The Hardest Job I’ve Ever Loved

Today is the last day of the service year for Volunteer Maryland’s twenty-second class of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  The past year has been an amazing demonstration of the impact that individuals can have on their communities.  The class recruited and managed 6,233 volunteers who served 73,423 hours and 53,208 clients.  The numbers are staggering.  Even after working with this class of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators for a year, I’m still amazed by their passion and vigor whenever they all come together like they are today. 

Watching the members grow over the past year has been amazing.  From their first day of pre-service training back in September when no one was quite sure what they’d gotten themselves into (except maybe the members serving their second year), to today when the members completely own the causes they’ve worked for the past year, each member has grown more than they could have possibly foreseen.

I know that I’ve grown over my two years of service with Volunteer Maryland.  I’ve done things that two years ago I couldn’t have imagined that I would have been able to do.  My voice no longer shakes when I need it to be strongest.  I’ve become a stronger leader, and realized that I have to always strive to be worthy of the people who I lead.  I’ve moved from a strictly academic interest in volunteerism to a passion that helps to fuel everything I’ve done for the past two years.

I’ve had the honor of working with people who are driven and are righteous.  Without the Volunteer Maryland staff, I’m not sure I would have made it through this year.  They are pillars of strength, and supportive beyond what could be expected.  Working with them has made every victory sweeter, and every setback easier to bear, because it was all done as part of a team.  There was not a single moment over the past two years that I felt alone in anything that I did.

After two years of service I’m moving on.  I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little scared.  The past two years have been so hard, but they’ve been wonderful at the same time.  I’ve met so many wonderful people, had so many amazing experiences, and have learned and grown so much. 

Today, though, I’m moving on.  I’m not sure where to yet.  What I am sure of, is that at the end of the day there will be very few dry eyes.  After all of the goodbyes are said, friends are embraced, tears are cried, and all of us go our separate ways and into our own futures, one thing will remain.  This is the hardest job that I’ve ever loved.

I am AmeriCorps, and I always will be.


Have You Got a Story To Tell? Part 2

This is part two of a three-part series of posts adapted from my session notes from the National Conference on Service and Volunteering.  You can read part one here.

Setting up a blog is fairly easy to do, but there’s a lot of work that you should do both before and after you’ve started the blog.  Perhaps the most important thing is that you don’t start with a blank piece of paper, or a brand new Word document.  That’s a horrible place to start. 

They might be a great place to start writing, but if you’re going to start blogging, or working with any kind of social media, then you need to have an organization-wide social media strategy.  It doesn’t have to be a multi-page document like the EPA’s white paper on Web 2.0.  It can be a few lines about how no one in the organizations will act in a way that paints the organization in a negative or questionable light.  Don’t forget about it once you’ve written it, either.  It should evolve as you experiment more with social media.  Something that ought to be considered when you’re writing a social media policy is what the goals for using social media are, especially things that you’ll be spending a lot of time on, so you can tell whether you’re meeting your goals.

Once there’s a policy set, then you need to start thinking about how often you want your blog to be updated.  Something that’s worked really well for Volunteer Maryland is to have five different authors for our blog, each one posting new content once a week.  Five different authors posting once a week create new content every day.  The best part of having a group of authors is that everyone is going to have a different voice, and a different way of seeing their jobs, so the content is always fresh.  We shoot for blog entries that are 500-700 words long.  It’s a nice length; long enough to develop a story but short enough so there isn’t a huge time investment in reading the entry.

 If that doesn’t work for your organization, that’s fine; it’s ok to try something else.  Find out what works best and go with that.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t add or change authors, either.  If your original plan doesn’t work for what your organization is trying to do, keep changing things until you find what works.

What do you do if you find out that your blog is no longer meeting your organization’s goals and you don’t have the resources to devote to maintaining it?  You’re going to pull the plug on the blog, but you don’t want to just leave it hanging on the internet.  The last thing you want is for someone to find a blog that hasn’t been updated in three years.  Even if you have a post about how the blog doesn’t fit into your organization’s strategic vision anymore, make sure there’s some sort of closure to the blog.

There’s one more thing that I’m going to talk about, and that’s how to deal with negativity in your blog.  If you’re really eager to get started, go for it!  If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch with me on Twitter or by email.

Have You Got A Story To Tell?

