Swipe Right for this Volunteer Opportunity

How does your organization recruit its volunteers? Does it use a general ask with generic position descriptions, or is it a personal ask?

As a Peer Leader at Volunteer Maryland I have the opportunity to connect with our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (AmeriCorps Members in the field) on a regular basis, either by phone or in person. We often discuss challenges and celebrate their successes. Oftentimes I learn about creative strategies they are using for their site’s volunteer program. During one of my recent check-ins, I learned about an ingenious approach for tackling an urgent volunteer need…by using a dating ad format!

Joyce Plaxen, serving at Olney Home for Life, connects volunteers with driving opportunities to connect individuals who are aging or disabled. In order to make a Volunteer Driver position more enticing to her already committed volunteers she gives her clients a short bio, similar to a dating profile. This may seem a bit radical, but by bolstering the clients interests, and highlighting the benefits of driving them, Joyce found that within an hour all volunteer needs were met! Previously in the week, these rides were passed over, but with this innovative “dating ad” the client rides were taken quickly.

Why did this work? Personal connection- by reading these Dating Ads a volunteer feels a connection with the individual and is motivated to pick up the ride for the day. This is not a new idea. As Vue Le discusses in his blog Nonprofit with Balls, in the US volunteers
contribute over 8 billion hours of service, which is equal to over $173 billion. He claims that we tend to treat donors and volunteers differently, making donors feel personally connected to the organization for their monetary donations, but leaving volunteers feel not as connected to the clients for donating their time. So what can we do to correct this?

We need to get volunteers personalized quicker, before the volunteers even begin. If we find a way to make volunteer opportunities more personalized, volunteer recruitment efforts could be easier. Volunteers have already swiped right for your organization. So, create the personalized volunteer ask that won’t just get you a first date, but a long term volunteer relationship.c00c98d75bbe6c6a0a3eaa1e37f53298_oprah-dating-app-memes_620-588

National Service in My Life

National Service has been a guiding light for me in my life, something that has always led me in the right direction when I’ve found myself too far off the beaten path. In addition to being a second year AmeriCorps member, I am also a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Mali ’02-’04). We are celebrating AmeriCorps Week this week–a very important time for us at Volunteer Maryland–and last week was Peace Corps Week. It’s important to have this time devoted to National Service in order to spotlight the people devoted to National Service. For me personally, the experience has been profound and those people have made all the difference.

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Riding a camel in the Sahara just outside Timbuktu!

Peace Corps was the experience of a lifetime, as I was a 22 year old, barely out of college and placed wide-eyed in an extremely rural village as a Natural Resource Management Volunteer. Virtually every step was a challenge (as the line went, “the toughest job you’ll ever love”): completely different climate, completely different diet, completely different language, completely different culture altogether. I eventually found my footing and adapted to these things, but in a lot of ways, the most life-changing element was the Volunteers I served with. They were a group of idealistic people, up to the task but with an extreme willingness to be vulnerable that I didn’t always understand but was drawn to nevertheless.

For the next decade following Peace Corps, it became obvious to me how spoiled I had been to be surrounded by such remarkable people. When I wanted to recenter my life, I started looking at the things in Peace Corps that had made me happy: the people, the camaraderie, the constant challenge. Naturally, I looked at AmeriCorps, a program I was well aware of largely due to Volunteers who had participated either before or after Peace Corps service. Before I knew it, I was living quite a ways from home (Michigan) in Baltimore, Md, and was surrounded by people cut from the same cloth as those who inspired me so much in Mali. My VISTA year with Strong City Baltimore (July 2015-July 2016) was an excellent way to get me onto a better path, mind, body, and soul: I helped coordinate various middle school robotics programs for Baltimore City Schools with the JHU Center for Educational Outreach.

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Proud Strong City VISTAs at the JHU CEO!
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Visiting VM’s Habitat for Humanity Wicomico Co site!

This time, I wasn’t one of the young ones, I was one of the “old” ones. And that opened new doors to me as well. I loved watching and helping people fifteen years younger than me press through and do great things, and the taste of mentoring I got inspired me to spend a second AmeriCorps year as a Peer Leader at Volunteer Maryland, where it is now my role to give Volunteer Maryland Coordinators support of all types to help them through their service year. They inspire me constantly to reach down deep for my better nature, and they give me avenues to use my powers–meager though they are–for good.

For me, National Service has always been my North Star, the compass point that leads me to a meaningful life when I can’t find any other way to get there. Whatever National Service means to you, take this week to reflect upon it, and share in the community that we’ve all created with our service.

What are You Talking About?

