The Road Goes Ever On

It’s hard to believe that this is my last post for the Volunteer Maryland blog.  This year has flown by, and the past few months especially so.  I have enjoyed getting to know the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators I supported over the past year.  They are all amazing, passionate people and they all did great work at their Service Sites.  At the beginning of the year, I remember reading their applications to get to know them a little better before Pre-Service Training and actually being a little bit intimidated by some of them, by how much they had done in college and in life, by how many great initiatives they had started and how passionate they were about the causes they wanted to serve.  Over the course of the year, I got to know them a little better and see the people behind the passion.  I will miss checking in with them each week and hearing about the wonderful things they’ve accomplished.

I have definitely grown over the past two years serving with Volunteer Maryland as an AmeriCorps member.  I am a naturally quiet person, but I’ve grown much more comfortable with public speaking and group leadership.  I’ve learned more about how to counsel and guide members through tough times at their sites and how to mediate potential conflicts between members and their supervisors.  I would not have been able to grow so much without the support of the Volunteer Maryland staff.  They have been there with support and words of wisdom when I didn’t know how to handle a situation and friendship and laughter when there was nothing else to do but laugh and move on.  It has been wonderful working with people who are truly passionate about service, who love what they do, and who used their years of experience to guide me throughout the year.

I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I know I want to continue to be involved in service.  I want to find a job where I will constantly be learning, supporting others, and working with people who are passionate about what they do.  And despite the fact that I will no longer be serving with Volunteer Maryland, I know that the work they do will continue to make a huge impact on communities across Maryland.  There will be many more classes of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (and their Regional Coordinators) who are passionate about service, about making a difference, and driven to achieve those goals.  Though I’ll be gone from VM in just a few days, the legacy of service will continue to grow and the road to better, stronger communities across the state (and country and world) will continue to go on.  Best of luck in all your future endeavors, VM Class 23, and best of luck Volunteer Maryland, I will continue to read the blog to see where you go and what you achieve.

Saying Goodbye

On Wednesday the VM Support Team made our way down to Sandy Point State Park to meet up with the VISTAs one last time and say our goodbyes.  The VISTAs will be ending their service year on July 29 and we wanted to celebrate their successes of the past year and send them off in style.  You mostly hear about the VMCs on this blog because Corrine and I work with the VMC program, but our VISTAs have done some great things this year too.  Together, our 12 VISTAs have developed or expanded 84 projects or programs, created 59 new inter-agency partnerships, and obtained $208,802 in cash and in-kind resources to support ten sponsor agencies in Maryland.  While our VMCs focus solely on volunteer coordination, the VISTAs worked in program evaluation, marketing and technology, and fundraising, providing services to over 8,000 community members this year.  As the VISTAs close out their service year, let’s take a brief look at what they’ve done for their service organizations:

Andrea Calderon worked to develop partnerships between the Parks and People Foundation’s Schoolyard Greening Program and 16 Baltimore City Schools and also garnered $20,000 in cash and in-kind resources for Parks and People.

Katie Dix coordinated the Community Greening Resource Network (CGRN) for the Parks and People Foundation, facilitated numerous volunteer work days, workshops, seed and plant giveaway days, and special events, and also secured $41,150 in cash and in-kind resources to support CGRN members and gardens throughout Baltimore.

Kate Harris led fundraising efforts for the American Red Cross Lower Shore Chapter and also led the Red Cross Month committee to raise awareness of the services provided by the American Red Cross.

Lisa Kipersztok developed service-learning materials for Anne Arundel County Public Schools and led the effort to implement a new service-learning database for the school system.  She also garnered $10,290 in cash and in-kind resources to support the development of the Outdoor Learning Classroom at Bates Middle School.

Ashley McDonald developed and implemented an alumni survey for Arts on the Block that will help them better understand the long-term impacts of their program and make improvements for the future.

Kelly Morrell developed a donor database for the Maryland Vietnamese Mutual Association, updated marketing materials, and secured $80,000 worth of grants, as well as planning the annual Academic Awards Picnic for MVMA.

Jordan Silverman developed a furniture bank for Project PLASE’s clients who are moving into permanent housing, coordinator a donor thank you event, and garnered $26,565 in grant, cash, and in-kind resources.