Two weeks ago I mentioned a talk that I gave at the National Converence on Volunteering and Service on using a blog as an outreach tool for nonprofits.  The HandsOn Blog posted a section of my session notes, and in case you’ve missed it there, I decided to post the first section of notes here.  We talk about storytelling a lot over the course of the service year, and we do it in a lot of different ways.  We talk about our own story, the stories that we tell when people ask what we do, and we tell stories about our clients and our volunteers.  Blogging is just another way to tell a story. 

What’s the most important thing that you and your organization need to know about blogging?  It’s not where to host the blog, or how to bring readers to your blog, or even how often you’re going to update.  These are important things to consider, but the most important thing to know about blogging is this:

 Content is king, and platform doesn’t matter.

If you don’t have a message, if you don’t have something that you’re passionate about, if you don’t have something that you really want to tell other people about, and you don’t want to do it with some kind of regularity, then blogging might not be the best use of your resources.

 If you’ve got something that you think is pretty awesome and you want to talk about it, chances are pretty good that someone will want to listen.  If you share why you think the things you do are awesome, you’ll get people to start thinking that they’re awesome too.  Don’t believe me?

On July 19, 2010 a Google search for ‘worm composting blogs’ returned three hundred and seventy THOUSAND hits.  That’s a lot of people thinking that worm composting is pretty awesome.  This just in, the internet is not a fad.

It doesn’t matter where your blog is hosted.  Does your organization have buckets of money to throw at hosting and design?  We all do, right?  For those of us who aren’t heating their offices with rolls of twenties, there are plenty of websites that will host your blog for free.  The great thing about a lot of the free blog hosts is that you can make a fairly attractive and functional blog without knowing any programming languages, and without any expensive software.  There are plenty of blog hosts out there that will work just fine for what your organization wants to do, that is, if your organization knows what it wants to do.  So, just what can you do with your blog?

You can tell a story.  You have a story, right?  Is it funny?  Great.  Embarrassing?  Awesome.  Horrifying?  Even better.

This is what we do.  Every day we’re telling stories.  We talk about the cute thing that our cat did.  We talk about the person we met in line at the grocery story yesterday.  We tell stories when we talk to people about what we do, and we do it when we’re applying for grants to help fund our organizations.

It’s a great thing to do with your blog, too.  Tell me a story.  Tell me about what your organization does, and why you do it.  Give me a chance to better understand your organization and build a connection with it.  Tell me about the people who volunteer with your organization.  Tell me about how they’re just like me.  They’re making an impact on your organization, maybe I can too.  Tell me about one of your clients.  Tell me about their successes and challenges they’ve had, is there something that I can do to help them?  Tell me about something awesome that your organization is doing, and then tell me how I can get involved.

Does your organization do something really well?  I hope so.  Can you teach other people to do it well?  Why not give out advice to organizations that work in areas similar to where you work? 

You might say, “But we don’t want to give away our secrets!”  You don’t have to, but chances are pretty good that they’re not as secret-y as you think they are.  Tell me how to do something, but tell me why you’re the best at it.  Bob Vila and Norm Abram don’t care if you steal their ideas, they’ve got a show and a website dedicated to you stealing their ideas.  Not just stealing the ideas, though, learning from what they already know how to do really well.

Your blog can also serve as a great place to bring all of your social media together.  Show me what your organization does, don’t just tell me.  Does your organization have a camera?  How about a video camera?  You don’t even need a video camera to make videos about your organization, just a bunch of pictures and an Animoto account.  Animoto for a Cause is supporting nonprofits by giving them access to their Pro accounts for a year for free!   

There’s a lot more to do than just make sure all of your pictures are in your blog, and that you’re able to make videos out of your pictures.  You’ve got to make everything accessible.  Your blog is a great place to link together all of your social media efforts, either with blog updates linking directly to new content, or by setting up your blog to display content that exists outside of your blog.  Tying everything together in one place allows someone to visit the blog to hear stories, click on a YouTube link to watch a video of your last big event, and then head over to your Flickr page to see pictures of your volunteers, all while staying at a site that talks about your organization.

One other thing that doesn’t hurt is having some awesome writers.  One of the things that makes this blog work best is that there are four other awesome writers contributing content.  I am firm in my belief that, if we all decided to write on the same topic one week, it would still be interesting and entertaining because everyone’s voice is so different.  As the service year winds down, I know that one of the things I’m going to miss is reading everyone else’s stories every day.  

What are you going to do when the young ears open to you?  Speak up, speak up my friends.

