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.)
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Wait Until You Hear This

At Volunteer Maryland, we talk a lot about storytelling and we also talk a great deal about “the ask”.   While preparing training materials this week, I became more convinced than ever that storytelling and the ask are one in the same.   When we tell stories, we are implicitly asking for our audience’s attention. And when we ask for something, we almost always have a story about why we need it and why it should be given.

Not surprisingly, Volunteer Maryland Coordinators get lots of training and plenty of practice in the areas of asking and telling.  To ensure staff buy-in, VMCs tell compelling stories about how volunteers will help the organization fulfill its mission.  And what is volunteer recruitment besides an ask?  Once those volunteers are recruited, VMCs provide orientations that include the creation story of the organization, as well as success stories that inspire and encourage new volunteers.

At our next training, we will focus on storytelling — stories about ourselves, our service and our organizations.  As the Relay For Life video below shows, a good story makes all the difference when asking for help, donations, partnerships and pretty much everything.  What’s your story?

Earn It, Keep It, Save It – Tax Time on an AmeriBudget

Guest post by Sharon Baldwin

It’s that time of year when W-2s start hitting mailboxes and many of us make plans for a much-anticipated refund (or worrying about what kind of money we might owe). For those of us living on AmeriCorps stipends, and for folks with low incomes in general, a tax refund might mean we can splurge, visit families who are far away, or set some money aside in an emergency fund. Last year, I paid $80 to get my taxes done and thought I got a deal. This year, because of my work as the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator at the nonprofit Baltimore CASH–Creating Assets, Savings, and Hope–Campaign, I know I have other, better options for keeping money in my pocket at tax time.

The Baltimore CASH Campaign’s mission is to promote and provide products and services that increase opportunities to build financial stability for low income families in and around Baltimore. One of these valuable services is free, high quality tax preparation for low and moderate income folks through the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Baltimore CASH and its partners offer no-cost tax preparation at 15 tax sites in and around Baltimore. Individuals earning less than $25,000/year and families earning less than $50,000/year are eligible for free tax preparation and opportunities to connect to savings opportunities. (Not near Baltimore? Find a VITA tax site near you on this list maintained by our partner and sister program The Maryland CASH Campaign.)

My time so far has been a crash course in volunteer management, behavioral economics, and taxes. I now understand the difference between standardized and itemized deductions; refundable and nonrefundable credits; and, just how many different definitions of dependents exist in the U.S. tax code. Our well-trained, IRS certified Tax Volunteers donate their valuable time and skills to learn all of this and more to prepare accurate returns and save you money at tax time.

Paid tax preparers are expensive–Baltimore CASH estimates that the average family saves $250 by using one of our tax sites for their taxes, that’s a quarter of the AmeriCorps monthly stipend! To make an appointment, call 410-234-8008, or, make one online.

Inspired by what we do and want to get involved? Visit our website, register to volunteer, find us on Facebook, or contact Sharon Baldwin, Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, volunteer@baltimorecashcampaign.org or 410-234-2804

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.”

Learning Through My Travels

Through all of the site visits that Volunteer Maryland makes around the state, we get to see a lot of great ideas in practice, like Mosaic Community Center featuring the artwork of their clients throughout the office, or the Dundalk Renaissance Corporation’s multi-pronged approach to engaging their community.  On a recent visit to Shepherd’s Clinic in Baltimore, I was able to see a medical center that provides its care using almost exclusively volunteers.  With so many volunteers playing a role in Shepherd Clinic’s work, I wondered how they make sure everyone felt recognized and appreciated.

Shepherd mosaic

As I soon learned, some of the methods they use were quite eye-catching.  As we toured the clinic, we walked by a beautiful mosaic that combined a timeline of Shepherd Clinic’s history and testament to the many volunteers that have given their time over the years.  I could imagine as a volunteer walking through the hall, this would give me a sense of history and belonging.

We also saw an interesting way of combining name tag storage with learning each others name.  Each volunteer had a picture of themselves on a board next to the check-in station where their name tag would be clipped whenever it wasn’t being used.  Not only does each volunteer get to feel like a star with their picture on display, but it can be helpful for learning names and faces in such a busy place. Building camaraderie in a big volunteer base can be a challenge, and this is a fun way to help address it.