What is your elevator pitch? Does everyone in the organization know the pitch and do they deliver the same message in the same way?  The  Baltimore Community ToolBank has a great strateby to address these very questions.  Every Monday , the ToolBank has a staff meeting with the message for the week written on a whiteboard.  This whiteboard is prominently displayed in their office where everyone who comes to volunteer, donate or for a meeting, sees the messaging.  Sometimes the ToolBank posts this message on socialbaltimore-community-toolbank media like the following posted on its Instagram: “2425 tools washed with rainwater this year”.  This specific messaging is a strategic way of ensuring everyone in the organization is talking about what matters, in the same way.  What if one person said, “2425 tools washed with recycled water this year”, or at a fundraising event, a board member stated, “2425 tools were washed with repurposed water this year”.  These are very different messages.   Although repurposed water can come from a variety of sources, including a toilet, Baltimore Community ToolBank is not sending a message regarding repurposed water in general.  Rather, the ToolBank, a leader in rainwater collection and repurposing from their 40,000 square foot rooftop, is focused on publicizing their ongoing strategic plan to leave as little footprint as possible by capturing the rainwater and using it to wash their tools. The ToolBank that loans tools, tables, chairs, wheel barrels and much more to community-based partners for pennies on the dollar are also environmentally conscience and holds communication in high regard throughout their organization.

Organizations that excel at communication are stronger, smarter and vastly more effective.  Sean Gibbons, the Executive Director of The Communications Network, explained this idea on the Podcast “Nonprofits are Messy” with Joan Garry (episode 13) Sean discusses how the organization’s message and passion needs to be clear to those inside the organization as well as made easily understood to those outside.  This precise messaging helps those outside the organization understand what your work is and why it nonprofits-are-messy-artwork-v2-300x300is important.  Gibbons challenges, that communications in a nonprofit can seem like it is adjunct to the ‘work, and when this is the attitude, the opportunity to share your story and bring more people on board is missed. He suggests that nonprofits are in the ‘idea’ market, and that large social issues cannot be solved by ONE organization.  The ideas of your organization’s mission, vision and purpose need to be sent out into the ‘world’ and partnerships need to be rendered.  If representatives of your organization can not explain clearly why, what you are doing is important the message is lost to those within the walls of your nonprofit, the hard work and importance is never understood by those outside the organization.

Social media can help target your messaging but be cautious of these sirens in the water, as it is easy to fall for every new, fast moving, shiny new platform.  When new platforms arise, i.e Snapchat, it is a good idea to look at your messaging, who are you targeting and decide if this new venture is worth your staff/volunteer’s time investment.  In the podcast, Gibbons talks about how, The Communications Network created a persona for their social media presence.  At about 21 minutes into the episode, Sean talks about how they represent themselves as Helen Mirren on social media.  This personification helps with their messaging and their ‘voice’ on various media.   Take a pause…..who would your organization be?

Being strategic about communication is not a waste of time.  Simon Sinek, in his vastly popular TED Talk Start with Why, challenges business to focus on their Why.  If it is unclear to the people in your organization why you are doing what you do, they will have a hard time talking or explaining why the work you do is so important.  It is worth spending time thinking about what your overall message is and to decide how to talk about your work.

Dancing Through Volunteer Management

Dance is a powerful art form that is constantly changing. Dance never stops evolving and growing in its definition to fit certain molds. There are moments when dance is rough and hard hitting, moments when dance flows and is seamless, and moments when there’s just nothing left to do but improvise your next move. Dancing tells stories and narrates feelings.  I find this to be true of the way volunteers’ work and dedication narrates the story of an organization. So what story do you want them to tell?

tumblr_m39mkqc5mg1r1zn4oo1_250I didn’t take dance classes growing up  unless you consider dancing around the living room to annoy my older siblings, a class. As soon as I reached middle school I became intrigued by the way dancing and choreography tells so many different stories. My next eleven years were spent cheerleading, dancing in school musicals, and eventually joining my colleges dance team.

Everything I learned from dancing I took with me after I left my team and I still use to this day. I took the ability to follow the set routine, the knowledge of every moving part of a performance, and the ability to change formations and switch choreography at the last moment to meet the group need. Every part of being involved in dance has allowed me to look at volunteer management with a different focus. Volunteer management tells a story.

In volunteer management there are moments when you have too few volunteers, too many volunteers, and when there are not enough volunteer jobs to fit the need of the group. This is when critical thinking comes in. What can you do with the volunteers that you have? How can you divide the volunteers up to be the most effective workers for your event? And most importantly, how can I learn from this experience to use it in future events, better recruitment, and stronger storytelling for my organization?

All of these experiences and lessons build up and create the foundation to maintain a wonderful and dedicated group of volunteers. If there is a hiccup in recruitment, whether it is a seasonal challenge for a site, or rather there are certain types of volunteers that are hard to come by, take every opportunity to look at the ebb and flow of your program. What volunteers need from an organization is constantly evolving and sometimes, like a performance, you need to change the choreography at the last minute to create the best story for your organization.

