“When the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly”

So this is it.  My last blog entry as a Peer Leader with Volunteer Maryland (VM).  Where did the time go?  Seems like I was just writing my first post as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, and now my second year with Volunteer Maryland has come to an end.

While I was mentally preparing to write this final piece, the transformation from a caterpillar to butterfly came to mind.  I don’t know why.  Neither one of them is my favorite insect (I prefer lady bugs), so why was this process the first to pop in my head?  Probably because I have experienced a transformation during these two service years, much like that of a caterpillar.

It all started two years ago when I decided to join AmeriCorps before pursuing graduate school.  I wanted to gain adequate experience before filling out graduate school applications and I have done that and more.  During both years, I wasn’t sure how much ground I had I gained until I looked back to see how far I have come professionally.  Hearing the positive feedback from the Volunteer Maryland Support Team and other AmeriCorps members has confirmed how much I have grown as well.

I would respectfully call my years before VM as the “caterpillar” stage.  I enjoyed those years, and thought I had everything figured out.  By the time I joined VM, I had already entered the “cocooning” stage of my journey, where I gained/improved professional and personal skills; preparing me for the what lay ahead.  Now, I can confidently say I am ready to bloom and start a new journey as a “butterfly.”

Volunteer Maryland will always hold a special place in my service autobiography (if I ever write one) because it has given me tools I could not pay for, but desperately needed to progress as a leader, community activist, and person.  As I move on to law school, I will never forget this experience.

In a way, this is not the end after all, it is just the beginning.


Time Management: Plan Time to Have a Dance Break…seriously

On Monday, I traveled to my primary office in Baltimore (Volunteer Maryland’s headquarters) to attend our scheduled Support Team meeting.   You may recall that I also have a Host Site on the Eastern Shore so I do not have to make the two hour commute to Baltimore on a daily basis.  It was my turn to put the agenda together and for the opener I chose one of Volunteer Maryland’s traditions, a dance break.  You read correctly, a dance break!

For as long as I have known about Volunteer Maryland, taking five minutes to dance in the middle of the day has been event the Support Team has looked forward to.  Since Barb and I are not in the office on Fridays, the normal day for a dance break, we have not participated in many this service year.  This Monday I chose a Just Dance Wii game routine to Shakira’s World Cup song, “Waka Waka.”  We probably looked ridiculous to those passing by our hallway, but it was fun and that’s what really mattered.

A few months ago I wrote about the importance of planning time to plan and now I am encouraging you to plan time to dance (or for another office tradition).  Why?  I’m glad you asked.  It is my firm belief that a company or department of any size should have office traditions because they are essential to having a healthy work environment.  Who wants to have the office blues all the time?  Office traditions boost morale amongst staff members, strengthen camraderie, and can decrease the amount times a person is feeling like the woman below.

What kind of traditions does your office have?  If you don’t have a tradition, maybe you can create one.  It doesn’t hurt to throw out a new idea that would benefit the entire office.  Share with us!!

Some people do it for the enjoyment, not the money

On Wednesday, I attended a webinar focused on helping

VISTA/AmeriCorps members prepare for living on the allowance.  The main point of the webinar was creating a budget and sticking to that budget.  The highlight of the webinar was hearing first hand experience from a VISTA member serving in Washington (state).  As a part-time AmeriCorps member last year and a full-time member this year, I can relate to the financial struggles she shared.  Her honesty and openness was admirable.  She helped paint the rest of the AmeriCorps picture for current and prospective members by giving personal examples of how living on the allowance is a definite challenge, but possible.

Here is my take on it.  Am I rich after two years with Volunteer Maryland, no.  Was it worth it, yes!  Being able to give back to Maryland communities has been remarkable.  I have gained valuable knowledge about the nonprofit sector, national service, and myself!  Not every job offers and delivers those opportunities.  Before making the AmeriCorps pledge, I recommend you asking yourself “What am I hoping to gain from this experience?”  Most likely you will receive more than expected (which is a good thing), but it is important to know what you want in the beginning to keep you motivated to achieve that goal.

