Hello! My Name Is…

This week, about half of the class of VM25 will meet for a regional meeting hosted by VMC Casey Lowe at the beautiful Accokeek Foundation.  Between a potluck lunch and an exploration of the beautiful Piscataway Park, we will discuss an issue that comes up time and again for VMCs:  establishing new relationships with other organizations.

One of the many lovely vistas we are sure to enjoy at the Accokeek Foundation tomorrow.

One of the earliest stages of volunteer program implementation is identifying good sources of potential volunteers.  These could be local colleges, houses of worship, nonprofits, or for-profit businesses.   For some VMCs, reaching out to these organizations easy.  Their service sites have long standing relationships with them, and reaching out is like getting back in touch with an old friend.

In other cases, however, VMCs are making cold calls.   While the VMC might have good reason to believe this new partnership could solve everybody’s problems and create wonderful opportunities all around, the organization she is about to contact has never even heard of her service site.  What should she do?

There is no one answer to this question, but here are a few pieces of advice, courtesy of the wise and wonderful Volunteer Maryland Staff:

Know exactly what you want before you approach another organization — Make a very direct ask.  Write a script if you need to!

Do your homework.  Make sure you are clear on the history, mission, culture and capacity of the organization before you come calling.  Do they have any history of helping organizations such as yours?  Is there any overlap in your networks?

Determine what is in it for them.  Why should this organization encourage its members to volunteer for your service site?  Will doing so contribute to service learning requirements?

Streamline the process.  If you have all your ducks in a row before you contact, say, a school counselor, you can pitch a very simple process that you have already developed for her to direct students to your organization.  Busy people love it when most of the work has already been done for them!

Ask a staff member from your service site to come along.  Creating lasting, sustainable partnerships with organizations whose members will reliably volunteer at your site is a long, labor-intensive process. Don’t be afraid to ask a staff member to join you in this venture.  Staff involvement in the partnerships you develop greatly increases the likelihood that those partnerships will flourish long after you have completed your service year. 

Finally, don’t be afraid!  Once you’ve done the legwork and your homework — pick up the phone — great things await.


Talk To Me

Communication reveals and often challenges our most cherished values.  Some of us value, above all things, the absence of discord among friends and coworkers.  For others, the most important value is fairness, and those who are passionate about fairness might be willing to risk a difficult conversation to achieve it.

We all bring our own set of values to the workplace, which, in turn, has its own culture and values.  As such, most of us have a daily opportunity to communicate positively and constructively with those who may not see the world or a given situation precisely as we do.

Some of these conversations, such as those that include constructive feedback, can feel daunting.  The great news is that these conversations do not need to be unfriendly or confrontational.

Last Wednesday at Volunteer Maryland In-Service Training, we learned about several models for providing constructive feedback.  One is the Feedback Sandwich,  and another is the DESC (Describe, Express, Specify, Consequence) model.  The feedback sandwich can be described as gentle coaching sandwiched between a compliment and a few encouraging words.  It’s designed to incorporate what could be interpreted as harsh criticism into a bigger chunk of feedback, most of which is sincerely positive and all of which is sincerely constructive.

Similarly, the DESC model, with its neutral language that focuses on detailed information about an action and its consequences, provides the opportunity to solve a problem rather than place blame.

As I have supported the Volunteer Maryland Class 25 members through the first few months of their service year, I have witnessed many of them honing this all important professional and life skill:  Solving problems without placing blame.  Whether it is spotlighting volunteers in an internal newsletter to inspire staff to implement volunteer programs in their departments, or improving the experiences of volunteers to make sure they keep coming back, VMCs have done an amazing job of communicating in a way that solves problems and strengthens their programs.

In the wise words of Patricia Barger, Community Services Manager and Site Supervisor to Connie Pulliam at The Family Tree, “We don’t need to have a problem; we just need to have a conversation.”

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.

Whey Your Management Options

Yesterday we had a great day of training for all of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  We were able to cover some great topics such as in-kind donations, volunteer orientations, and public speaking.  But one day isn’t enough time to cover all of the topics that Volunteer Maryland Coordinators wanted to know about.  Some of the questions I heard revolved around a central theme of working relationships.  So I wanted to take a moment to review some of the information we covered at Pre-Service Training.

