The Power of Retreat

April is a report heavy month here at Volunteer Maryland.  Our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators just submitted their mid-year report full of data and stories and our sites submitted an update on how they are doing with their National Performance Measures.  What this means is Laura Aceituno, VM’s Program Manager extraordinaire is spending many quality hours reading and aggregating data for our Quarterly Progress Report due in mid-April.  Reporting is of course necessary in this world of service, but so is taking a step back.  Reports can offer a moment of reflection for the writer as they discuss successes and challenges and build the narrative of progress thus far through stats and stories, but there is something missing here.  What is missing is the space to give all of this work meaning, and commit to keeping on.

It has been well documented that an AmeriCorps member’s service is not easy.  It has tough road written all over it, and that toughness can get to the best of us.  Volunteer Maryland refers to this time as “the dips”.  It is when a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator finds it hard to see progress in their work, and the limited resources available to them seem more limited than ever.  This can be a dark time for those on the getting things done highway as their journey is half over, but the light at the end of the tunnel can seem a bit faint.  So how do you help folks get over this bump, and onto a successful second half?  You take them away.

Each year, VM hosts a retreat for the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator’s to re-charge, re-access and re-commit to their service.  In the past, the retreat was a two day affair with an overnight stay.  This year we are trying a new approach. Many of our folks have part-time jobs, or take classes in the evening or have families to take care of, so the overnight aspect of the retreat posed a problem.  This year we are doing a one-day retreat with a focus on leadership and deepening service.  This retreat is for the VMCs, but the truth is I am really looking forward to it.  The opportunity to pause, and build skills for what is to come seems luxurious and almost decadent, like a huge box of delicious chocolates.  But here is the thing, pausing is just the right move when each move feels heavy with little to no progress.  That pause can lead to new ideas, new attitudes, and new opportunities bringing changes from dip to doing.  Pausing with purpose is the true power of a retreat.

Taking a pause, even if it is just for a breath can be just the thing for what dips you.


Time to Say Goodbye



Today, Maureen Eccleston leaves the Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism to accept a position with the Anne E. Casey Foundation.  I am so happy for her, but I can’t hide how much she will be missed.  Smart, thoughtful, crazy good planner, amazing trainer, and hilarious are just a few words to describe Maureen, but the word I choose is leader.  Maureen’s leadership has meant so much to Volunteer Maryland and service around the State; it is hard to see her go.  I have been lucky to have known Maureen as a colleague and a boss, and in both instances each day I learned, was challenged (in the best possible ways) and laughed a lot.  I know I am better for knowing and working with her, and can’t wait to see what happens next.

Thanks for everything, Maureen.  Especially the sweet photo jumping skills :).





The Shorter the Better?

The Chronicle of Philanthropy had a few interesting pieces concerning volunteerism. In the January 22, 2015 issue titled What’s Next, I noticed a small piece concerning volunteer retention. New York Cares, one of the largest volunteer management organizations is offering eight week, web tutorials, in-person workshops, and one-on-one counseling to help groups develop high quality programs.  Gary Bagley, executive director of New York cares stated that, “The lack of excellent experiences is the biggest reason people don’t volunteer.”

Flipping a few pages, an article by Megan O’Neil, “Volunteerism and Trust in Public Institutions Are On the Decline”, discusses the drop in volunteerism across the country. According to the Bureau of labor statistics, the volunteerism rate fell to 25.4 percent in 2013. This is the lowest level since this data collection began in 2002.  What is happening here? Why are fewer folks volunteering? The data is a bit confusing, so let’s look at a few indicators. A report released by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) states that 62.6 million adults (25.4 percent) volunteered through an organization in 2013, and more than 138 million Americans (62.5 percent) also engaged in informal volunteering in their communities, helping neighbors with such tasks as watching each other’s children, helping with shopping, or house sitting. Wendy Spencer, CNCS chief operating officer noted that the share of Americans that participate in formal volunteering has remained steady, at about one in four for many years. So does this mean that volunteerism is doing kinda okay? Maybe we are looking at the wrong set of indicators. In Megan O’Neil’s article, she quotes Greg Baldwin, president of VolunteerMatch stating that nonprofit sector and volunteers are as vulnerable to the economic swings as other sectors. He further states that, “Strong volunteer programs are coordinated by healthy, strong organizations that are well resourced.” So it’s the organizations fault? Not exactly.