Shepherd board2I loved seeing how Shepherd’s Clinic creatively integrated volunteer appreciation and a sense of unity into the everyday structure of their work.  One of my favorite parts of the site visits is seeing the different approached that each nonprofit takes to serve their volunteers and community.  Each site has something that we can learn from, and I know I will continue to be impressed as we travel!and this is a fun way to help address it.

Photos courtesy of Shepherd’s Clinic

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.

Braving the New World

All of us, it seems, whether young, old or in between, have our issues with social media.  For some, the whole concept is utterly mystifying. Others, while entirely clear on the concept, are anxious about its implications.  Love it or hate it, the reality is that if nonprofits want to accomplish their missions, they probably need to embrace social media, and do so with gusto.

I know that in my role as a Volunteer Maryland Peer Leader, it is crucial to have the best information and resources to share with Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  Because most organizations do not have a full-time communications director, many VMCs are responsible for creating and maintaining their volunteer program’s social media presence.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in Heather Mansfield’s dense, substantive, and fascinating webinar based on her book, Social Media for Social Good: A How-To Guide for Nonprofits.

True to its name, this was a how-to webinar, with lots of nuts and bolts, but with plenty of insightful context, too.  Perhaps most helpful was Mansfield’s description of the three generations of nonprofit social media use:  Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0.

Web 1.0, also described as The Broadcast Web, consists primarily of web sites, donate buttons and e-newsletters. Web 1.0 is very informative but not particularly interactive.  That said, state of the art homepages and e-newsletters are just as important now as they ever were.

Web 2.0, or the Social Web, was born in the early 2000s, with the advent of Linkedin and the proliferation of blogs. Thanks to the personal, informal nature of blogging and the many social media sites that followed in Linkedin’s footsteps, nonprofits were no longer simply broadcasting information, but exchanging it.  Though this has opened up incredible opportunities not just for outreach, but also for peer-to-peer fundraising, many organizations, to this day, fear and eschew the social web because they do not want to lose control of their message.  Though such fear is understandable, it is, at this point, self-sabotaging.  Not to worry, though, there are great examples out there of how to get beyond this resistance.

Web 3.0 is the Mobile Web, which includes mobile websites, group messaging, and smart phone apps. We are entering an era when online donation, with its long forms asking for credit card numbers and billing addresses is being replaced by a smart phone app that allows individuals to donate to a cause with the tap of a touch screen.  Such new technology makes it all the more essential for every nonprofit to have a mobile version of its website.  If creating a mobile website sounds daunting, do not despair.  For as little as $8 a month, services such as mofuse.com will build one for you.

If there was any one take away point, it was this:  Newer social media does not render older social media obsolete.  Nonprofits need to use all three generations of the web, in conjunction with one another, to reach their intended audience of potential volunteers, members and donors.

The great news? Successful use of social media is a science, but it’s not rocket science. All one has to do is look at what the best in the business, such as The Nature Conservancy, is doing, and pretty much copy them.  From the location and color of the “Donate” button to the beautiful slideshow and uncluttered design, this website has almost everything you would want to emulate on your own nonprofit’s website.

Almost?  To perfect your up to the millisecond website, you need one more ingredient:  information about where to find your organization throughout the social media sphere. Perhaps the best example of this is Mansfield’s blog.   Visitors to her blog have the option of finding Mansfield on no fewer than 12 social media sites.

While a flashy website with the perfect blend of an old school e-newsletter and links to hip social media such as Pinterest and Instagram might be surprisingly easy to set up, Mansfield warns that it can be a bear to maintain.  To make those links to your blog, Instagram, Flickr, and Youtube worthwhile, you must always be updating them by adding compelling content.  If that sounds like a full time job, Mansfield assures us that it is.  And for most nonprofits, adding such a position is a pipe dream.  But the day may be coming when social media managers as central to nonprofits as program managers.  Until then, it’s up to each of our organizations to decide just how much online awesomeness we can handle.

Relaxation, Reflection, Learning, Goal-setting, and Fun: It’s a Mid-Year Retreat!

It’s been so busy I haven’t even had a chance to mention one of our recent big events.  That’s right, we just had our Class 24 Mid-Year Retreat – and what a retreat it was!

We had a few goals for our retreat: relaxation, reflection, learning, goal-setting, and fun.  And, if I do say so myself, I believe these goals were met.  We were in a beautiful setting with the sun shining and the temperature hitting nearly 80 degrees.  We had a book exchange and bikes were donated for free time.  We spent some time purposefully reflecting on the accomplishments from the last six months (and there are so many!).  We had a variety of workshops, focusing on both volunteer management and skills for “Life After AmeriCorps.”   We were also able to begin to shift gears a bit and recognize that we’re getting closer and closer to the end of the year, setting goals and priorities for the next four months.  And, of course, we spent time reconnecting and having some fun.