If you are interested in learning more about Volunteer Maryland (VM) and what it is like to be a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator and AmeriCorps member with this program, visit VM’s web site.  Maureen’s post from this week is a great resource on what VM is looking for.  You will not be disappointed so why not check them out?  Where else can you build a human pyramid and work at the same time?! 

Rose it and thorn it while going off the rails on the volunteer train!

Mid-Year Retreat in St. Michael’s, MD.

Wednesday, June 13, was the last In-Service Training for VM24.  Hard to believe isn’t it?  VM staff, the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs), and Peer Leaders came together for one last training, and boy oh boy was it fun!  We kicked off the day with the Barb’s region of VMCs, the Barbarians and my region, Hakuna Matata, competing to win VM Jeopardy.  This is the second time the two regions have played this game, and it was as intense as the previous time.  Both teams are very competitive so you can imagine the intensity when both bells rang to answer the question.  Although it was intense (if you want to call it that), there was lots of laughter, high fives, and support.  Jeopardy was a great opener for the day.

Following that activity we listened to guest speakers, Patrick Hibben and Jay Caplan from New York Life, give us an update on the economy and what we can prepare for.  I was grateful to speak with them following their presentation because they are both very knowledgeable of how to have an economic plan, even for an AmeriCorps member.

The absolute best part of the day was the time we spent in demonstrating our reflection on the service year.  Our instructions were to reflect on the good, bad, and in between moments of this service year in our two regions, then put together a short demonstration to present to the whole group.  Hakuna Matata did a remix version of the Honda Pilot commercial and replaced “crazy” with “volunteer.”  The Barbarians did the rose and thorn activity that included both regions.  In a circle we shared our “rose” for the year and also a “thorn.”

Overall, I’d say it was a great last training  Now we anxiously wait for the Finale on July 31!

VM Peer Leader Diaries: The Homestretch

June is here, can you believe it?!  This means that the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs) and Peer Leaders have served eight months and have two more to go.  For the last few weeks, I have been traveling through the state of Maryland with Program Manager, Laura, to attend site visits for the Hakuna Matata region.  As some of you may recall, site visits are conducted twice a year at each of the organizations Volunteer Maryland (VM) has partnered with.  There are twelve Service Sites and VMCs that make up the Hakuna Matata region and eleven in the Barbarians region.  It has been a pleasure to tagalong with Laura because she has been doing a fantastic job facilitating each of the site visits.

Site visit season won’t come to an end until next week, but June is a turning month for all of VM’s AmeriCorps members.  Several Service Sites have been fortunate enough to hire, or request funding for, a full time volunteer  coordinator.  For the VMCs who will be passing the torch to another volunteer coordinator, these next two months will be full of their daily responsibilities, as well as preparing materials as leave behinds so there is a smooth transition for the next person filling their position.  Other Service Sites will need to spread the management of the volunteer program among staff.  This will require the VMC at each of these Service Sites to not only prepare materials to explain managing the volunteer program, but also orient the staff members before July 31. The Peer Leaders are in similar situations with the VMCs because they, too, have daily responsibilities, and need to create materials to leave behind at their host sites.  Lots to do, but as AmeriCorps members we will “get things done!”

I am looking forward to the next two months as things continue to come together for the Service Sites, VMCs, host sites, and Peer Leaders.  We are definitely in the homestretch of the service year and want to complete it successfully.  There are bound to be plenty of highlights to share in the next two months so don’t worry, we’ll keep you posted!  Enjoy this AmeriFriday.

Was Your Destination AmeriCorps?

On May 11, AmeriCorps members from across the state flocked to the Mount Washington Conference Center to attend this year’s Destination AmeriCorps (DAC).  This event was birthed in 2010 by AmeriCorps members for AmeriCorps members.  It has since blossomed into a mecca for members and one of Volunteer Maryland’s annual events.  This year we doubled our attendance and the sunny weather did not hurt either.  Thank you to the programs represented and the members who made this a memorable event for all of us!

