Three Days of Conferences, Four Highlights to Share, High Fives All Around

gif of clown spinning and changing into wonder woman
Actual before and after of me this past week.

Do you ever come back into the office after a few days at a conference and feel like people won’t recognize you because you’ve learned so much and you feel yourself changing all the time and you’re actually a new person now? That was me last week and again this Monday.

Last week, I managed to attend three days worth of conferences. Two were with Chelsea at the Light City U Social Innovation Conference and one solo day at the Maryland-DC Campus Compact’s Service Learning and Civic Engagement Conference. You may have seen our live-tweet feed on the Volunteer Maryland Twitter! If you didn’t (and even if you did, really), I’m going to be using this blog to highlight and unpack some of the best things I heard. 



The Purpose Economy and Volunteer Programs

Aaron Hurst, CEO of Taproot

Our morning speaker for Light City U’s first day was Aaron Hurst who spoke about the ways in which our economy will shift its focus from information onto finding purpose, what he has dubbed the “Purpose Economy,” and how this shift will influence Baltimore’s economic landscape. To Hurst, purpose is about enhancing relationships, doing something greater than yourself, and personal growth and experience, and people will be looking for that more and more in their lives.

It’s a pretty interesting and exciting idea (and I encourage you to watch the video below and learn more), but how does that translate to our work at Volunteer Maryland? It means that we have to strive to make purpose a focus of volunteering programs. This means that volunteers and potential volunteers want to be able to build relationships with others, they want to hear about the impact that they are making, and they want to know more about how they fit into the mission of the organization they are working for. So start planning those socials, sharing those statistics, and getting your directors involved in the volunteer program, because that’s what people–particularly millennials–want more of.


Thinking Better, Doing Better

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, III, President of UMBC

As a UMBC alumna, President Hrabowski will always have a special place in my heart as the college president who walked the campus while waving at students, most of whom he knew by name. His presentation at Light City U certainly did not disappoint (especially since I got a picture with him beforehand). President Hrabowski told the story of his own journey to social justice and creating change in his communities, and he inspired us to embrace the struggle and never never never give up.

By the end of his talk, President Hrabowski had the whole of the Columbia Center standing up and chanting, “Thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become character, character becomes destiny.” This mantra is so important, because it means that change comes through the simplest means: thought. All we have to do is be open up our minds and we can change the world.



Skill Sharing, Just Do It!

D. Watkins, author of The Beast Side and professor with the University of Baltimore, in conversation with Lance Lucas, Founder of Digit All Systems

D. Watkins and Lance Lucas had a sort of fishbowl conversation at Light City U, where they discussed skill sharing. Both men have made their way by doing so. D. Watkins as an acclaimed columnist and author is the founder of the BMORE Writers Project, which aims to teach writing to the Baltimore community and thereby empower Baltimore to write its own story. A profile on Lucas and Digit All Systems by Baltimore describes, “a nonprofit group on East Lexington Street that offers computer certification courses, Microsoft certification, programming courses—even a class in Lego Mindstorm robotics.. Digit All Systems is providing a pathway out of poverty for unemployed Baltimoreans, one A+ computer programming certification course at a time.”

Though both of these men have spent much of their time building up industries and programs around skill sharing, they also agreed that skill sharing is simple. All you have to do is have a skill and teach it to someone who wants to learn. For volunteer programs, this might mean creating opportunities for volunteers to do some skill sharing with other volunteers, clients, or staff. When we are able to share our skills, we not only learn more and thereby increase the scope of work we can do, but we also create relationships with people further enabling that purpose-driven economy.


Asset Mapping and Building Foundations Among One Another

Alice Murray, business administration student at George Washington University

At the Maryland-DC Campus Compact’s Service Learning and Civic Engagement conference, I was able to participate in a workshop by Alice Murray, a business administration student at George Washington University, who was also volunteering with Lift, a national organization that is working to break the cycle of poverty. Inspired by her time as a volunteer coordinator with DC Engage, Alice presented a set of best practices for asset-based volunteering, community organizing, and service learning. Although asset-based approaches are nothing new, Alice’s discussion was incredibly enlightening and offered insight into how the theory can be put into practice.