Right now VM sees an amazing shift in how folks want to volunteer. Over the past four years, our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators report that they are recruiting more episodic volunteers. These are folks that volunteer for a shorter duration then the stereotypic, long-term volunteer that most organizations dream of. Our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are consistently reporting volunteers that provide less than one hour per week, and serve for shorter durations. But here is the really interesting thing; volunteer satisfaction has risen with our sites as they are able to offer a more tailored approach to engaging volunteers. Providing opportunities for volunteers to engage in a less structured way has not diminished the experience or the productivity of the programs. So is the answer short term all the way? Not completly. Circling back to Greg Baldwin’s comment concerning strong volunteer programs; I think we also need to keep in mind what the volunteer market is telling us. If volunteers are looking for short-term, meaningful opportunities, how can we meet that demand? The simple and not so simple answer is start identifying opportunities where a shorter commitment would work. Engaging volunteers on projects with a very specific end date, or being open to one and done volunteers. Meeting the market in terms of opportunities offered is not only good for volunteers, but good for organizations as well.

The Value of a Volunteer Hour

The estimated value of one hour of volunteer time is $22.14. This dollar amount has huge implications on how Volunteer Maryland reports the value of a volunteer’s time in relation to the organization or service site they serve. But what does this figure really mean?  First, let’s get the details on where this number comes from. Independent Sector determines the value of a volunteer hour and provides this information as one measurement of a volunteer’s impact.

The Independent Sector methodology for calculating this is pretty simple, “The value of volunteer time is based on the hourly earnings (approximated from yearly values) of all production and non-supervisory workers on private non-farm payrolls average (based on yearly earnings provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Independent Sector indexes this figure to determine state values and increases it by 12 percent to estimate for fringe benefits.” Got that?  Not really rocket science as it uses BLS information to determine value.

In 2013, one in four adults volunteered through an organization. This amounted to 7.7 billion hours with a value of $173 billion. That is a huge number, but is misleading in telling the value of a volunteer to an organization and a community. At times this number is viewed as money saved by the organization. There may be times that a skilled volunteer provides professional services which do have a value in terms of dollars saved through the use of a volunteer, but in most cases a volunteer supplements rather than substitutes paid staff.

So why does this number matter? The matter of determining a volunteer hours worth is tricky for most of the organizations Volunteer Maryland works with. The reason being is value has multiple facets that a volunteer program should factor when determining and showing its volunteer forces impact. Beyond the hours, there needs to a clear method of determining that impact on the client that they serve, and how their service made a difference.

Each Volunteer Maryland Coordinator works with their site to determine a way of measuring the impact of the volunteer. Some examples are an increase in reading fluency for early readers, or a decrease in invasive plants with an increase in native plants in a pre determined plot of land. This measurement gives value to the $22.14 because it shows the significance of the one hour of service. Knowing how the volunteer provides impact to your community in real, tangible improvements not only speaks the language of funders, but the language of potential volunteers as well. With the perception of less and less time, it is on the organization to prove that that a volunteer’s time has true value to the shared community.

Independent Sector –

What’s an Hour of Volunteer Work Worth? –

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

I have heard this saying hundreds of times, but lately it is hitting home in a big way in the form of information graphics. What are they you ask? They are quick way to tell a story though the use of graphics and limited text. Like this fancy one from the Peace Corps lying out with Peace Corps Volunteers learn during their service, and how this makes them more marketable and desirable as an employee.


Catchy, right? If I were looking at a possible Peace Corps stint, and I wanted to learn what folks gained, and had about 10.4 seconds to spare, this would give me just enough information to make me want more. That is the beauty of the information graphic; it brings the hook in a fun, easily digestible and engaging way. How did this happen? Many will point to internet and our ever shrinking attention span. This may be in part a reason, but the truth is we are actually hard wired to be more visual. Almost fifty percent of your brain is involved in visual processing. It takes 150 ms for a symbol to be processed and 100 ms to attach a meaning to it.

For example, on a dark winding road would you prefer this sign –


Or this text –

Please be aware that you will encounter sharp turns that may affect your ability to drive at your current speed.  Also be aware that weather conditions will impact the severity of said turns and your vehicles ability to remain safe.

Information graphics are not new of course as our little traffic experiment proves. They are however popping up in new places ever day.  Five years ago, the information shared by Peace Corps may have appeared as a report or a story about a Peace Corps Volunteers experience.

A recent study from the Wharton School of Business states that sixty seven percent of an audience was persuaded by verbal presentations that had accompanying visuals. Add this to the fact that we recall only ten percent of what we hear, twenty percent of what we read, and a whopping eight percent of what we see.

Here at Volunteer Maryland we are a bit text heavy, and that needs to change. We are looking at ways to tell our unique stories in a different way that catches the eye and then their attention. Will an information graphic blog post be in the near future? You bet! So if you have a good resource on how to create information graphics, or are willing to share yours it is much appreciated. Thank you for connecting with Volunteer Maryland. Talk to you soon.

Service to a Job

One motivation for doing an AmeriCorps term of service is to gain skills for future employment or education.  For this reason, VM takes time with each applicant listening to what they are looking for, and hoping to experience in order to find just the right fit.  We know that the job market, though recovering is still a bit tight, and respect the fact that Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are hoping that service may lead in the direction of a job.