DAC event aside, I pose the question “Was your destination really AmeriCorps?”  I am asked this question frequently because I am going to be lawyer and some people don’t see the connection.  AmeriCorps was not a back up plan for me.  I wanted to be part of the AmeriCorps network because I knew the positive impact members have on the United States and I wanted to join the movement.  I was not ready for law school two years ago, but I wanted to gain substantial experience in public interest work.  Naturally, I chose Volunteer Maryland.  Being an AmeriCorps is anything but a year (or two) off!  I feel more prepared for a career in law now that I have served with Volunteer Maryland for two years.  During AmeriCorps Week, I shared the skills I have developed since joining AmeriCorps two years ago.  The list has grown since then and I will be forever grateful to AmeriCorps.

A hand full of my colleagues are wanting to join AmeriCorps for the first time, or continue for another year because of the professional and personal benefits!  If you are currently serving as a member or an alum, was your destination AmeriCorps?  For programs hosting members, why were you interested in having an AmeriCorps member at your site?

In-kind what?: Tips on Perfecting the Ask for Donations

Unless you have been living in “no man’s land” you have probably heard the phrase “in-kind donation” once or twice before.  When I joined AmeriCorps and Volunteer Maryland in 2010, I heard this phrase often, but still had many questions.  What is all  this talk about acquiring in-kind donations?  What is an in-kind donation?  Funding is limited for organizations as a whole, how am I going to get them invested in donating items?  What types of donations am I looking for?  All of these questions were in rotation in my mind, instilling uncertainty and low confidence in my abilities.  Thankfully, working with Volunteer Maryland has given me plenty of opportunities to practice what works and what doesn’t.  Hopefully you walk away with tips that can work for you.

What is an in-kind donation?  In-kind donations are items or services given without receiving some form of payment in return.  These can be gift cards from a business, meeting space, bagels from your local bakery, an hour (or more) of photography for an event…ANYTHING!  The kinds of donations are endless and should be approached as such.  Which brings me to my tips for securing donations:

1.  Know what you are asking for.  How can you expect a business to give you a donation if you are unsure of what you want?  Don’t expect it.  You should be prepared with a list of items or services and the quantities of each that you are asking.  Randomness will not help too much.  Make a list before you go.

2.  Know why you are asking for this specific donation.  If you are going to ask Target for a $25.00 gift card, be prepared to explain how this gift card will benefit your clients/business.  Donors want to know the cause they are supporting, even if their product will be used as a prize during an event.

3.  Narrow your list to your top asking companies.  The last thing you want to do is drive around aimlessly, visiting every place you see.  Trust me, nothing will be accomplished and you’ll kick yourself for using your gas.  Know where you want to go before hand.  Do research on what they offer and how that fits into your in-kind donation plan.

4.  Sketch out a script and practice.  I cannot stress this enough; practice, practice, practice!  You may think of yourself as the best persuader in the world, but having a basic outline of how you will make your ask is excellent preparation.  It is easier to tweak a script that exists as opposed to one only in your head.  Practice with a coworker.

5.   Do not accept rejection!  Receiving a “no” from a business is not uncommon, otherwise we wouldn’t be go through so much trouble in prepping ourselves.  Do not let a few nays dry up your energy.  As humans, we dislike rejection, however, this is why having a list of your top businesses is crucial.  One may say “no” but you still have others to try, so keep going!

6.  Prepare a request letter template.  Different companies have different policies on how they receive requests for donations.  Have  a template ready and make edits as you see fit.  When you visit a business that only accepts letter requests, you can have your letter on hand and deliver it personally.  It adds a personal touch.

Make sure that you are keeping track of the donations you receive.  Send a follow up thank you note and receipt to all donors and make a copy for yourself.  That information will be helpful when you complete your reporting of any kind.  I am not a master of securing donations, but I have had a lot of practice and am changing my game plan as I go.  For Destination AmeriCorps, I was able to secure MyLipCandy products (valued at $27.00) and an hour personal assessment consultation from Freddie Bell Jones Modeling & Finishing School, Inc (valued at $125.00).  I am very excited that these businesses have contributed to this year’s event.  I did not think in-kind donations was my thing, but I am proving myself wrong.  Join in and let us know your best practices in securing donations.