Alice explained that the difference between asset-based and need-based approaches are that need-based approaches focus on filling in gaps, and asset-based approaches are founded in looking at what we already have and building from there.yarn tangle To demonstrate this, she led all of us workshop participants through a session of asset mapping, where we stood in a big circle and would throw a ball of string to people we had connections with. For example, someone might say, “I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA; who else has served as a VISTA?” This person would then hold onto one part of string and throw it to one of the VISTA alums in our circle. Then the VISTA alum would think of another fact about themselves, maybe, “I live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” and then throw the string to another person in the circle. The object of the activity is to connect everyone in the room with the string and and thereby create a web among us. Alice also noted that instead of getting overwhelmed by the literal gaps between each of us (needs-based approach), we create a foundation through the things we share (asset-based approach).

For a volunteer program, this means leveraging the assets that we have. For example, a small non-profit might not have a lot of money to do a big volunteer recognition event, but it might have a lot of connections among people with resources that could be used in other creative ways. A community theater might give some free tickets to a dress rehearsal, a local caterer could sponsor and donate some food. The coworker with incredible crafting abilities could create some recognition gifts.

When we employ an asset-based approach to our volunteer programs, we do what  Aaron Hurst, President Hrabowski, D. Watkins, and Lance Lucas, all champion in some way. We are creating an opportunity to share our skills among others, which further entails becoming open with others and possibly changing our thinking. Further, we are creating purpose-driven opportunities for people to grow in their communities.



Tales from the Road

As the Program Manager of Volunteer Maryland, I feel so lucky to get to work with an incredible group of individuals.  Our AmeriCorps members, better known as Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs), work tirelessly to support and refine volunteer programs at nonprofit organizations across Maryland.  With the amazing guidance from their designated supervisor (a.k.a. their Site Supervisor), wonderful things happen in less than a year of partnership.

I get to learn more about these efforts when I visit each of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and Site Supervisors each fall/winter.  For the past two and a half months, I have engaged in what we like to call our “site visit season.”  This is a very educational experience in which I travel with a member of our Support Team to meet with each of our 30 partnership sites.  This is one of my favorite parts of my role, as I get a first-hand glimpse of where our AmeriCorps members are serving, as well as gain the opportunity to reflect and learn more about their service.

The knowledge and stories from the site visits have been so insightful and inspiring. Listening to such positive progress is an important reminder of the great things Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are able to accomplish in such a short period of time. I’d like to share with you a few reflections from the site visits that exhibit the impact of our AmeriCorps members.

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators research and implement smart tools that refine the process of volunteer management.

For example, Brinley, VMC at Court Appointed Special Advocates of Washington County, recently instituted a new tracking tool called OurVolts.  OurVolts can be used as an app on a mobile phone, making the process of reporting hours convenient and accessible for volunteers. This process will not only be easy for the volunteers, but help the organization gain an accurate understanding of how many hours their volunteers will serve.  As a result, this data will also be useful for reporting and recognition purposes.

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators understand the importance of recognizing volunteers.

The effort to celebrate the hard work of volunteers has a lasting impact on the quality of the volunteer experience.  An example of such recognition occurs in Baltimore where Montressa develops a regular “Volunteer of the Month” spotlight to recognize outstanding volunteers who serve at the St. Francis Neighborhood Center.  Also, Jessica, the VMC for the Frederick County Department of Aging’s Meals on Wheels program, is developing ongoing recognition events, and will soon be hosting a celebration titled “We Love Our Volunteers” (cleverly tying into Valentine’s Day!).

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators build meaningful connections.

