Of Cranberry Sauce and Volunteer Management

As I stood browning sausage and toasting bread for the Thanksgiving stuffing this year, it occurred to me that putting together a Thanksgiving meal is much like managing a volunteer program.  It requires serious planning, attention to detail, and an understanding of the needs of the people around you (whether clients, volunteers, or your dinner guests).

For our Thanksgiving this year, we had seven people from four different states all convening at an aunt and uncle’s home in a fifth state.  The travel arrangements alone took up a whole lot of time and energy!  Then there was the meal.  Between food allergies and food preferences, cooking with my family can be quite a juggling act.  I, for instance, insist on canned cranberry sauce.  It’s about the only area where I won’t compromise, which I feel is fair for the least expensive item on the table.  We also have homemade cranberry sauce (which, oddly, I played a part in making this year.  Let’s just say I may have overdone it on the cloves.).  Other members of the family have their quirks, too.  Somehow, though, we make it work.  And that’s where the volunteer management skills come into play.

We know that good volunteer management requires a solid vision of the volunteer program.  We have to know what constitutes success before we even begin to put volunteers into action.  Like my heavily-cloved cranberry sauce, that doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes.  But we know our goal and we put our resources into getting there.

Sometimes the most challenging part can be getting the right volunteers into the right positions so that they are happy in their work.  This leads to better work and higher retention of the volunteers.  This is equally true at Thanksgiving.  What role do we give everyone so that each person plays a part in the success of the meal?  Let’s put the people who love cooking up front, the creative types can set the table, and those who love to clean up are on dish patrol.  Stick the friendliest person with the newest member of the family to make him/her feel comfortable.

If you’ve been to a dinner where people are in the wrong roles, you can feel the misery in the air.  Ask me to bake you a pie and you’re asking for a cranky woman in the kitchen and bad dessert for everyone!  We won’t meet our goal of a good meal for all and I’m not going to be too excited about next time.  Ask me to buy the groceries and wash the dishes and we’ll all be much happier.  The same is true of any volunteer event or program.

Plan right and get to know your volunteers.  Get the right people in the right positions and you’re more likely to see those volunteers return and get closer to reaching your goals.

People ask me for the secrets to volunteer retention all of the time.  I still have no Big Secret to unveil, but I think there’s a lot to learn from a family meal.  I hope you all enjoyed your Thanksgiving as much as I did and maybe had some “aha” moments as well!

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