Paula Williams

If you’ve ever been the victim of a violent crime you know that your life is affected far beyond the initial violence of the crime; there are lasting physical and psychological effects.  If the perpetrator of the crime is brought to justice, a victim has to face them again while trying to navigate the justice system, and deal with being the victim of a crime.  This can be difficult under the best of circumstances and even harder when victims of crime don’t speak English or understand their rights.  This is where Paula Williams and Community Advocates for Family and Youth (CAFY) step in.

Paula and CAFY work to provide a variety of services for victims of crime and their families.  Paula recruits volunteer to serve as interpreters and victim advocates for victims of crime in Prince George’s county.  Paula has gone through the training to become a victim advocate herself, which allows her to assist victims of crime on their path through the criminal justice system and to better recruit for the volunteer program.  She’s able to speak first-hand on both the work that volunteers will be doing and the need to move victims of crime from being bitter to getting better.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Paula.  She has faced a lot of difficulty recruiting volunteers because of how specific and demanding the task she’s recruiting for is.  CAFY’s advocates go through a thirty hour-long training program which teaches volunteers how to serve the needs of victims of crime.  They’re then paired with a victim of violent crime to help them through the court system, which is another five to ten-hour commitment.  However, Paula has been able to recruit a core group of volunteer who are dedicated to helping members of their community navigate the justice system.

Lamine N’dour

Lamine N’dour joined Volunteer Maryland as our first legacy.  His father was a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator at the Seat Pleasant Community Development Corporation where Lamine now serves.  Lamine is working to recruit volunteers for the education programs that the Seat Pleasant CDC provides for members of the community.

During the school year, Lamine worked with schools in the community to provide students with homework help and to help students prepare to take the SATs.  Now that school is out for the summer, he’s trying to start a program to show students how to run a successful business.  With a little bit of seed money and help from business leaders in the community, he’s trying to show local students that entertainment and athletics aren’t the only ways to be successful in life, and that no matter where you’re going to be successful, you’ll need a solid educational base to build success on.

Lamine also manages the volunteers for the Seat Pleasant CDC’s GRE tutoring program.  Managing the volunteers and reaching out to clients had been one of Lamine’s biggest challenges this year.  When the program started, there was a lot of interest from community members to serve as tutors for the program but no one had signed up to take part in the program.  Once the program attracted clients, most of the potential volunteers had moved on.  After working with some of the program participants, the remaining volunteers moved on, leaving Lamine to fill in as a tutor while he tried to recruit new volunteers.

 Lamine’s also facing challenges getting community members involved with the CDC in general.  Outreach attracts people who say that they’re interested, but direct contact hasn’t attracted a lot of volunteers.  Lamine is taking the challenge of turning interest into action in stride, though.

Even with a seeming lack of community buy-in, Lamine is still trying to improve his program and to set it up for success after his service year is over.  Lamine is looking into moving the tutoring programs out of the CDC’s offices and into the schools for the next school year.  This way, programs can take advantage of the resources available in the schools, and can provide activities to get students involved with the Seat Pleasant CDC’s programs other than just through tutoring.

If I Can Make it Here…

 Here I am in the city so nice they named it twice.  New York, host of the 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service.  I’m honored and excited to be speaking in a session on social media today.  Instead of people just sitting in a room listening to people talk, the session has its panel speakers throughout the room, and the attendees can move around the room as they like, listening to the topics they’re most interested in.  It allows for more question and answer, and the attendees can get what they really want out of the session.  I’m really excited about speaking at the session, because I’ll be talking about blogging.  Y’know, this thing that you’re reading here.

I’m sitting in on a lot of sessions, too.  I’m taking quite a few on how to create cities of service.  I’m excited to hear about how people have created large scale buy-in for volunteerism in their cities.  It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about when I lived in Cincinnati, especially after the riots.  I remember looking out over the city and knowing that the city had so much potential, and hoping that it could become a Great American City, but not having any idea about how to make that happen.  Maybe on Thursday I’ll have a better idea about how to make that happen in Baltimore.  And Clevealnd.  And Detroit, and all of the cities that just need a hug and a little more hope.

Something that I don’t see happening here at the conference is some kind of decision about how to move forward.  I’m kind of on the fence about that.  On one hand, we’ve got a lot of decision makers, and a lot of people with a lot of pull, all in a room.  How hard would it be to say, “Alright, here are the steps that we need to take to make sure everyone’s program, everyone’s organization, and everyone’s effort is worth-while and creates positive lasting change in their communities.

