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 Technical.ly 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.

 

Same Page-Ing For 2016

At our December training, Patrice led us through an activity she called, “Same Page-Ing.” It was a fairly literal session, in which all of the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, the Site Supervisors, and the Support Team were wrangled back into their handy-dandy, standard issue Volunteer Maryland Tool Books and onto the same page. Patrice went back through the schedule of deliverables and upcoming trainings and made sure we were all following a similar trajectory in the VM World. Admittedly, this is a pretty routine event for any organized group, but ever since Patrice dubbed the word “same page-ing,” I’ve been using it non-stop (as some VMCs and Site Supervisors might be wearily aware), because I like this idea of consistently re-aligning ourselves with a core mission.

People on the same page
Look at how empowering same page-ing can be! Especially when taken literally!

I was recently reminded of how much I like the idea of same page-ing by Vu Le’s blog post, “15 lessons for the nonprofit sector we learned in 2015.” The list begins with “1. An organization not built on strong values will crumble like dried hummus.” Truthfully, the whole blog post has me nodding and snapping my fingers in agreement, but it’s this first one that really rings true for me in the coming year, and not just because crumbly hummus is gross.

See, I’m a person who looks to (read: worries about) the future. I think about what comes next, and then what comes after that, and then after that, and then after that, and then when I die, what should they do with the body? This obsession with trying to see into the future is always exacerbated during this transitionary period between years. My mind starts to fly far from where I am now, and I forget the importance of presence. The reminder to get on the same page, reflect about who we are right now, and remind ourselves of the overarching mission (whether that be our personal mission, our organization’s mission, our family’s mission, etc.) is grounding. It simultaneously stems anxiety and keeps us conscious about what we are doing right now.

Leslie Knope GIF
In the new year, I hope we can all do some same page-ing. I hope that when we’re catapulted into 2016 we will remember the mission that motivates us to act and to be. Maybe that involves some sitting down and clarifying, perhaps editing, and maybe a gentle cutting of bits and pieces. Maybe it involves a discussion with family, friends, co-workers, etc. Maybe we should Google a template for mission drafting. Either way, let’s remind ourselves of the values that found our motivations, and let’s be led by them. 


As we step into the new year, whether with trepidation or a bold leap, let’s get on the same page with our core values and our mission, and let them be the guiding lights into what is most assuredly going to be an adventure into the unknown.  

Re-imagining Leadership and the Audacity of Kindness

Would you call yourself a leader?

I know I have trouble finding the gumption to describe myself so boldly. When I do talk about myself as a leader, I often subconsciously couch it with, “I’m a leader, but only insofar as…” or I might be more passive in my delivery, saying, “I worked on this project, and a leadership role was given to me.” On a drive back from a site visit, however, I was inspired to rethink the way I understand leadership as it applies to both myself and those around me.

Slogging along I-495 and entrenched in rush hour traffic, I was listening to a TED Radio Hour Podcast on the topic of “Disruptive Leadership.” One of the speakers  they featured in this segment was Drew Dudley, an organizational leadership educator and consultant. In his talk titled, “Have You Changed Someone’s Life Without Realizing It?,” Dudley beckons for us to do a rather radical rethinking of leadership and how it applies to our lives.

In the beginning of his talk, Dudley talks about how we have made leadership into a title that is only attained by doing something huge, something that changes the world. He worries that, “we spend so much time celebrating amazing things that hardly anybody can do, that we’ve convinced ourselves that those are the only things worth celebrating. And we start to devalue the things that we can do every day.” Dudley then tells the story of how he, through a simple, everyday act of kindness,  fundamentally changed a new university student’s life. Four years after this incident, upon Dudley’s graduation, this same student walked up to him and thanked him for that little gesture that had so powerfully inspired confidence and belonging at her new university. Though he had long forgotten the whole interaction and admitted that he had had no idea who the student was, it was an event that reminded him of the impact we can make through interactions we initially perceive as unexceptional.

In his conclusion, Dudley also reminds us, “as long as we make leadership something bigger than us, as long as we keep leadership something beyond us, as long as we make it about changing the world, we give ourselves an excuse not to expect it everyday from ourselves and from each other.”

When you get caught up in the daily grind, it can be hard to see the impact you’re making and it can be harder to keep sight of yourself as a leader. If we do as Dudley compels us to, and understand ourselves as leaders with the responsibility of sowing good, then we can change the world. This new framework also led me to rethink the kinds of criteria that make a leader. We often associate leadership with presidents and Nobel prize winners and famed entrepreneurs, but what about the people who were courageous enough to act with love? What about the people who acted with compassion, integrity, and hope? What about those people who are all around us that inspire us to come in to work or volunteer or simply be happy?

When we re-imagine leadership as something that is accessible to all those who simply inspire good, we all have the potential to be leaders, and that’s an incredibly powerful idea.

Saying Goodbye

Big News!  Volunteer Maryland is getting a new director!  Check out our announcement!

I can remember when I first heard of Volunteer Maryland.  I was taking a class at Notre Dame of Maryland University when my professor introduced herself.  Surprise!  It was Barbara Reynolds, Director of Volunteer Maryland.  A few months later, a position announcement for VM’s Project and Resource Manager came to me through the AmeriCorps Alums network and I knew I just had to join this organization.