Lauren Stoler strengthened Project PLASE’s Speaker’s Bureau and coordinated many other community events to raise awareness of homelessness in Baltimore, as well as secured $4,863 in cash and in-kind resources.

Emily Sze led multiple online marketing campaigns for Moveable Feast, worked on social media and email campaigns, and implemented a new donor and volunteer database.

Heather Towers developed grant proposals that brought $27,500 to ShoreCAN Volunteer Center at the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, garnered an additional $6,270 in in-kind support, and managed the 1800volunteer.org database, disseminating information on local nonprofits and volunteer opportunities.

Elanor Wainscott conducted 29 video interviews for NAMI which were designed to increase awareness of mental illness and its effects on those diagnosed and their family members.  She also increased NAMI’s presence in social media through YouTube and Facebook accounts.

Warren Wells redesigned the Maryland Teen Court’s website for the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program and increased CLREP’s social media presence to keep the community better informed about CLREP’s programs.  Warren also developed a list of donors and garnered $2,128 worth of in-kind donations for CLREP’s summer fundraiser.

Let’s give it up for the VISTAs!  They’ve had an amazing year and made a huge impact on their service organizations.  We will certainly miss their spirit and enthusiasm once they are gone.  Thank you, VISTAs, for all you’ve done!

What to do if you are the one taking over?

Well, another week has gone by and we’re that much closer to the end of our service year.  I’ve talked before about how our VMCs prepare for their departure from their service sites and how you can insure the sustainability of your volunteer program should you leave your organization.  But what if you’re the one taking over the volunteer program?  Do you know what the process for volunteer intake is?  Do you know the key staff people you’ll be working with?  Do you know the password for the volunteer coordinator email account?  Do you even know where to start to make sure that you can run the program successfully?  Whether you have experience as a volunteer coordinator in a past position or you’re totally new to the role knowing how things work now is the best way to insure that your organization’s volunteer program continues to run smoothly and experiences growth under your leadership.  Here are a few things you can do if you are taking over an existing volunteer program:

1)      Get a list of the places the outgoing volunteer coordinator posts volunteer opportunities, both online and physical locations, and find out if there are user names and passwords for any of these sites so that you’ll be able to take down old postings and put up new ones.  If possible, talk to the volunteer coordinator and find out which sites have been most successful in terms of recruitment and if they have any recommendations for types of positions that should be posted at these sites.

2)      Find out what partnerships have been formed during the outgoing volunteer coordinator’s tenure and who the key people are within these partnerships.  Maybe you know that a high school down the road provides great volunteers any time you need event parking, but do you know how to get these volunteers?  Find out who you’ll need to talk to within each partnership and, if possible, get the outgoing volunteer coordinator to set up meetings to introduce you and pass the torch in person.  If they don’t have the time for physical meetings, ask them to send an introductory email instead, with you copied on it so that the partners have your contact information.

3)      Find out who the key players are within your organization and within the existing volunteer pool.  If your organization has programs run by different staff members, find out how each program uses volunteers and if the staff members have any preferences about the volunteers they work with.  If, instead, there are dedicated volunteers who run programs, try to meet with them and the outgoing volunteer coordinator to be introduced and to talk about how things will work under your leadership.  If possible, volunteer alongside these individuals once or twice to see how they work and get to know them better.

4)      Find out how the outgoing volunteer coordinator tracks hours, any policies and procedures they have in place, what training looks like, and where critical documents (and their electronic copies) are stored.  If they have been using an electronic tracking system, find out if there is a password and ask them to run you through an example of how to add a new volunteer, how to input hours, and how to indicate that volunteers are no longer serving with your organization.

5)      Do a mock interview with the outgoing volunteer coordinator and ask to sit in on any volunteer interviews they have scheduled before their departure.  This will help you to understand what you should be looking for in potential volunteers and will boost your confidence in your ability to conduct interviews on your own.

6)      Pick the outgoing volunteer coordinator’s brain.  Find out what they wish they would have known when they started, things they’ve learned during their tenure, tricky relationships that they’ve had to navigate, and their secrets to success.