On the other hand, though, I understand that there isn’t one easy answer on how to make our communities better.  Each problem, and each community, is going to require something just a little bit different to make changes that are lasting and positive.  There’s no silver bullet.  No one-size-fits-all approach.  The only thing that’s going to make change better are the people that are working in their communities.  It wouldn’t make sense that all of us come back with some magical plan to fix our communities that might end up acting like a bandage rather than addressing the real problem.

So, it’s a bit confusing.  For someone who is about to move on to something new after my AmeriCorps term is up, I started questioning who to turn to and what to do.

Yesterday I met Chris Golden and Jen Martin, two  people that I’d only known on Twitter.  We’re “those kids” that Joe Scarborough mentioned in the opening plenary.  We were upset by the fact that older adults still insist on referring to us a “kids.”  Not leaders, not young adults, we’re those kids that just use Facebook and Twitter and send text messages and we’re not engaged.  More often than not, after someone describes people my age that way, in their very next breath they wonder why it is that we’re not engaged, why we’re not leaders in our communities.  Could it be because we’re not given respect by people older than us for what we know and what we can do?  How are we supposed to be leaders if it’s obvious that you don’t respect us enough to follow us?  A leader without followers is just someone out for a walk.

So, over dinner, we hatched a plan.  A scheme of sorts.  How can we show that people our age, and people much older than we are, can get things done in our communities?  How can we share our skills?  What’s the best way to show that we should be listened to?  What could happen to a community when AARP, myImpact, and AmeriCorps Alums join forces?  Maybe nothing will come of it.  Maybe, we can change our cities.

The lights here really are inspiring.

Sherry Logan

Sherry Logan is a woman in a man’s organization.  That’s not to say that the organization that she works with is all about sports and barbecue.  Mentoring to Manhood works with young men in Prince George’s county from twelve to eighteen years old.  These young men are dealing with low self-confidence, poor academic performance, and disruptive family changes.  Mentoring to Manhood tries to counter the negative impact of these situations by providing a tutoring program and positive male role models for the young men in the program. 

Mentoring to Manhood, by design, is a male-oriented program.  Men are working with young men, helping them to be successful in school and in their communities.  Working in an all male organization was a challenge for Sherry at the beginning of her service year.  Before Sherry started working with Mentoring to Manhood, their volunteer pool was all male.  Sherry worked to include women from the community in some of what the organization does.  Sherry has shown that women are able to be a positive influence on a young male’s growth into manhood, and has found a role for the women who want to volunteer with Mentoring to Manhood. 

Sherry is tireless in her outreach efforts.  A lot of her time is spent at community events trying to recruit volunteers for Mentoring to Manhood’s programs.  The events aren’t always successful for recruitment, but Sherry has made a lot of contacts that she’s used to help improve her program.  “I’ve had the opportunity to network with so many organizations and service leaders that’s it’s unbelievable in terms of the impact it is having on my life.” 

Sherry has gotten to work with, and for, Mentoring to Manhood’s mentees.  She has helped to plan events for these young men, and has helped to show them how serving and supporting your community is an important part of being a successful man.  Sherry joined Mentoring to Manhood’s mentors and mentees at the National Association for the Study of African American Life & History Black History Luncheon and volunteered with them, while using the opportunity to teach the young men networking skills. 

When Sherry isn’t working with Mentoring to Manhood, she volunteers as a docent at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, and is running workshops on African Aesthetics.  Because of the dedication she’s shown to the Smithsonian’s program, she’s been invited to become a member of the docent council.  After her service year, she’ll be going back to school to pursue her PhD in educational psychology.

Meagan Paulk

Meagan Paulk is the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator for LifeStyles of Maryland in La Plata.  LifeStyles provides a variety of services to the community, including senior transportation, temporary housing for the homeless, a food pantry and a clothing bank.  Meagan works with volunteers to staff LifeStyles’ year-round programs and their Safe Nights program, a temporary housing program for the homeless in Charles County during the winter months. 

I asked Meagan why she joined Volunteer Maryland at LifeStyles’ first volunteer recognition event.  “I always wanted to get into AmeriCorps, I like service. It ended up being really cool… I’ve met some really amazing people and it’s probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever chosen to take.”  

Meagan has faced some difficult challenges over the course of her service year.  From a complete lack of volunteers to more volunteers than she knew what to do with because LifeStyles was participating in Disney’s Give a Day Get a Disney Day program.  She came to an organization with no formal volunteer program, and a community that wanted to volunteer their time.  LifeStyles accepts court appointed volunteers, and Meagan has been working to make sure that those volunteers have a meaningful experience instead of just being given work that no one else wants to do.  