This occurs on a such a significant and multi-faceted level.  Bintou, who serves at Moveable Feast, facilitates orientations for volunteers before they assist with preparation and packaging of nutritious food that will go to individuals who are fighting severe illnesses.  Through her orientation, Bintou connects volunteers with the mission and history of the volunteer program, making the experience so much more effective and rich for all involved.  Over at Education Based Latino Outreach, Johana builds connections with staff through weekly meetings, during which they discuss the progress of volunteers and additional resources to support volunteers.  Through relationship building, the staff can work together more cohesively to best support and supervise volunteers.

While the next piece of information did not necessarily derive from the site visits, it would be a shame to not include it!

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators recruit and manage qualified volunteers as a result of their strategic outreach methods.  I’m proud to share that since October 2014, this group has recruited nearly 900 volunteers and helped manage over 4000 volunteers.  Collectively these 4000+ volunteers have served over 9,000 Marylanders.  Wow!

This is just a snapshot of some of the great work that’s being done by the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators in Class 27, and so much more is yet to come this year!

Reyna and Johana (EBLO)
Reyna (Site Supervisor) and Johana (Volunteer Maryland Coordinator) are a great team at Education Based Latino Outreach.
A group pose during a site visit with Partners In Care. Each person in the photo is or has been an AmeriCorps member with Volunteer Maryland!

More than giving thanks

I’m thankful for the chance to help others.  That’s what I shared this past Thanksgiving holiday when anyone asked me, “What are you thankful for this year?”  Yes, I am thankful for my health and the health of my loved ones, but more importantly I am thankful for the fact that my health affords me the chance and the ability to do well in this world.  So instead of focusing on food and gatherings and football  this Thanksgiving  I chose to spend the first several hours of my morning giving back.  As an ThanksgivingAmeriCorps member I am all too aware of the situations of those less fortunate than myself and I wanted part of my Thanksgiving to be in service to those people.

My roommate and I woke up at 7 am on Thanksgiving morning and went out to join over 120 fellow volunteers, including several other AmeriCorps members, at Moveable Feast. Moveable Feast helps to put healthy food on the tables of people in Maryland with AIDS, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses and when we arrived we found out that our time would be spent helping sort a week’s worth of meals for 200+ clients.  Once the sorting was complete we then worked with volunteers loading meals into cars for delivery and as an added bonus to the morning, my roommate and I were able to make a few deliveries ourselves.  Delivering those meals may have been the most sobering and rewarding part of my service.  There is a bittersweet dichotomy that occurs when you find yourself trying to balance the joy you feel helping someone and the stark realization that there are so many who are in need of that help.hgl

Holidays are a great opportunity to give of your time in service to others, but it’s also important to keep in mind that there are hundreds of other days when people need help just as much.  We here at Volunteer Maryland are all about volunteering.  Not only do our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators recruit volunteers for their respective sites  but they also participate in their own direct-service each week, as do myself and all of our staff.  In fact, by the end of this service term we will collectively log over 4000 hours in service to others. I don’t know about you, but I know that I speak for all of us here at Volunteer Maryland when I say that we hope all of you who read this will consider giving a little of your time to volunteering before, after, and during the holidays.


On Tuesday, April 9, five representatives from Volunteer Maryland joined members of 18 other Baltimore area AmeriCorps programs to participate in a special event designed to celebrate service.


Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake welcomed hundreds of AmeriCorps members and staff to the Baltimore War Memorial, where she recognized each program for its unique accomplishments.  The event ended with Mayor Rawlings-Blake and several volunteers reading the proclamation that officially made April 9 the Mayors Day of Recognition of National Service.

Those of us from Volunteer Maryland were happy to be acknowledged for the work we do through the multiplier model, leveraging community resources to get thousands of people engaged in service throughout the State each year.


Headed up by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, this event took place at City Halls across the nation. It was also made possible by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Cities of Service, the National League of Cities and several other organizations.

It was especially amazing to see the diversity of programs and members in the room.  There were several particularly enthusiastic groups, such as Playworks, Civic Works, and Public Allies, whose membership was quite young.  On the other hand, the most energetic groups were Experience Corps and Senior Corps, whose members are primarily retirement age.  Whether serving children, the elderly, the hungry, the homeless or all of the above, the people in the room exuded a palpable love of service.