What I would encourage for everyone tackling volunteer management is to get out there dance-fail-tumblrand practice! Don’t be afraid to fall, stretch and become flexible, and don’t be afraid to take chances. If you fall, just pick yourself up and keep dancing!  Every experience you have with volunteers is just setting the stage for your next endeavor. Martha Graham once said, “Practice means to perform over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.” So with that, let’s hit the dance studio and get some rehearsals in for the next volunteer event.

Coping with the Shifting Seasons

 During my AmeriCorps VISTA year, I served as the Robotics Coordinator at the JHU Center for Educational outreach.  My project incorporated a wide array of activities that were often connected only by their association with competitive robotics, so the character of my service at any moment in the year was directly tied to the progress of the VEX Robotics season for Baltimore City Public Schools.  My first two months were dominated by undergraduate recruitment for a mentoring program where college students would work with middle school robotics teams during the season.  Then the season started, and my responsibilities began to spread out more:  helping plan and support event recruitment, training and managing mentors, running the VEX program at a local community center, and helping with a lot of behind the scenes event logistics.  The season was a busy time that ran from late October to late February.  Once the season was over, everything shifted once again:  now I was creating and revising sustainable plans based on what I had learned already, and formally evaluating the mentor program with input from children, coaches, and mentors.  Additionally, I was reworking the City Schools robotics website, and helping to optimize the storage space for robotics gear.

The toughest times of the year are when you are trying to contact people who are nonresponsive, and it’s impossible to get anything done without hearing from them.  Recruitment and evaluation can both cause this sort of bottleneck, as can ideas that need someone’s approval.  If your year is built around heightened activity for a stretch here and there—like my VEX season–other times can feel like the doldrums.  So what can you do when things get slow?

  • This is a great time to evaluate. If you have two or three months where you won’t need your volunteers, set up interviews or focus groups to get feedback.  It shows you are interested, keeps them in contact and invested in your site, and gives you valuable information.  It’s not a bad idea to look for ways to tie this into recognition, as well.
  • Sustainability plans: this is a time that you can consider how your volunteer program can carry on without you.  Does the program need room to expand?  If you chart the course, can certain volunteers or staff assume the torch with significantly less investment of time and energy than you are putting in?  What have you tried that never needs to be attempted again?  What has worked well, and what has promise despite lukewarm results?
  • Get to know your team and their projects, and especially projects they wish they could implement. Sometimes, you can find new areas of expansion for volunteer programs this way, and gain new sources of support in the office.  The sustainability of your volunteer program is much more robust if many people around the office see the value to projects important to them.
  • Arrange a supplemental training day for your volunteers. If you got a lot of feedback about certain issues, there may be interest in an offseason training session.  Similar to evaluation tactics, this offers volunteers a chance to make a bigger investment in their work and keeps them connected to you and the site.
  • Recruitment! Offseason recruitment is not always easy because volunteers don’t like to be committed as early as you want to have them signed up.  However, you can lay the groundwork by advertising a future recruitment event.  It’s also a good time to network to try to find new sources of volunteers that you can reach out to in the future.

If you have any other thoughts on how to push through the slow periods of volunteer coordination and to maintain productivity and motivation, please share them!

Cycles of the Job

I am a cyclist. It’s a deeply ingrained part of my identity.  Riding and racing bikes serves many purposes in my life.  It gives me an outlet for my frustrations, either alone or with a group out on the roads.  My nagging competitiveness is satisfied, at least temporarily, when a race on my calendar comes around.  However, probably most important, is how cycling grounds me and serves as a reminder of many life lessons drawn upon from my past

We all know that work, especially work within the nonprofit world, can be both exhilarating and, at times, draining.  It isn’t so much a job as a calling to do good, to better a neighborhood, serve food to those in need, or simply help your fellow man in some facet.  When someone has such a deep attachment to an activity, the tendency is to slip into tunnel vision and ignore many other parts of life.  A healthy balance needs to be found, you should remain calm in the face of a challenge, and endure when the situation calls for it.

The same idea applies to cycling, and it is why I find comfort and strength in how it relates to my everyday life.  The concept of training to race is something that needs a degree of commitment, desire, and foresight.  It’s a challenge by nature that can be overcome individually, but having a few friendly faces along for the ride certainly passes the time a bit more quickly!  While training for an event or working towards a professional goal, if there isn’t another part of your life pulling you from that mindset, you will eventually burn out. It’s important to take a step back once in awhile to recharge both physically and mentally, finding that all-important balance.

Finally, after all of your hard work, race day arrives! You might be nervous, scared, or just raring to get out there and show them what you’re made of!