These are just a few ideas for things you can do to help yourself succeed if you’re taking over a volunteer program.  Of course, every program is different and not all of these tips might apply to your organization.  If you have any tips to share or success stories from taking over an existing volunteer program, we’d love to hear them!

Winding Down and Gearing Up

As the service year draws to a close (just over 4 weeks to go, eek!), many VMCs are beginning to look for post-service jobs, if they have not already started applying and interviewing.  With all of the activities VMCs do to insure the sustainability of the volunteer programs they’ve nurtured over the last 10 months, it can be pretty stressful to try to fit in a job search at the same time.  So, if you’re a nonprofit reading the VM Blog and you have a few openings, first of all, send them our way (I’m looking for a job too!), and second of all, keep reading for a little list of reasons why you should hire a VM AmeriCorps alumnus!

1)      They are well trained!  Volunteer Maryland provides around 100 hours of training to our AmeriCorps members on topics ranging from the basics of volunteer management, to conflict resolution, to storytelling for nonprofits, to time management, and the list goes on.  Not only that, they also have a toolbook that contains all the secrets to volunteer management that they get to take with them after the service year ends.  That thing is a brick and contains a ton of information that they can share with you and your staff to help the whole organization better understand volunteer management.

2)      They are committed.  There is no better way to judge a person’s commitment than to offer them a difficult, full-time, 11 month job, for an AmeriCorps living stipend of $13,000 (after taxes, it’s more like $10,000).  When you work that down to the hourly rate, it’s really not much money and for the challenges some of our members face, it shows how dedicated to the cause they are that they are willing to do the work for so little (after all, the goal of AmeriCorps is not to get rich, but to serve others).

3)      They are creative problem solvers.  VMCs either work with existing volunteer programs to make them more successful or work on creating brand new volunteer programs for organizations that have never worked with volunteers before.  Either way, they generally face challenges in doing this and need to rely on their own creativity to solve the problem at hand.

4)      They are fun to work with.  When you work in a nonprofit, you deal with some pretty serious issues, but knowing how to have fun at work can make facing those issues a whole lot easier.  Well, VMCs are a fun group of people—they like karaoke, gardening, going to the beach, bowling, etc.—and they could definitely help lighten the atmosphere at your organization.

5)      They are part of a great network of AmeriCorps alumni that your organization can tap into.  Since 1992, Volunteer Maryland has had over 500 AmeriCorps members serve at nonprofits across the state.  Not only that, but thousands of people have served in AmeriCorps since its inception, every single one of them knows how much passion and determination it takes to serve in AmeriCorps, many still work in the nonprofit sector, and they are willing to help their fellow alumni succeed in life after AmeriCorps.  So, if you need some connections in the nonprofit world, hiring an AmeriCorps alumnus (specifically, a VM alumnus) can really help you tap into that network.

So, if your organization is hiring and you are stuck on where to look for good candidates, I suggest you look to current Volunteer Maryland AmeriCorps members and alumni, you won’t go wrong.  Has your organization hired AmeriCorps alums in the past?  What was your experience like?  Are you an AmeriCorps alumnus?  Do you have any suggestions or connections you’d be willing to offer our current class of VMCs as they begin the next leg of their journeys?

Keeping Your Volunteers In the Loop

The other day I received an email from Animal Rescue, who I volunteer with every Thursday, telling me that one of the cats that had been up for adoption since February had finally found her forever home.  The email thanked the volunteers for helping her to come out of her shell and become an outgoing and loving cat and for continuing to give her the attention she deserved until some lucky family came along and took her home.  It was really nice to hear straight from the Adoption Coordinator that this wonderful kitty had found a home and to be thanked for my part in getting her there.