I was trying to think of a good metaphor to talk about working relationships, and I thought, you know, I really like cheese.  How is dealing with people like dealing with cheese?  We deal with people every day of our lives, and they form as central a part of most people’s lives as cheese does to mine.  And as there are many kinds of cheese, there are many kinds of people.  And just like how you prefer Gouda to Gloucester, people have different preferences of how they deal with their supervisors and their volunteers.

When you think of communication styles, you have a good idea of what kind you prefer.  But what if, like we discussed in training, your boss has a totally different style?  Or maybe you like to communicate with your volunteers in a certain way, but you find it doesn’t work all that well.  Here we can take lessons from the humble cheese.  I may not prefer pungent cheese, but I can learn to appreciate its lovelier qualities.  In the same way, your boss might be short on the compliments and heavy on the constructive criticism; but what may help you is learning to appreciate your boss’s forthrightness with you, or knowing that when they give a compliment you know you’ve earned it.  In the same way, you might want to try offering your volunteers a different cheese – maybe they find your communications to be too roundabout, or maybe they need more personal attention.

Working with other people will be a constant, and for many people it may even be the most important part of their job.  Be creative in your approaches to dealing with people – don’t give up on relationships as unworkable, but try new tactics.  Try modifying your approach or try modifying your attitude.  You may have your personal style that you like best, but much like cheese, it is always rewarding to try something new.

Let’s Talk About You

I bet right now that at least some of you are already starting to recruit volunteers.  And I bet that each of you has your own way of appealing to soon-to-be volunteers; you already are experienced, and this was covered in our training just a few weeks ago. But now that you are at your site, let’s revisit it and take a look at how you can turbo-charge your recruiting.  One of the challenges that Volunteer Maryland Coordinators face, especially in their first few weeks, is the direct recruiting of volunteers.  With no or little shared history and experience with these volunteers, it can be daunting to try and re-forge old connections or seek out new ones. One of the hardest things to do is convince people to give up their free time to help someone they don’t even know.

One of the most effective ways is to attract volunteers at a personal level.  Your cause might be the greatest cause out there, but are you conveying that to your audience?  Another way to ask this is “How are you sharing your organization’s story?”.  To do great outreach, you need to tap into “you”, the passion that brought you here, to get attention and capture hearts.  Take some time and get all introspective for a minute.  What is your story of how you ended up at this organization?  Try putting it in words so that a stranger could understand it.

Know what inspires you about your organization, your story, so that you can share that with your volunteers. Find a way to embrace the organization’s foundation story and to put it in your own words.  You don’t need to wax poetic to your audience- I’m sure they would like to hear the nuts and bolts of the volunteer position too, but your heartfelt advocacy of your cause will still come through. And you can draw on a number of volunteer management experts on the way to perfecting your pitch.

For a fun example of how you can inspire others with your own love of service, take a look at short videos of our Pre-Service Training service projects (you can make your own for free too!).

VM25 & Blue Water Baltimore
VM25 & Paul’s Place

Just Breathe. . .

Last week looking at the Work Plan as a navigation system for the service year got me thinking about some of the other approaches I use to provide structure in my life.  One of the frameworks I use is a template borrowed from Traditional Chinese Medicine.   As you might imagine, since this approach has been around for over 5,000 years, it is routed in nature.  Traditionally body, mind, and spirit were interconnected and experienced as a whole.  A traditional Chinese healer’s mission was to keep the chi flowing throughout the three levels.  They also saw the movement of chi extending from the person out to their family, to the institutions they were part of and beyond.  There are five elements or phases and they correspond with what we identify as seasons.  The Metal element is associated with the time of year we usually consider fall.  To the ancient Chinese it was a time of taking in and letting go, on all levels. In the human body the lungs (i.e. breath) and colon (i.e. elimination) correspond to Metal.  According to the ancients it is the optimal time to consider topics like inspiration, acknowledgement, rhythm, structure and value. This is a useful paradigm for looking at the current period in the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator service year.