Before VM, I had never stayed in a job for more than 18 months; though I had the pleasure of working with a number of amazing organizations, I was always ready for the next big challenge.  Until VM.  Since January 2008, I have been at home at in the exciting, fulfilling challenge that is Volunteer Maryland.  So it is bittersweet that, like leaving home for college, I’m saying goodbye to a place where I have both history and family.

During my time with VM, I’ve had the incredible pleasure of working with amazing people and organizations.  I’ve gotten to know and travel Maryland, to learn from the strongest volunteer management training program that exists, and to become even more connected to the AmeriCorps network that I have known and loved since I was 21.

When I became Director, we were riding the national service high – the Serve America Act had passed only two months prior and we were all talking about the upcoming growth of AmeriCorps.  Things changed quickly; I’ll never forget talking with our members less than a year later about the very real possibility that AmeriCorps could be eliminated because of proposed federal budget cuts.

But we’re VM and we’re AmeriCorps and so we rallied our spirits and did what mattered – we served.  Since becoming VM’s Director in 2009, I’ve been witness to incredible impactIn the last four years, our members mobilized 24,452 volunteers who provided 282,028 hours of service to 178,792 community members; 87 percent of our Service Sites reported an increased ability to recruit volunteers; and 85 percent of prior Service Sites note that they sustained or improved their ability to recruit and manage volunteers beyond the VM partnership.

We also increased our collaborations with other AmeriCorps programs, instituting an annual networking event called “Destination AmeriCorps” that brings together AmeriCorps members serving at programs throughout MD.  In 2013, VM hosted the fourth Destination AmeriCorps, which engaged 71 members, alumni, and staff from 13 programs across the State.

During the same timeframe, Volunteer Maryland was recognized nationally for the quality of our programming and impact.  In 2010, VM was selected for inclusion in the publication “Transforming Communities through Services: A Collection of 52 of the Most Innovative AmeriCorps Programs in the United States,” published by Innovations in Civic Participation and America’s Service Commissions.  In 2012, both the Volunteer Maryland program and I received nominations for National Service Impact Awards.

And, in a wonderful celebration that happened just two weeks after the birth of my son, we celebrated VM’s 20th anniversary with alumni, current and former Service Site partners, community supporters, and all three of our previous directors.  With stories, photos, vintage video footage, and original program displays, we celebrated 20 years of incredible impact.  I couldn’t be happier to have been part of such an event.

Over these years, I’ve worked alongside some of the most passionate, intelligent, resilient people I’ve ever met.  I’ve seen growth in individuals, organizations, and communities that many wouldn’t have thought possible.  And I’ve seen real growth in myself.

Thanks to the community of VM, I’ve learned how to enjoy networking, to better listen, to meet others where they are.  I’ve learned to dance in the hallway of a government building and accept that I don’t have to have all of the answers or know the dance moves in order to be a leader.

After all of this time and all of these people and every one of these experiences, I struggle to imagine a September that doesn’t include Pre-Service Training.  But, come this September, I’ll face a new challenge – one that I am so happy to take on.  After VM, Experience Corps, NCCC, VISTA, and Learn and Serve, I now get to join the Maryland Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism.

It’s also a really exciting time for Volunteer Maryland as we welcome VM alum and Outreach Manager Extraordinaire, Patrice Beverly to the role of Director.  I hope you’ll join me in celebrating her promotion to this position!

I’ve known for a long time that service is my thing, that AmeriCorps works.  That enabling others to serve – and to serve well and effectively – is a calling.  My time at VM helped solidify that and I remain incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of  Volunteer Maryland.  So I bittersweetly say goodbye to VM and hello to AmeriCorps programs throughout our State.  I can’t wait to work with you.

VM25 staff and Peer Leaders.  (Thanks to VM, I also have a new-found skill: jumping photos.)
VM25 staff and Peer Leaders. (Thanks to VM, I also have a new-found skill: jumping photos.)

Building Strength

The other evening, I had the privilege of attending the kickoff event for the newly launched Baltimore chapter of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN).  I wasn’t surprised to see familiar faces from other AmeriCorps programs there, looking to continue a career in nonprofits.  I did, however, also enjoy hearing a number of new voices contributing to the discussion, in careers ranging from the police department to a for-profit bank.

YNPN serves as a resource for a new generation entering the nonprofit realm, giving people the opportunity to share ideas, find mentors, and become leaders.  Interestingly, in the panel discussion that took place, the two themes that emerged for me was the dynamic change that will come as a new generation moves into this field, and how to find guidance and mentorship from older, more established people in the nonprofit field.  The idea is that one does not conflict with the other, and that the best growth comes from these working together.  Those were two themes that I have heard before, but never thought of in conjunction before.

It is always valuable to get a new perspective, to hear new voices, on the issues we face.  The evening’s discussions inspired me to examine my actions- to make sure I was doing the best I could to, and not just sticking to comfortable habits during my year of service. We should never be afraid to critically reexamine things, when it comes to how we serve and how we give ourselves room to grow as leaders.  I am already looking forward to what more events the Baltimore chapter of YNPN will host, and what new ideas will come!