This email got me thinking again about volunteer recognition and the different ways you can go about it.  Whether your organization does one big event a year to thank your volunteers or does several small things throughout the year, I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this example.  As a volunteer, you don’t always get to see the fruits of your labor and you’re not always in touch with what other volunteers at your organization are up to.  I think sending out an email any time something good happens as a result of the work of volunteers (whether big or small) is a great way to keep everyone in the loop and keep everyone invested in the work they are doing.  Of course, if you are a big organization with a lot going on, this might not be feasible.  Another great idea could be to send out a monthly newsletter that focuses solely on the work of the volunteers.  One of this year’s VMCs took on the task of compiling just such a newsletter and said that it really helped everyone in her organization (and all of their volunteers) better understand how the work of each individual unit within the organization fit together.  Everyone at the organization now has a much better understanding of how volunteers fit in to their mission and the types of things volunteers can help them do.  Again, this might not be feasible if you don’t have a dedicated volunteer coordinator on your staff or if you don’t have a program to create newsletters (if that’s the case, try MailChimp, the basic version is free).  If you already send out a monthly newsletter to your supporters, try including a volunteer spotlight, and make sure your volunteers are subscribed to your newsletter so they can see just how much they are appreciated.

These are just a few ideas for keeping your volunteers in the loop and making sure they know they are appreciated.  How do you do it at your organization?  Do you have any recommendations for free newsletter software?  Let us know!

A little advice to help you on your way

Even as this service year winds down, our Outreach Manager is preparing to bring on the next class of VMCs (p.s. we’re taking applications, check out our website if you’re interested in applying).  There have been several interviews at the VM Penthouse this week, which got me thinking about advice I would give to those potential AmeriCorps members before they started their service year.  As we’ve said many, many times, an AmeriCorps year can be really hard and I think the reason some people don’t make it to the end is that they didn’t know what to expect going in.  Now, I’m not going to air all of our dirty laundry here on the VM blog, but I do think it would be helpful to share some advice for our future classes.  So, here goes:

– Expect it to be hard but don’t feel like you’re doing something wrong if it comes easily to you.  You may not have a hard year, not everyone does, and you may feel a little like an outsider if things go exactly as you’ve planned throughout your service year.  It may be that you are really darn good at volunteer coordination and are extremely capable of overcoming challenges.  Don’t be afraid to speak up and talk about your experience, you may have some really great advice to share with your colleagues.

– If your year is hard, talk to other people about it!  If you feel like you’re burdening your RC or fellow VMCs with your tales of woe, ignore those thoughts.  Your RC and fellow VMCs are there for support, they often have really great ideas and advice, and you may just make them feel better by helping them realize that they are not the only ones facing challenges.

– Advocate for yourself at your site!  If you feel like you’re being asked to do too much or don’t have enough to do, let your Site Supervisor know.  If you don’t talk to them, there’s no way for them to know that you feel over- or under-worked.

– Along the same lines, if you have really great ideas for how things could be improved or made easier at your site, share them.  You are a new person and you come in with a different perspective than the employees who have been at your site for years, you may see more easily how things could be done differently to improve performance or reach outcomes more quickly; however, be sure to do this gently and explain why you think your way is better, if things have been working at your site for a long time, they may not see the need to change and may be offended by you coming in and trying to tell them to do things differently.

– And while I could go on forever, I’ll leave you with one more piece of advice: always keep in mind that you only have one year.  While you can make things better and set up a great program, you can’t end world hunger or totally restore the Chesapeake Bay in one year.  There may be many, many things you want to do at your site, but it would be better to take on just a few of those things and do them really well than to try to tackle everything and end up with unsatisfactory results for the whole lot.

Although I’m moving on from Volunteer Maryland at the end of this service year, I’m looking forward to continuing to read the blog and hear the stories of this upcoming class and many future classes.  I hope the advice I’m giving to you, potential future VMCs and RCs (and maybe even some Site Supervisors), will help to make your years a little bit easier and help you to succeed at your sites.  Best of luck!

I like this class and I cannot lie!

On Wednesday, I said goodbye to Woods Church in Severna Park, for probably the last time.  We’ve held many Volunteer Maryland trainings there over the past two years, but Wednesday was the very last training for VM Class 23 (and the VISTAs) and, unless I come back as a guest trainer at some future training, my very last training as a member of Volunteer Maryland.  As we held our second round of site visits over the past few months, we reminded VMCs and their Site Supervisors that the year was quickly drawing to a close, with the overwhelming response of, “I can’t believe how fast this year has gone by!”  I totally agree with that sentiment, I can’t believe it’s mid-June, I can’t believe I’m almost done my second year of service with Volunteer Maryland.