Oh, and we got an update on the Mayors’ Super Bowl bet.  San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee will be in Baltimore on April 26 to complete a service project that will include many of the people who were at the War Memorial yesterday.  I’ll keep you posted!

Describe It to Me

“We need volunteers!”   Who hasn’t heard that refrain before?  Just about every organization out there could use some help.  But a general call for volunteers tell us very little.  What will the volunteer do?  How does that task relate to the mission of the organization?  What community need will the volunteer meet?  How?  What are the requirements of the position — is there a big time commitment?  Is prior experience necessary?   What are the benefits of the position?  Sure, volunteers don’t get paid, but there is plenty they can get out of it:  professional experience, an opportunity to socialize with others, and the satisfaction of addressing a compelling need, just to name a few.

A good position description begins with a great title.  Ironically, volunteer positions should not have the word “volunteer” in the title.  For example, when people volunteer at Paul’s Place, a nonprofit that serves the community in Pigtown and Washington Village in Baltimore, they have the opportunity to help give clothing to guests.  Rather than fall back on boring descriptions of clothing distribution and a clothing bank, Paul’s Place recruits “Personal Shoppers” and “Organizing Pros”  to help guests choose items from a room that is set up like a regular clothing store.  

These fantastic job titles already do a lot of the work when it comes to explaining the purpose and requirements of the position.  The rest of the description is really just an elaboration.  In the case of Personal Shoppers at Paul’s Place, it looks like this:

Purpose: Provide personal support and foster a sense of dignity to guests while choosing outfits.

Description of Duties: Assist guests, one-on-one, with picking out clothing in the department store designed shopping room.

Qualifications: Interest in shopping and picking out matching outfits with a cheerful and caring attitude.

Benefits:  Offers hands-on experience with one of the community needs AmeriCorps addresses.  allows participants to to connect with other volunteers, and learn about poverty and its effect on a neighborhood. 

A strong volunteer position description attracts the best volunteers and allows those who are not a good fit to self-screen.  It is also a great marketing tool, in that it does a great job explaining the mission of an organization.  

So the next time you want to sell people on volunteering for you, remember:  Describe it to them.  

Did AmeriCorps Win the Superbowl?

It probably goes without saying that here in Baltimore, the last few days have been remarkable.  The vibe is pure joy.  There is no hubris, and no one is feeling smug.   Rather, there is the palpable delight of an underdog that fought hard and  proved the pundits (even Nate Silver!) wrong.


If a Superbowl victory were not sweet enough, those of us in the AmeriCorps world have another reason to celebrate:  Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee made the game more interesting by wagering AmeriCorps service projects.

According to The NonProfit Times, the mayors agreed that the mayor  of the losing team’s city would come to the winning team’s city to do a major service project with the aid of AmeriCorps members.  This truly win-win arrangement was preceded by a day of service in New Orleans called the Super Saturday of Service, during which local volunteers revitalized 5 playgrounds.

Stay tuned for news of Mayor Lee’s Charm City service project…

Goals for a New Year

The new year is coming. Looking back over the year, what have you checked off as achievements, both personal and professional?

Looking back over 2012, I can say that I have lived in three different places, settled into what I hope will be my new home for awhile, enjoyed a number of uniquely Baltimorean experiences, and gotten involved in the rich heritage of city.  My service with Volunteer Maryland has given me the opportunity to learn and grow with all of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.

Recently, I have been revisiting some goals I set for myself as AmeriCorps member with Volunteer Maryland.  I wanted to break the goals I had set down into small, achievable actions that I would be able to complete over the coming months.  One model that I really found helpful with this was S.M.A.R.T goals.  Since I have a lot I want to achieve over the next several months, I found it important to create deadlines and a checklist for each goal.  I’m never going to get around to better public speaking without some planning!

