Volunteer Levels/Structure and Rationale

With more than 3,200 participating volunteers who have generously given their feedback at every PMD project, plus many years professional work at local charities, I have a good sense of expectations versus reality. So I continue to provide local charities with training and consulting services about volunteer management, particularly as they relate to matching people’s talents and interests with charities’ needs, as well as common sense practices that encourage volunteers to stay and possibly to do more.

Lately, it seems like the charities I’ve assisted have wanted to know how to structure their volunteer programs, so I thought that I would share how things have worked best for PMD.

There is a distinct progression in the relationship between our volunteers and our organization. Everyone who manages projects for PMD has been a regular volunteer participant. Everyone considered for the board of directors has personally volunteered for PMD service projects.

We think small and discrete when it comes to initially volunteering. PMD’s 3- to 7-hour projects allow people to pick and choose and to avoid taking responsibility for anyone other than themselves. Even if the activity is not as enjoyable as they thought it would be, their only commitment is 3-7 hours, not 6-24 months. People have the option to participate as much as they wish to “opt in” as long as they can reliably follow through as expected. Thankfully, communicating our volunteer opportunities to 900 people on our private email list is usually sufficient, so I don’t have to “draft” any friends to participate and thus all participants are motivated to be there.

When things click, people tend to volunteer for more PMD projects. When they have gained wider experience and shown themselves to be enthusiastic, reliable, and responsible, some are invited to train to become PMD Project Managers who lead groups of other volunteers four times a year. Others who have needed skills like fundraising, bookkeeping, etc. and express interest in longer-term participation are invited to work on board-level activities and then to join the board of directors if they can address a specific need and make a 3-year commitment. 

It makes sense that no one skips the basic act of volunteering in our core program. Occasionally I have been lured into thinking that we could overlook this requirement, but in each case I have come to regret it. The allure of someone who says s/he will do amazing things for PMD at the management level has caused me (and board members) to give an untried person too much responsibility too early in the relationship, and they have been unable to “jump in” and sustain that level of involvement to our (and their) disappointment.

Directors of Volunteer Administration (DOVA)

This year (2006-7), I am president of the local Directors of Volunteer Administration (DOVA), a local professional organization for people and nonprofit agencies involved in volunteerism and volunteer administration in Greater Boston. I have been a DOVA member and sometime officer for more than a decade, and have found the networking and learning opportunities helpful at all stages of my career.

This Thursday, 9/28, 9:30-11:30 AM, at the Emmanuel Gospel Center there will be a great program about “Successful Recruitment Strategies for Specific Communities” with panelists Penn Loh, Executive Director, Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), and Tracy Stanley, Manager of External Relations, Big Brothers of Massachusetts Bay. If recruiting more diverse participants is a goal, don’t miss this program. R.s.v.p. to Debbie Barr, DOVA Program Vice President, d.barr@minutemansenior.org.

On Tuesday October 17, join us at 3:30 PM at Grendel’s Den for a Happy Hour/Late Lunch networking and discussion about “Screening Volunteer Applicants, from CORI to References.” Grendel’s is extending their special $3.95 express lunches for DOVA attendees. This is a “pay for yourself” gathering. R.s.v.p. to me by 10/13.

Everyone can join DOVA for $35 per individual per year, and enjoy six professional development and networking programs; job opportunity postings; and membership directory. Non-member can attend meetings for $10 per person.

For membership information, contact Michele Mitsumori, DOVA Membership Vice President, dovaboston@gmail.com.

Youth Volunteers & Resource on Raising Charitable Children

PMD periodically receives inquiries from adults seeking to raise charitable children. Since PMD projects are geared primarily for individuals who can take responsibility for reliably committing their time and independently getting to/from PMD projects, only a handful of PMD projects are appropriate for youth to volunteer. So I often refer parents and youth to online sites like

Energizeinc.com just announced the new e-Book Raising Charitable Children by Carol Weisman, MSW, CSP, MOM. To paraphrase Susan Ellis’ description: This is a collection of real-life stories from all over the world of how families, teachers, Scout leaders, friends, neighbors, etc. have either initiated or supported ways to teach children how to give back to those in need. And after each story, Weisman offers specific steps to help anyone translate these ideas into action. The online excerpt worked for me. Parents, please let me know about other web sites and/or whether this e-book is helpful.

Exceptional Summer Volunteers, But Ready for R&R

I’ve really enjoyed working with some special volunteers this summer, yet I still welcome time off from email and voicemail beginning at the end of the week. (Yes, PMD will be closed August 18-27.) More than 400 people have already volunteered with PMD this year–Thank you!

Thanks to their dedicated staff, the following PMD Corporate Partners truly made a difference. What they have in common is that

  • They give paid time off to enable their busy employees to volunteer
  • Internal staff do a good job recruiting participants and keeping me updated about expected attendance
  • They pay for needed tools, materials, and other resources
  • They exemplify exceptional teamwork, camaraderie, and positive attitudes about the tasks, each other, and the clients.

During the final hours of the latest heat wave, 18 Keystone Partners employees bravely undertook a massive yard makeover for nine, elderly, frail and formerly homeless ladies. In addition to weeding, pruning, planting, and mulching energetically, they purchased all of the materials and a delicious ice cream sundae party for all from Lizzy’s Ice Cream.

Keystone deadheading

Besides their enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers, what made this project easy for me was that it was under the direction of their manager of community development, someone on staff whose responsibilities include planning and implementing volunteer projects for the company. She allocated funding for materials, refreshments, and my time, as well as communicated and coordinated everything with their staff so that they were able to show up and “hit the ground running.” Thanks, Ruthie!