Being an AmeriCorps member is not just about service, it is about learning and growing as a person.  AmeriCorps is hard, but it is also an amazing opportunity to connect with other like-minded individuals, learn more about your community, and learn more about yourself.  During the service year, when you’re in the trenches, trying to recruit volunteers (or, if you’re a VISTA, write grants, develop a website, or evaluate the success of your service organization), it’s often hard to take a step back and think about what it is you are doing, to think about what you’ve learned and what you are taking away from this experience.  It’s easy to come away from something thinking, “that was hard,” but trying to explain to someone else why it was hard (and, more importantly, what you gained from it) if you haven’t thought about it is even harder.

With that in mind, this last training day was focused on reflection.  We asked the VMCs and VISTAs to take an objective look back at their years and to think about what they’ve learned.  Then, we asked them to do a short presentation about it.  The results?  Well, the VISTAs presented us with a fantastic mash-up of some well-known songs, lyrics re-written to describe their years, the VMCs put on some nice mini-plays, and us RCs, well, we wrote a rap to the tune of “Baby Got Back.”  The activity captured the creativity and humor needed to succeed in AmeriCorps, as well as the spirit of determination and the challenges everyone faced over the course of the year.  It was a great training to be a part of and I will certainly miss all of our members come the end of the service year in August!

Organized Chaos

Over the course of the service year, Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are required to submit a Mid-Year Report and a Final Report that detail their accomplishments and challenges, tell the story of their service year, and give statistics that show the progress of their Service Site’s volunteer program.  Along with these reports, VMCs are asked to submit copies of any materials they have created (position descriptions, volunteer handbooks, recruitment fliers, etc.).

As you might imagine, this being VM Class 23, we have a lot of sample materials hanging around.  We use some of these materials as examples during Pre-Service Training when we talk about recruitment.  We ask the VMCs to consider what flyers and brochures they find interesting, what might make them want to call or email an organization for more information, as well as what materials they find less intriguing, even downright off-putting (it’s important to remember, of course, that what works for one organization or makes one person want to volunteer is not always what works for every person or organization).  VMCs also come to us throughout the year for examples of documents they want or need to create for their sites.  Imagine having to create a volunteer handbook from scratch never having seen such a thing in your life.  Daunting task!  Luckily, we have a whole stockpile of sample handbooks from VMCs of years past, as well as many other resources that current VMCs can look to for inspiration!

Unluckily, constantly taking out sample materials to use in training or lend to VMCs for inspiration, coupled with the sheer number of samples we’ve acquired over the years, means that one drawer in Maureen’s office was getting a little out of control and finding specific examples of items was getting to be a challenge.  Over the break between Christmas and New Year’s, when I was the only one in the office, I took on the challenge of organizing the drawer of sample materials and managed to get everything in order.  But the thought crossed my mind was, will it really stay like this?  I answered myself, “No, no it will not,” and came up with the genius idea of color coding all of the samples by type and creating an electronic database so future RCs can easily find out what samples are available for their VMCs to use (and hopefully make it easier to put things back in place after trainings).  Flash forward to now, Mid-Year Retreat, Destination AmeriCorps, and all but one of my second round of site visits are behind me, and I’m just now getting down to the color-coding, database creation, and data entry.  I think it’s safe to say that the last two months of my service year (eek!) will be taken up by this project.  It will probably get tedious at times (imagine: take out file folder of flyers, type in each individual item, put stick on item to color code, replace folder of flyers, repeat with next folder of different material), but I know that this is a worthwhile project because it will make it so much easier to peruse the great sample materials that VMCs have created throughout the years.

Have you ever created an inventory database (in Microsoft Access or another program)?  What did you find challenging about it?  How has it helped your organization?

