone is to award its first round of grants. I think that someone with direct volunteer recruiting, screening, and management experience should join to commission, to help the commission identify barriers to volunteer participation that can be addressed through the CC and/or other programs.
Here’s hoping that the CC or some funder will recognize the huge need for deliberate, resourced volunteer recruitment and management in the nonprofit sector and address it directly.

While PMD can continue to service a handful of Boston-area nonprofits with episodic needs who lack the resources to maintain ongoing volunteer programs and to serve as the fiscal sponsor of the Directors of Volunteer Administration (DOVA), there are still many more nonprofits that have ongoing volunteer needs and insufficient staffing and expertise to begin or to sustain volunteer programs that are integrated into their organizations.

How Commonwealth Corps can become unique

I’d been hoping that MA Governor Devel Patrick’s early goal of creating a Commonwealth Corps would not come to fruition because, in my opinion, so far it seems redundant and misses the opportunity to distinguish itself from Americorps and charities’ existing volunteer programs.

Unfortunately, it appears that the administration is launching Commonwealth Corps. While I am excited that resources will be dedicated to promote volunteering, I am concerned that like many existing charities that seek to engage older/experienced people in volunteerism (like our local Generations Inc.), the governor is focusing resources into small stipends instead of critical charity infrastructure that would better recruit and retain volunteers.

For example, rather than providing a very modest stipend per volunteer, the Commonwealth Corps should invest in building faster and more efficient models that will use professional marketing and recruitment plans to generate applicants and then respond to and screen them rapidly, so people don’t lose patience and interest (and come to feel unneeded) while over-burdened staff struggle to respond, which we saw after crises like the hurricanes, but occurs regularly. The Commonwealth Corps should also incorporate metrics for analyzing effectiveness and retention, and perhaps conduct marketing research that they can share with all nonprofits to engage more volunteers overall, for which there is a distinct need.

And before marketing the need for volunteers, considerable effort should be made to help charities prepare unique and high-impact volunteer titles with responsibilities clearly defined, much like for-profit companies develop job descriptions.

Furthermore, as I’ve found as both a volunteer and a manager of volunteers, investing in training for supervisors of volunteers and supporting these supervisors, will go a long way toward retaining the new Commonwealth Corps volunteers. In order to keep at it, volunteers need to feel needed, understand how they are making a difference, be adequately prepared to be useful, and not that their time is being wasted. Volunteers also need to have a host of other, personal needs met. Most of the time, efforts made by their direct supervisors, not just stipends for parking or lunch, are responsible for these key determinants for success and retention.

Super greatness from those who show up

PMD volunteers who show up as planned, on-time, for the entire project, are super great! We had just such a group preparing our eleventh annual Thanksgiving meal on 11/18.

I just read a guest posting in Tactical Philanthropy about volunteers who don’t show up and create other problems.

PMD strives for 100% attendance. We carefully plan our volunteer projects so that we match the right number of volunteers to the tasks needed and work spaces.

Having the expected number of people to complete the tasks needed is important. We know from experience that too few or too many people, or people arriving late or leaving early, compromises effectiveness and satisfaction.

PMD achieves 90%-100% attendance is because we clearly

  • Explain how volunteers will make a difference
  • Require and thank them for a firm commitment 10-30 days in advance (and have found that most people cannot commit reliably more than 30 days in advance)
  • Confirm and then communicate details in advance
  • Articulate the effect (on charities, clients, and the rest of the volunteers) from not participating as planned
  • Repeatedly provide clear instructions on what to do if one discovers s/he cannot participate as planned, since this happens occasionally to the best of us.

If someone is unexpectedly absent, the project manager and I follow up to find out what’s up, and I go so far as to describe the negative impact of someone’s absence.

If it happens again, I caution the potential volunteer to be sure s/he can reliably and responsibly commit in order to do more good than harm. And if it happens again, I remove the person from our lists until assurance of changes that will ensure reliable participation.

Doing more good than harm is one of the expectations that PMD regularly communicates to volunteers. This helps clarify the impact of not showing up or not following safety measures.

Putting things in perspective helps, like when you’re new and you find out that a charity’s clients are looking forward to the meal you help cook because past PMD volunteers did good to engender this positive attitude, or that not giving money to a client will keep things uncomplicated for the PMD volunteers who follow you.

Give 5 Stars to PMD’s American Express Project Entry by 6/17!

Former founding PMD board clerk, Nancy Goldberg, and I have developed what we hope will be a winning proposal for a project that is
  • Innovative (i.e., people often ask PMD/me and Nancy for advice for bar/bat mitzvah and confirmation projects after they are unable to locate useful information online)
  • Achievable with $1,000,000 to $5,000,000 due to PMD’s and Nancy’s experience and networks, and
  • will certainly have a lasting and broad, positive Impact.

See project description below.

If you are an American Express card holder, please show your support by awarding five stars to #03770 Tried and True: Plans for Teens to Save the World and participate in the message board as soon as possible before June 17, 2007.
Like many online community contests, it’s all about spreading the word among people we know and getting them to vote, so any help you can provide would make a real difference, much the way awareness about PMD spread beyond the board’s and my friends after the first year. You already know that PMD has integrity and is all about doing a great job helping others–Now that we’ve had 3,503 people volunteer for 628 PMD projects helping 107 charities, and they’ve told us how we can do better each time, we’re sharing our knowledge base to help others do a great job, too.
A project of this scope would enable PMD to help many young people make a real difference to local charities, going far beyond offering lists of possible project ideas or standards of excellence for volunteers, volunteer group leaders, and charities (that I’ve helped co-develop) to providing practical plans useful for all stakeholders so that teens’ volunteer projects successfully
  • Produce appreciable results and generate tools and materials while conserving recipient charities’ limited resources,
  • Educate volunteers about broader issues, and
  • Bring people together to make a difference.
Last year, Nancy and her daughter, Liesl, learned about homelessness and poverty, selected a local women’s day shelter to support, collected what they said they needed and made innovative centerpieces, as well as volunteered together with PMD at that charity to see how their contributions would be used.

Project Idea #03770

Tried and True: Plans for Teens to Save the World

Unedited project description below. Rules limit online descriptions to

1,000 words and do not let us name People Making a Difference (PMD).

Although many teens have the time, interest and inclination to engage in meaningful community service, it is very challenging for them to do so. Most volunteer programs aren’t geared to teens’ abilities or availability. Despite the many obstacles, some teens, teachers, youth group advisors, etc. have succesfully found ways to engage teens in making their communities a better place. We propose building a web site where teens and those who love them can share their sucessful blue prints for volunteer projects that really work. The project tasks, timeline, cost, and other crucial information would be available to those around the world to replicate in their own communities.

To obtain and to share a wide variety of community projects of all sizes

and scopes, we will conduct a massive outreach effort to synagogues, churches, other faith-based groups, youth group leaders, teachers, etc. So that we can obtain useful, detailed, and complete information, we will offer a donation the 501-c-3 charity served by the project, in honor of the teen or adult organizer, as an incentive for sharing unique community projects.

© 2007 Nancy R. Goldberg & People Making a Difference through Community Service, Inc.

Pin It on Pinterest