The Volunteer Maryland Coordinators have been at their Service Sites for a month.  Last week they submitted their Work Plans, joint agreements between Volunteer Maryland, the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, and the Service Sites, regarding the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator’s scope of work from now through July, 2012.  At this point of the year, it’s a good time for the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators to take stock of where they are. It is likely the expectations they had coming into the service year are now butting up against the realities of life at their Service Sites.   I know this was a challenging time for me last year.  During the initial days I got oriented to the program and the tasks for which I was going to be responsible.  I learned to work with a custom built database that was both expensive and obsolete.   For one of the tasks I was recruiting volunteers to carry out, it was insisted I start with data printed out over a year earlier.  I had to take  more than a few deep breaths.  I looked at what expectations I brought with me into the service year that I could get rid of while still maintaining my personal integrity.  I respected my Service Site’s mission and I felt honored to be a valued member of the team.  It was useful for me to move beyond my frustration with what I deemed to be an antiquated system of operation.  I learned to be more patient and to respect the cultural milieu.  We’d even joke in staff meetings about my service site having its own sense of time.

I established a structure for my life, at my Service Site and elsewhere, that had a logical sense of rhythm and still allowed some flexibility.  I prepared for the monthly regional meeting and Volunteer Maryland training with an appetite whetted for inspiration.  I couldn’t wait to reunite with my fellow Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  I was inspired by their accomplishments and humbled by the challenges they faced.  We shared gifts and talents, inspiration and ugghhhs, collaboratively.

Are your expectations clashing with reality?  Stop for a minute and take some deep breaths, maybe even a walk in the crisp air.  Revisit your story about what is important to you and why you chose this year of service.  Need a reminder?  It’s a good time for inspiration.  Find a quote that resonates or a picture of someone whom you admire, then put it where you can’t miss it!  Ask for support if you need it.  Last year one of the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator needed some sunshine.    We sent her brightly colored stickers and pictures for the shed where she tended to aquatic life.

Career Advice from Two Guys in Motorcycle Helmets

There are a lot of things that I enjoy about my work with Volunteer Maryland.  I get to help shepherd in a new generation of nonprofit leaders.  I’m working to improve nonprofits across the state by showing them efficient, effective ways to communicate their mission and vision.  Volunteer Maryland is growing because of the work that staff and AmeriCorps members are doing.  Because of what we believe in.  Because of the world we hope for – because of the state, the cities, and the neighborhoods that we hope for.  Bit by bit, we’re doing grand things, and we’re getting things done. 

I can’t help but wonder whether or not I’m helping to achieve everything that can be, that needs to be achieved.  Am I advising people well?  Is there some better way that a problem can be solved that will result in a better outcome?  Is there something that I can say, or do, or some way to show something to someone to make them understand why I’m doing what I do?  Something that will make them say, “Yes, I get it now.  This is why what you’re doing is important.  This is why things need to change.  This is my role in making this place better.”

I don’t know what that one thing is.  I don’t know if I’ll ever know what that thing is for some people.  For me, that’s the biggest challenge of what I do.  Knowing that there are people that, no matter what I say or do, nothing is going to make them understand why I do what I do.  That there isn’t anything that anyone can say or do to make them understand.

The thing that’s hardest about this isn’t that the other person doesn’t understand the importance of what I do; it’s that I can’t make them understand its importance.

But what’s the big deal?  When you go fishing, you don’t ever catch all of the fish, right?  I can’t let myself think like that.  It will keep me from working harder, from trying new ways of getting people to understand what I do and motivate them to do the same kinds of things.  If I were to stop trying, I’d have to settle with being “good enough,” and that’s just not an option. 

So what am I going to do about all of this?  Some days it’s enough to make me want to throw in the towel and stop trying.  I can’t let that happen, though.  So I’m going to have to work harder, make my piece of the world better, and do it faster.  It makes us stronger.  Which is a good thing, because our work is never over.

Ok, so they're not really motorcycle helmets.