With a S.M.A.R.T. goal, I need (1) Specifics, not just a general statement, for example, about better public speaking skills.  My goal needs to be (2) Measurable; for example, I know my goal has been achieved when I feel comfortable with public speaking.  The goal should also be (3) Achievable; I would not want to set this as my goal if it will demotivate me or defeat me!  I know I have the knowledge to achieve better public speaking, and that it will just require me to stretch out of my comfort zone.  When I set this goal, I also have to make sure that it’s (4) Result-focused; so that I concentrate on becoming better and more comfortable, and not on how many speeches I may give. It also helps if the goal is (5) Time-bound.  Otherwise, like many of my past New Years resolutions, I might keep putting it off until the whole year has passed!  Setting check-in dates for myself will create accountability, and help this goal stay on track.

What goals do you or your organization have for this coming year?  I hope that 2013 will see me achieving my goals, and you with yours.

To Boldly Go

By Kerry Ose and Bilqis Rock

As a Volunteer Maryland Peer Leader, I have been impressed by the way that many of the VMCs in my group are blazing a new trail.  They are coordinator volunteer programs that do not exist yet, or, as one VMC put it, “advocating for volunteers before they are here.”

The stories I am hearing from these VMCs are inspiring.  They are meeting with program directors, assessing needs, creating volunteer position descriptions, writing manuals and just generally developing a whole new arm of their organizations.  But it isn’t easy.  The origins of volunteer programs are a bit like creation myths — they involve obstacles, conflict, perseverance and lessons learned.

Bilqis Rock, one of my fellow VMCs from VM24, has always been particularly good at telling the story of her nascent volunteer program at Health Care for the Homeless (HCH), so I thought I would invite her to co-write this blog.  She writes:

For a nonprofit, working with volunteers is a no-brainer. Volunteers are passionate about the cause, give your organization great PR, and best of all, they’re free! What’s not to love? This is what I thought entering Health Care for the Homeless last Fall as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator. Turned out, volunteers were a tougher sell.

From the get-go, my supervisor told me that the challenge to developing a volunteer program at HCH would not lie in volunteer recruitment; there are many people requesting to volunteer with HCH every day. The more difficult part would be the internal work of establishing systems and expectations among staff members in order to create meaningful, sustainable and useful opportunities to engage community members.

I thought, pssht, people just need to hear the volunteer gospel, and they’ll get it. I’ll be able to put volunteers in action in no time.

During my HCH orientation, I asked a variety of team leaders, what ideas do you have for volunteer involvement with your team? In what ways can your staff and clients be supported? Some people told me how volunteers had not been useful in the past. Some came up with a few trivial tasks. Most often, I was met with a blank look.

Soon I realized that putting volunteers to work right away was not going to be my job. My job was going to be about building relationships with people across the HCH community to find out the answers to the question, “where do the needs, interests and abilities of HCH clients, staff and community intersect?”  Creatively finding those intersections is the key to building a volunteer program at HCH.

These beautifully came together on a couple of occasions—when a barber provided haircuts for the men’s group, when physical therapy students provided otherwise inaccessible PT services, when public health and nursing students completed research projects and service efforts—but the process continues to be a work in progress.

Staff members are not inherently resistant the volunteers; I’ve found it is often rooted in a lack of vision for how volunteers should be appropriately incorporated into HCH’s work, and a lack of support for staff members throughout the volunteer process. These are areas that need to change to develop the volunteer program. This work takes time, and it’s a constantly moving target.

My training as a social worker comes in handy. I try to meet staff members where they are in terms of working with volunteers. I seek to understand their working environments and their motivations for resistance to change. Eventually, being able to acknowledge their perspectives, I ask them to form new ways of thinking and try new ways of operating.

What I know now is that deciding to engage volunteers in a nonprofit’s work is a no-brainer. Figuring out how to make that happen is a different story.

A Beautiful Friendship

About  a year ago, my daughter and I joined Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Abby Becker and several other volunteers to help with fall cleaning at The St. Francis Neighborhood Center (SFNC) in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood in Baltimore.  Though we were there for only a few hours, there was no doubt in my mind that this was an extraordinary place.