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In cycling and your chosen profession, it’s important to remain calm in the face of a challenge. This may be the race you’ve been planning for all these months, or a big report on data from your volunteer program. If you’re confident, have laid the groundwork for success, and endure the challenge ahead, at the end of the day you will have accomplished your goal.
Remember to take some time to recharge and avoid the dreaded burnout. Know that you aren’t in this alone! Your co workers, family, and friends are here to support you in reaching that goal. Finally, after putting in all the hard work ahead of time, the accomplishments that were set out to be achieved long ago will come to you more easily than you’d ever think.

Anita Goehringer, The Elms Environmental Education Center, St. Mary’s Public Schools

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About her decision to serve as VMC with the Elms Environmental Education Center, Anita explains “I came to Volunteer Maryland at a time in my life when I questioned my desire to continue a long-standing career in Ergonomics Consulting. I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to potentially make a difference in something that I have gravitated to all my life—nature, plants and the environment. I saw a real need at the Elms, and I wanted to be part of the change.”

The Elms Environmental Education Center provides onsite, sequentially-developed, curriculum-integrated environmental education programs to 10,000 Pre-K-12 students annually from St. Mary’s County public and private schools. Anita is working with the Native Plant Nursery program, and site-based and school-based environmental improvement and related instruction. She’s also recruiting 53 new volunteers who assist education programs, maintain the Native Plant Demonstration Gardens and nursery, and maintain, restore and extend trails at the Elms.

“I feel invigorated  and empowered to have an opportunity to use my knowledge, skills and life experiences to make a positive change in something so important,” Anita shares. “I returned for year two at the Elms because of my strong belief in volunteer service and helping to build community around a common goal—preserving, nurturing and sustaining the environment and the natural world.”

 

Lakeal Ellis, Allegany College of Maryland

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A former nurse and current student at Allegany College of Maryland, Lakeal shares, “My purpose is to be present for people in whatever stage in life and do whatever comes naturally for me to make lives better.”

Lakeal is living out that purpose as VMC with Allegany College of Maryland, which, in partnership with Garrett College and Frostburg State University, is founding a Volunteer Center to serve Western Maryland.  To support these founding efforts, Lakeal is recruiting community volunteers to serve with several Allegany and Garrett County agencies. These community volunteers engage in stewardship of public land, read to kindergarten students, participate with local food drives and maintain community gardens.

About her year of service, Lakeal shares, “I hope to gain more community relationships and help create a lasting program that will be around long after I have served.”

Archie Slade, St. Francis Neighborhood Center

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A recent UMBC graduate, Archie shares “I’m a military brat, which means I moved around a lot as a child. I have a B.A. in English, and I love words. I love absorbing facts and information that seem useless and storing them away until I need them.

“The force that drove me to apply with Volunteer Maryland was the force of, ‘I just graduated from college and I have no idea what to do with the rest of my life.’ After four years of school, I was excited by the promise of a year-long position that offered something completely different from the rarefied, theoretical world of academia. I wanted to be out in the world, providing actual benefit to other humans. I was sick of discussing what was wrong with the world – I wanted to go out and change it! Being a VMC with St. Francis Neighborhood Center is an amazing opportunity to get into the world of service, and, as a bonus, the Volunteer Maryland support team helps make it a smooth and effective transition. It was really just the right opportunity at the right time of my life.

“I am hoping to gain practical skills and field experience in the realm of volunteerism, service, and community initiatives. I am hoping to learn how to recruit volunteers and how to get them fired up, how to motivate people to work for free. If in this period of time I could make a measurable, lasting difference in the life of one person then I would consider it a success, or if I could make a measurable, lasting, positive change for the organization then that would also be a success. This is a year for me to just focus on the role that I play in the world, and work on sending my energy outwards, in service.”

MaryAnn Eleanya, Baltimore Bar Foundation

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A recent Cornell University graduate, MaryAnn shares, “I am doing a term of service with Volunteer Maryland because I want to learn more about my interests and myself and at the same time give back to a struggling community. Looking back at the past few years of my life, I’d like to think that I have been very fortunate to receive a great education. Based on that reflection, I believe that it is only fair that I pay it forward in any way that I can.”

MaryAnn is serving as Volunteer Maryland Coordinator with Baltimore Bar Foundation’s Senior Legal Services program. Founded in 1992 as Legal Services to the Elderly, Senior Legal Services provides vital pro bono legal services to low-income seniors, aged 60 and over, in Baltimore City. In her role, MaryAnn is recruiting 30 new volunteer attorneys who represent clients, visit senior centers, volunteer for the  annual Law Day for Seniors, and volunteer with quarterly estate planning clinics held throughout Baltimore City. MaryAnn is also developing a sustainable volunteer recruitment plan and a volunteer recognition plan that acknowledges and rewards specific achievements.

MaryAnn explains, “From this experience I hope to be able to gain the confidence to interact with different kinds of people. I also hope to gain valuable skills in leadership, empathy and determination. This will fit into my long term goals because whether I decide to pursue further education or pursue employment, these are important skills.”