In about two weeks, the current group of coordinators will end their 11 month term of service.  This can be a time filled with a bit of anxiety as our folks look at what comes next.  For a few the futures involves a bit of the past.  Six of the 23 VMCs have accepted jobs with their service site.  That is great news on many levels.  First, it speaks to the professionalism of the individuals that were offered employment.  Their sites know that these folks can get things done, and are committed to the mission.  It is also a good sign for the nonprofit community as this is an improvement over last year’s number of VMCs that stayed on as employees.  Last year two of the amazing members of VM25 were hired on by their site.  This is not a reflection at all on the members of that class, but rather a continued sign of the times.  With a 200 percent increase over last year, my hope is that there will be more opportunities out there for truly talented VM alums.

I am so proud of the current group of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  AmeriCorps is not easy, but these folks preserved, and went from novice volunteer coordinators to seasoned professionals.  They developed management skills, facilitated trainings and put volunteer programs in a place where they could provide results.  That is what makes them so hirable.  They have the goods that equal a strong employee.

I wish I could keep them, but AmeriCorps is not meant to be a lifelong job, but rather a time of meaningful service that leads to new opportunities.  Congratulations to all of the members of VM Class 26.

It’s National Volunteer Week!

Yay volunteers!  This is your week.  One week to celebrate the impact and value of volunteers in our communities.  For those of you out there giving back, paying forward, or digging in, we at Volunteer Maryland salute you with a Volunteer Maryland, Class 26 jump!  Our work would be nothing without you, and our communities are all the better for you.

Thank you volunteers!


Jumping Group 3 Best

Oh Canada!

Here at Volunteer Maryland, we are always interested in other entities that look to better volunteer program development.  It is a bit refreshing to know that developing, investing and promoting volunteer programs is not only a Maryland things, but an international one as well.  Take our friends to the north, Canada.  Volunteer Canada recently published a study entitled, Bridging The Gap that looked at volunteer trends based on some observations made in 2010.  The key observation centered on seeing a growing gap between what volunteers look for and the opportunities organizations offer.  They wanted to verify this observation to develop strategies to help organizations utilizing volunteers, and people who volunteer or are looking to volunteer.

The research looked at four volunteer groups: youth, families, baby boomers and workplace volunteers.  The study provides a great snapshot of these four groups looking at characteristics of each, along with interests and barriers to volunteering. These are integral pieces as an organization looks at needs, and develops long term recruitment and retention plans.  A few commonalities occurred when looking at these four distinct volunteer groups:

  • Today’s volunteers have goals.
  • They’re driven by results.
  • They’re mobile.
  • They’re self-directed.
  • They have multiple interests.
  • They often seek short-term opportunities that use their skills.

Sound familiar?  It does to Volunteer Maryland.  The value of a volunteers time and the need to see impact in there service rings very true for most of our partnerships and definitely within the group of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators we work with each year.

There are of course differences within each of the groups concerning needs, but a few of the gaps cut across all volunteer groups:

  • Many people are looking for group activities BUT few organizations can offer them.
  • Many people come with professional skills BUT many professionals look for volunteer tasks that differ from their work.
  • Organizations are expected to define the roles of volunteers BUT many volunteers want the flexibility to create their own opportunities and schedules.
  • Many organizations want long-term commitment BUT many more volunteers are looking for short-term opportunities.
  • Many organizations focus on what they need BUT many volunteers come with their own goals to be met.

This may appear to be a cage match pitting volunteer needs versus organizational needs.  The study participants gave some advice on how organizations can improve the way they engage volunteers.  Some were basic but important and play a big role on how Volunteer Maryland works with organizations.  Items such as building meaningful relationships with volunteers, and understand where volunteers are in their lifecycle are indicative of a strong volunteer system. Organizations should invest in learning a volunteer’s goals and skills looking for ways to engage these in there service. Beyond this, volunteers recommended the following:

  • Human resources should include volunteers. Some policies and benefits apply equally to volunteers and paid staff.
  • Today’s volunteers have erratic schedules. Volunteers of all ages have multiple demands. These include work, school and family. Organizations benefit from being flexible and accommodating.
  • Organizations should be sensitive to gender, culture, language and age. A welcoming and inclusive environment attracts volunteers.
  • While many organizations use technology and social media, volunteers want to find more information online.

The information contained in this study served to solidify two key pieces of Volunteer Maryland’s work.

  • Volunteer programs are not static, and need to have planned revision to continue to serve the needs of the community served.
  • Volunteers are not static and continue to change and present new recruitment and retention nuances that speak to specific generations and motivations.

My last blog focused on talking with staff concerning the volunteer program.  Now I am going to recommend asking them to read.  This study could just be the spark that leads to those great conversations on how volunteers engage, serve and help define your organizations volunteer program.  Maybe even spark a study of your own.