Take some time to stop and pet the cats

In the midst of traveling around the state on site visits with Laura, our Program Manager, one way I maintain my sanity is to take time to stop and pet cats.  While this occasionally involves a cat sitting on my lap at a site visit or a random roadside encounter with a friendly stray cat, I also take the time to pet cats on a weekly basis.  No, I’m not a crazy cat lady (though I once aspired to be), this cat petting obsession hobby is actually part of my direct service commitment.  Since August of 2009, I’ve been volunteering with Animal Rescue, Inc. at their adoption center at the Bel Air PetSmart.  Although Animal Rescue houses cats (and dogs) at their shelter on the Maryland-Pennsylvania line, they also partner with PetSmart to house cats in a more easily accessible location, where customers who are looking for a furry friend can see some of the many lovely potential pets that are out there, waiting for somebody to take them home and love them.  As a volunteer, I help to care for the cats, clean their cages, feed them, play with (and pet) them, and, maybe most importantly, talk to potential adopters about the benefits (and process) of adopting from Animal Rescue.

Working in the nonprofit world, we don’t often get to see the fruits of our labors.  We may start a tutoring program that will help kids learn to read at grade level, which will eventually help them to graduate from high school, graduate from college, get a job, and raise themselves (and maybe even their family) from poverty; we may plant a rain garden that reduces runoff, removes pollution from the watershed, increases water quality, and restores the health of the Chesapeake Bay; we may provide hot meals and job training to individuals experiencing homelessness that helps them find and keep a job and one day buy a new home; but we often only see the first step, the tutoring, planting, feeding, and training.  I have spent many hours this service year volunteering with some of the VMCs I support and I know the importance of the work I do with them, but with Animal Rescue, I am often gratified to see the fruits of my labor in days, weeks, or (sometimes, but not often) months.  I do not volunteer with them to get a quick service fix, because I know that those cats will eventually get adopted.  I volunteer with them because I love cats (judge me if you will!) and I believe that all animals deserve a safe, loving home and a chance at a good, comfortable life and I know that, by maintaining the appearance of the adoption center, caring for and socializing (read: petting) the cats, and talking to potential adopters, I am an essential piece of the puzzle.

Sometimes site visits can be stressful (we’ve never tried to hide the fact that an AmeriCorps yearis a challenge and sometimes things don’t go as planned, besides, traveling for an entire week can also be stressful), but when stress threatens to overwhelm, I know that I only have to wait until Thursday evening to get a reprieve and go pet some cats.  While cats may not be your thing, if you’re feeling stressed, I encourage you to go find something cute and fluffy and pet it until you are not longer stressed, it will do you both good!

Looking Forward, and Back

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost June.  That means we have just over two months (two months!) left in the service year for VM23!  This time last year, I was serving as a VMC at Cylburn Arboretum and starting to think about what I’d do at the end of the service year.  I’m in a similar place now as a Regional Coordinator, considering where I could work come August and searching for jobs where I can use the skills I’ve gained this year.  As I write cover letters and submit applications, it’s helpful to look back at my Regional Coordinator application that I submitted last year and remind myself why I wanted to do the job I have now.  Here’s what I said when asked why I wanted to be a part of Volunteer Maryland:

As a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator (VMC), I have connected with others who are passionate about service and who have a desire to share that passion with others by recruiting and managing volunteers.  My fellow VMCs come from widely varying backgrounds, but all of them are strong, passionate people who have a drive to make change.  I am honored to be one of them.  I see the work they are doing and I hope that I am as impactful as they are.  I want to continue to serve with Volunteer Maryland so that I can see a new class of VMCs make what will hopefully be an even greater impact.  I want to be a Regional Coordinator so that I can be a small piece of the change that each of them makes, supporting and encouraging them, and sharing their success.

A year later, those words still ring true.  This year’s class of VMCs is different from last year’s in many ways, but their passion for what they do definitely shines through and they’ve each had a big impact on the organizations where they serve.  As a Regional Coordinator, I’ve helped the VMCs I support get through challenging times at their sites and I’ve also had the chance to share in their successes.  When I look back at what drew me to AmeriCorps in the first place, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve continued to impact others’ journeys through service over the course of this year.  As I search for post-service jobs, that ability to change the lives of others is definitely going to be one of my top requirements.  I hope that I can find a job that will allow me to have as much of an impact, to reach as many different people, as I have done here at Volunteer Maryland.  It has been a great nine months so far and I’m excited to see what these last two months will bring!