A lack of funds for the volunteer program has impacted LifeStles’ ability to formally recognize their volunteers.  Undaunted, Meagan planned an event on a shoestring budget to recognize the hard work and commitment of LifeStyles’ volunteers.  Meagan solicited in-kind donations from local restaurants and grocery stores to make sure her volunteers had a tasty dinner and knew that community businesses appreciated the work that the volunteers did.  Meagan has also been able to work with a screen printer to get sweatshirts and t-shirts made for LifeStyles staff and long-time Safe Nights volunteers. 

Meagan has realized that AmeriCorps isn’t “just a job,” that it’s about building communities.  She’s applying for another year with Volunteer Maryland, this time as a Regional Coordinator.  She’s looking at positions with nonprofits in the Washington, DC metro area, too.  For now, though, she’s a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator working to get things done.

A Chance to be Creative

During my year as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, one of my favorite things about my site supervisor was his hands off management style. If I had a problem, he was available to help, but if I didn’t need his input, he trusted me to do my job. It allowed for a lot of creativity in what could have been a really boring service year. I’m proud to see that same kind of creativity in the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators that I work closest with. I get excited when I talk to them and they tell me about the problems they’ve had, and how they’ve solved them. Especially if it’s in a way that I never would have thought of.

I try to be as hands-off as I can be with the members that I work with so that they’re able to solve problems on their own and craft a volunteer program that works best for them and their organizations. I could be in contact with the members in my region a lot more than I am, and try to solve all of their problems for them, but then I’d be doing their job for them and showing them that I don’t trust them to do a good job.

I’m really proud of all of the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators. I remember on the first day of pre-service training when they all were wondering what they had signed up for. I’ve gotten to watch them grow over the past ten months, and I’m really excited to see where they’ll be taking their programs over the next two months. Some of them are coasting through to the end of the year with a robust program and strong sustainability plan. Some of them will be driving to the finish, continuing to improve their programs as the needs of the people they’re serving change because school has let out for the summer. Some of them are still struggling with things beyond their control and are still facing the same uphill battle that they’ve dealt with since the beginning fo the year.

Whether it’s how to get more young adults interested in supporting their community, pairing mentors with young men, advocating for the victims of violent crime, or helping the homeless in their community, I get to see how the people I work with make the programs that they work on their own.

I’ve got a pretty awesome job, because the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators that I work with do an awesome job.

Creating Something That Lasts

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about setting up a system to make the work that I’ve done this year with Volunteer Maryland sustainable.  It doesn’t really do anyone any good if a lot of energy gets poured into blogging and other kinds of digital outreach if no one uses it after a year.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how to create buy-in for people who might not know anything about how to get a message out on the internet, or how to do it for someone who just might not care.

Thinking about how I got into social media wasn’t very helpful.  I stumbled into it because of two friends who saw the value of Twitter two years ago, when a lot of people didn’t know a tweet from a hoot.  I got hooked because I started winning things from local businesses.  What can I say, I like free things.

It wasn’t until I decided that I was going to take some of the things that I was winning and put them into the volunteer program that I was developing that I really began to understand the value of digital outreach.  I got hooked because people had things that they were willing to give away for free, but I really began to see how people could use social media to make their organizations better when I realized there was something that I could give away for free, too.  It wasn’t a free dinner, or tickets to a concert, or gift cards to anywhere; it was things that I knew that other people might want to know.

I still didn’t know a lot about how all of the different tools you could use to communicate worked.  I tried my hand at a few, and began to understand how information was shared differently on different platforms, but it wasn’t until I watched a video from Common Craft that I really began to understand how powerful 140 characters could be.  Common Craft’s videos take complex subjects and explain them easy-to-understand ways.  They don’t tell you why social media is awesome, they tell you about selling ice cream.  Everyone loves ice cream, right?  Maybe not the lactose intolerant…

Back to sustainability, though.  One of my projects before the end of the year is going to be developing a tool that will explain why Volunteer Maryland does social media the way we do, and explain how to do it.  The how part is fairly easy, it’s a guide explaining a step-by-step process.   The why is the hard part.  Not because explaining why we do it will be difficult, but because it has to be explained in a way that will make people excited to keep writing blog entries, updating their Facebook pages, tweeting, getting LinkedIn, and creating and expanding a community of people interested in and invested in building stronger and healthier communities.

I’m really impressed by how Common Craft explains things, so I’m going to be looking to their work a lot when I’m developing my own way of explaining things.  What’s your favorite way to learn something new?