Thank you, Volunteer Canada.



What’s Your Game Plan?

People often ask, what is the one thing my organization can do to ensure our volunteer programs success?  This question tells me two things.  One is organizations are continuing to look for the one thing that will make its volunteer program take off, and two I need to diversify my cocktail party conversation.  But let’s look at this.  Is there a one size fits all answer?  Maybe not a total answer, but I do think there is one piece of the volunteer program success model that most often points towards success, staff buy-in.

Let’s start with an example that we hear often.  An organization decides to make the volunteer program a priority, and submits an application to Volunteer Maryland to support this priority.  Great!  This is a positive step.  Through the application, negotiation and placement of a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator (VMC) some staff are engaged in the process, which is typical as involving every staff member in this process could be cumbersome.  The VMC begins serving within the organization, and starts recruiting volunteers.  Volunteers begin to show up, and staff starts insisting that volunteers are just not needed.  What happened?  Reality happened.  Kind of like wanting a baby, and having one.  Babies are so darn cute, but the reality is they are demanding and life changing.  Volunteers are not babies of course, but they do put a level of demands in terms of time and evaluation on staff that needs to be addressed while the organization is still in the “glint in the eye” phase.  Not the 3:00 am, sleep deprived phase that developing a volunteer program brings.

So what have we seen that works?  Talking.  Yup, there it is, talking.  Talking with staff about needing volunteers is a good step, but talking about staff roles is a better one.  What are staff expectations?  Are there any misconceptions concerning bringing in volunteers?  Volunteers can be viewed as replacement staff, which is never a good idea.  Talk about training needed for staff.  How can you incorporate them in the development phase?  Developing a leadership team for the volunteer program using program staff is a great way to evaluate the volunteer program, and build more investment.  Lastly, keep talking.  Staff changes and new volunteer opportunities could lead to a disillusionment of the once bouncing bundle of volunteer joy.  Volunteers and the service they bring are great; make sure your staff feels that way, too.  A little talking up front can build staff/volunteer relationships that produce results, and perhaps some great photos to share on your Facebook page.

Volunteer Program Olympics

olympic rings

As long as I can remember I have loved the Olympics.  It probably started with Dorothy Hamill at the 1976 Olympics.  I can still remember watching her skate on the Moran family trusty color console television with my mom, and convincing her to allow me to cut my hair in the wedge hairstyle that Dorothy sported during those games.

Dorthy Hamill

Something about the Olympics just draws me in.  I love the over the top Opening Ceremonies, the competition, the medal ceremonies and, the moment during the Closing Ceremonies when athletes of the world are called to meet again in four years.  The symbol of the games, the five interlocking rings symbolizing the colors of all nations immediately identifies the Olympics, and embodies the spirit of connection through sport.

What about a volunteer Olympic symbol?  What symbols would I choose?  My first symbol would be mission. Volunteer programs need to be connected to the mission of the organization with clear impact on the clients served.  Volunteers need to see that connection which can be difficult when dealing with long term issues like impacting human or environmental success.  Showing volunteer programs connection to the mission builds investment.

Staff would be my second symbol.  Staff should be provided opportunities for training and input on how the volunteer program flows within the organization.  Good volunteer management calls for strong staff knowledge of how volunteers work within an organization, and clear roles for both.  Having these clear roles builds a better platform for effective communication.

Structure of the volunteer program would be included.  Structure of a volunteer program – the policies, volunteer positions, screening, orientation, training puts it on the organizational map.  This structure provides volunteers a clear path to service, and builds a relationship where all parties are accountable.

Just having volunteers does not mean impact.  Being able to measure and show the value of the volunteer program within an organization speaks the language of funders, staff and the volunteers themselves.  This is directly linked to the first symbol, mission.  Going beyond the dollar value of a volunteer’s time to show how that volunteer improves reading, keeps seniors independent or ensures better water quality proves that the volunteers are an integral part of the overall organization efficiency.

Revision would be the last symbol.  Volunteer programs are not static, so planned revision is ensures sustainability of the volunteer program.  Keeping current with trends in the field of effective volunteer management, updating volunteer procedures, and training provided to volunteers and staff keeps the volunteer program vital within an organization.  Building time to do this regularly will pay off in efficiency and effectiveness.

Mission, staff, structure, measurement, and revision make it on my flag, and I am adding one more, the volunteers themselves.  Volunteers keep our communities humming along with a tune of hope and passion.  I will never be an Olympian, but I do volunteer, and support volunteerism through my work.  Starting Friday, I will watch the world’s best skate, curl and ski with awe and wonder.  However, every day I see the power of effective volunteer programs and the impact of volunteers that serve within them without the goal of a podium or medal.  I will take that any day of the week.  Plus, no one needs to see me in spandex.  Ever.