Founded in 1963 by a group of priests, seminarians and community members, SFNC is, according to its mission statement, “committed to breaking the cycles of poverty through education, inspiring self-esteem, self-improvement, and strengthening connections to the community.  SFNC strives to give people hope for a better tomorrow by providing them with the tools they need for a better today.”

SFNC provides a wide range of programs and services, including Peace Patrol WalksCommunity Mediation, and the Power Project, which is a multi-faceted youth development program.

Three years ago, SFNC began partnering with Volunteer Maryland, welcoming their first Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, Corrine Handy.  At that time, the SFNC staff had virtually no staff, and the Power Project hadn’t even started yet.  Today, SFNC has a staff of four, including Corrine and two subsequent VMCs, Sara Sullivan and Abby Becker.  That’s right — SFNC built its stellar staff and strong programming in large part by partnering with Volunteer Maryland three years in a row.

VM doesn’t deserve all the credit, of course.  SFNC staff have an amazing aptitude for building partnerships and leveraging community resources.  Reflecting on her year as a VMC, Abby Becker writes, ” I am proud to have cultivated wonderful volunteers who are reliable and dedicated to our programs in the long-term, particularly to working with The Power Project.  Each day, we now have at least one person who is truly tied to our mission and deeply connected to the young people.”

photo credit: Ran Zeimer

Now that Abby (pictured above with the rest of the SFNC staff at the Reservoir Hill Festival) is a permanent staff member, she continues to be enthusiastic about the many opportunities SFNC has to offer. “We have many fall community programs, including Free Job Readiness Workshops, Free Personal Finance Workshops, and the continued Free Community Yoga classes, all of which are open to the public.

In the Power Project, students have loved our fall enrichment activities:  printing press workshops, African Drumming and Dancing with Zebra Kids, and a special arts series in partnership with the Walters Art Museum, focusing on Black Renaissance Art.  The students’ artwork will be featured in an exhibition this weekend at the Walters Free Renaissance Family Festival.  And don’t forget:  the Reservoir Hill Festival was September 15th – our most successful yet!  It featured 10 live bands, a community resource fair, and The Gathering – Baltimore’s premier food trucks.”

Suffice it to say, SFNC is a happening place, and one of the most beautiful examples of what a long, fruitful partnership with Volunteer Maryland can yield.

Pass The Love

This is an auspicious week for Volunteer Maryland.  After months of planning and recruitment, as well as eight days of training, twenty-nine freshly minted Volunteer Maryland Coordinators dispersed themselves throughout the state and began their service year in earnest.

When I think about this group of extraordinary service leaders, one of the most potent images that comes to mind is serving with several of them at Paul’s Place in Baltimore.  Paul’s Place describes itself as “a gathering place for neighbors in Washington Village/Pigtown.  All are welcomed, treated with respect, offered a hot meal and support, and given the opportunity to participate in shaping and building a strong stable community.”

I saw this mission statement in action as soon as I arrived.   Before we ate the meal that was freely offered to all of us at Paul’s Place, we had the honor of participating in the morning meeting.  In lieu of conventional volunteer orientation,  Paul’s Place staff, guests, and volunteers meet to share good news, inspirational words, and to “pass the love.”   The day we visited, this group gladly widened their circle to include us, giving several VMCs the opportunity to share words of encouragement.


And what is this love passing of which I speak?  Well.  Each time one person cedes the floor to another, the two must first engage in a REAL hug.  Not all of us are huggers, of course, but these hugs are not just about getting uncomfortably close to a stranger.  They are a symbol of what we share when we gather together to serve, which is a bond that transcends social or economic differences.

Vol MD group 005.JPG

I found this notion of passing the love powerful because it felt like a commissioning.  It was as if each hug conveyed a palpable love of service that would sustain VM25 throughout the year.

And now our VMCs are, in turn, passing this love of service on.  By recruiting volunteers and developing sustainable volunteer programs, and perhaps occasionally through hugs, they will put this love into action.  Can’t wait to see the results.