For the past few years, PMD has brought corporate volunteer groups to help restore these massive gardens created by a late tenant. Six Harvard Pilgrim Health Care (HPHC) employees visited twice to install a brick patio and to plant a new garden in the backyard after a room was added to the house. I work closely with HPHC to offer a variety of hands-on volunteer opportunities for its employees, who receive paid time off to volunteer.  Thanks, Mike & Doug!Since 2000, Bingham McCutchen LLP has organized its summer associates, partners, and support staff to assemble braille books and to learn about Braille literacy. This year nine folks checked 511 copies of Just Enough to Know Better, a print-Braille workbook that teaches just enough braille to sighted parents to read along with their blind children. Thanks, Amanda & Neal!
BTC serving

Last week, 12 BT Conferencing employees and a family member prepared and shared delicious appetizers and lunch with 40 formerly homeless elders at the Anna Bissonnette House where PMD volunteers have been cooking since 1997. They also ran a rousing bingo game and generously purchased many, needed bags of food, health and beauty items, and first aid supplies for the outreach program geared for homeless elders. Thanks, Howard & Jim!

I look forward to working with additional motivated volunteers at the food bank on Wednesday and after Labor Day!                              






On-Time Volunteers Shine

During this summer’s torrential downpours, heat, and humidity, I have experienced both the privilege and the pain from working with several hundred volunteers. I have been privileged to work with some amazing, motivated people who truly wanted to and did make a difference to local charities and their clients. Conversely, I have suffered from some unprepared and late people who have toed the line of doing more harm than good.

Savvy charities are aware of these potential outcomes. Fortunately many have been pleasantly surprised when they’ve hosted typical PMD projects with 100% attendance and less than 10% tardiness (thanks to our cancellation policy of calling at least one day before a project and our stressing taking personal responsibility for arriving on-time or early if one is unfamiliar with an area).

Preparedness and punctual participation are major factors. Volunteers who dress and otherwise prepare as recommended for safely performing planned tasks (e.g., painting, assisting with kids’ crafts, improving trails) arrive ready to work, as are those who show up reliably on-time. There is nothing more frustrating than those who disregard specific directions and dress such that they would risk their personally safety or who do not want to ruin their couture by volunteering.

Every volunteer counts. Volunteer projects are in trouble when even 10% of expected participants do not show up on-time. Though this may arise due to frustrating, slow public transit or the recent Big Dig tunnel closures and resulting traffic, it almost automatically means that the group will be unable to accomplish everything the charity needs in the designated time. This can have a significant impact, such as when clients we strive to serve do not have the ability to wait out delays.

Luckily there are a small handful of extremely dedicated volunteers who will work harder as well as stay later than planned to compensate for any staffing shortages. I also try to recruit 10% more volunteers, to create “back up” lists of potential participants, and to allocate extra time to accomplish tasks. The challenges are that sometimes there are not enough participants and that accomplishing new tasks for new recipient charities may take longer than expected regardless of prior experience and advance planning.

Since you can prepare as directed and control whether you’re on-time by planning your exact route in advance and by departing with ample time to arrive, do these essential things when you volunteer. And I’ll do my best to help the recipient charities be fully prepared for your on-time arrival.

Volunteering as a New, Summer Tradition

More volunteers are needed during the summer in Greater Boston, due to reductions in college students and ongoing volunteers who take summer breaks and vacations. This is a sharp contrast to the huge numbers of people who think of volunteering primarily on Thanksgiving and Christmas, when most charities cannot accommodate them due to space, logistics, and cultural constraints.

PMD’s popular, one-time service projects and even Boston’s largest and most recognized shelters, Pine Street Inn and Rosie’s Place, face volunteer shortages during the summer, so for the past decade I have worked to increase awareness of this problem and have organized more PMD projects to address it directly. As a result, PMD has evolved from assisting only charities with no staff dedicated to working with volunteers to including more than a third that do have staff dedicated to recruiting and managing volunteers.

My rationale is that learning that volunteers are really needed during the summer will change the mindset of some people who previously were only been interested in doing so on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Furthermore, organizing PMD projects that assist specific charities each year gives people opportunities to make these volunteer activities their annual, summer traditions among friends and family.

I deliberately avoid planning PMD projects and personally volunteering on Thanksgiving and Christmas. (In fact, you’ll often find me washing dishes or cooking as a volunteer the day after these holidays.) Charities are busy with additional programming during the holidays and overwhelmed by well-intentioned and clueless people who require specialized responses from understaffed programs. Most actually don’t need that many more people to help their ongoing volunteers serve meals (as they do daily throughout the year), and repeatedly tell me that their guests/clients feel more comfortable spending the holidays with the staff and ongoing volunteers who they already know, rather than newcomers. It makes good sense to respect what these charities say they need since they know how best to serve their guests during the stressful holidays and throughout the rest of the year.

Why else should people volunteer during the summer? A much more relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere. The turmoil and stress of driving, shopping, organizing, cooking, and hosting guests for Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to make even the most devoted volunteers, stressed, overwhelmed, and unable to follow through on their obligations, so why add another commitment to your holiday schedule?

Another good reason to volunteer during the summer is that some charities* may be willing to be flexible about their requirements. While many may advertise that they require a six-month or longer commitment and want volunteers to participate once a week, if they have a summer volunteer shortage and you can be trained and involved enough to meet their needs (e.g., every other week, or for the summer when your office is only open half-days on Fridays), then you may be able to strike a deal that balances your and their needs and serves the greater good. So be sure to speak with the volunteer manager and inquire as to whether any flexibility may be possible during the summer.*PMD’s requirements are minimal (i.e., get to/from the project site on your own and participate for the entire 2-7 hour project that you select), so we cannot offer additional flexibility.

I sincerely hope that you will find a way to make time to volunteer this summer. I would be thrilled to learn that you have involved others to make it a new, summer tradition, much like spending a week on the Cape & Islands.

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