Time Management: Plan Time To Plan

How often are you working on one project and suddenly remember another task you have to complete immediately?  You become frazzled and begin to have an internal battle over which assignment takes precedence because they both are due asap.  Every person in your rolodex seems to have a question on the same day, and your email inbox is constantly overflowing with messages.  On top of that, your phone will not stop ringing (you pick it up every time), coworkers interrupt you with the latest office gossip, and an impromptu meeting was called.  Before you know it, three hours have gone by and you don’t have much to show for that time because you kept bouncing between several projects, emails, and people.  Sound familiar?

This scenario is especially true for nonprofit organizations that usually function with a small staff.  Take Volunteer Maryland for example,  we have three full time staff members, an administrative associate, and two full time Peer Leaders working together to support over forty Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs) and Site Supervisors, attend site visits for all current and new partnering organizations, facilitate the upcoming Joint Training Day, plan Destination AmeriCorps, daily paperwork, and much more.  How in the world do we manage to accomplish it all?  Planning is key.  Distractions are inevitable; however, they do not have to jumble your entire business day.  Anyone can enhance their time management skills if they make time to create a plan of action.

One tool we shared with the VMCs this year was using Covey quadrants.  Have you heard of them?  I can attest to the tool’s success in helping me prioritize my many checklists and reduce the stress of “not having enough time.”  Setting aside time to plan    may seem ironic, but I’m sure you will find the planning time to be beneficial if you use the Covey quadrants wisely.  Here is how they work:

1.  Make a list of all the things you need to complete within the next three months.  If this is too broad, feel free to adjust the time frame.

2.  Next, draw the diagram above and begin to place the items on your list in one of the four listed quadrants.  By doing this, you are able to see which assignments are the most urgent and important, and which ones are not.

3.  Lastly, use the Covey quadrants to create daily or weekly checklists until you have achieved all of your goals.  Simple, right?

Scheduling time to re-create Covey quadrants every few months can save you many headaches and keep the important projects at the forefront of your mind.  Happy planning!

Pave the Second Lane For Your Volunteers

This week’s post is dedicated to Carin Starr, Volunteer Maryland Coordinator for the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.  Yesterday, Carin led her first Volunteer Roundtable in Easton.  Like you, I was interested in learning what a “volunteer roundtable” is.  I was lucky enough to be invited to the Roundtable and interact with the volunteers present.

To start things off Carin shared the quantitative volunteer information for the year, including the number of hours they have collectively served, the dollar value of their hours, how much land has been monitored, and how many new event programs have been led by volunteers.  This was a great way to open the event because the volunteers were able to see their contributions and receive public recognition for what they have achieved.  Following the “numbers” presentation, Carin shared the departments currently using volunteers, and discussed the new ways the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) would like to engage more volunteers.  As an observer, it was easy to see the passion each of the volunteers had for the ESLC because their eyes lit up at the new opportunities that may be available.  No one was hesitant.  Instead they wanted to learn more about how they could be of use for the organization.  It seemed as though the volunteers were interested in everything.  Or were they?

Like most of us, Carin paved the way for her to communicate her thoughts with the volunteers.  Now it was time for her to pave a second lane for the volunteers to communicate their thoughts with her.  How do you do that?  Well Carin kept it very simple, she asked “What are your interests?”  It is almost routine to ask this question during the screening of a potential volunteer, but Carin showed that this should be a recurrent question even after a volunteer has signed up with an organization.  Communication moved in more than one direction, leaving everyone with an optimistic and even more committed attitude.  Bravo, Carin!

Have you created two-way communication with your volunteers?  What better way to retain volunteers than to hear what they have to say?  Give it a try, if you haven’t already.  Other suggestions besides hosting a Volunteer Roundtable? we’d love to hear them!