All of that was part of our plan.  But this class of AmeriCorps members brought so much more to our 24ish hours together.  Our Peer Leaders, Barb and Joy, put together gift bags, door prizes, and a red carpet to recognize the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  And the VMCs brought so much personality that it’s a wonder we could all fit in one room!

They held their own jam session with instruments brought from home.  One VMC started off the retreat by riding her bike from Baltimore to St. Michaels’ (a seven hour journey and she was the first one there!).  Others brought books and magazines to exchange and discuss.  And they all brought incredible humor.  I nodded off to sleep Thursday evening with my cheeks aching from smiles and laughter.

They did all of this and stayed focused on continuing their service with enthusiasm and dedication.  It’s no easy feat being a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator.  Eleven months is a pretty short time to create a program, recruit volunteers, make it sustainable.  In many jobs, a person gets several months or even a year to really learn the ropes before making any big changes.  A VMC doesn’t get that opportunity; s/he just needs to dive on in and make the change.

I remain incredibly impressed with VM24.  This retreat demonstrated one reason why: they work as hard as they play – and I think both work and play benefit.

My thanks go out to the VMCs for their dedication to service, for the perseverance they continue to show, and for re-inspiring me.

Evaluation and Fund raising and Relationships, Oh my!

Last week we had one of our Joint Training Days – a full day of training for Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and their Site Supervisors.  These days are an instrumental part of our program and I always enjoy them.  You already know that I think our VMCs are pretty fantastic, so allow me a moment to say I think our Site Supervisors are, too.  Each Site Supervisor is different.  We have people who work in development, communications, and direct services; we have Executive Directors, teachers, and people who do everything from writing grants to cleaning the bathroom.  Just like our sites are diverse in size, scope, and mission, so are our Site Supervisors.  What they all have in common is that every one of them has taken on an additional role this year – that of supervising a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator.  It’s one more hat they wear and, like many of us in this field, they have a whole closet full of hats!

One of the great things about Joint Training Days is the ability to spend a full day working on the volunteer program.  I definitely understand how challenging it can be to get out of one’s office or the day-to-day operations!  It’s far too uncommon to spend a day planning and evaluating progress when you’re already stretched thin.  So, we try to make sure that the Joint Training Days are useful – that it is worth the time and energy it takes away from the day-to-day.

So, last week, we focused on two big areas: evaluation and fundraising.  At VM, we spend a significant amount of time on program evaluation.  We know that asking good questions can help us to get at programmatic effectiveness and, ideally, help us make decisions and take actions to make our program better.  On this Joint Training Day, each VMC and Site Supervisor were able to spend a couple of hours really looking at the development of their volunteer programs, which should lead to good planning and prioritizing for the remainder of the AmeriCorps service year.  It’s these kinds of efforts that we hope help make the volunteer programs strong and sustainable.

Another thing we know we need, particularly when looking at program sustainability, is money.  That’s where our second workshop of the day came in.  For me, this was really interesting.  We had a great guest trainer join us.  Jan Kary facilitated a workshop that explained some basics of fund raising and helped us to see some of the overlap between coordinating volunteers and raising funds.

Now, as AmeriCorps members, Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are not involved in fund raising, though many of the Site Supervisors are heavily involved in development in all its forms.  One of Jan’s points was for everyone to “keep up their antennae,” to be aware of some of the linkages between volunteers and donors.  In a case study that a small group of us were assigned, we were to explore what we would do if we received a call from a large company looking to participate in a day of volunteering.  How would we approach the conversation?  Were there avenues for a longer-term relationship?  With whom in our own organizations would we talk to about donations that may come with or after the volunteer day?

One big take-away from the day at large was the value of relationships.  We have to evaluate the satisfaction of our volunteers so we can keep them engaged and serving.  We have to nurture relationships to engage volunteers and donors.  We want to think about our messaging with our community rather than to the clients we serve.

So much of our work is about relationships and this training day really reinforced that.   It’s really hard to provide training for a group of people who are doing such different things and have such varying levels of interests and experiences, but my hope is that everyone can learn a little something new each time we meet.  We can all benefit by thinking about our relationships, whether focusing on developing programs or recruiting volunteers or raising funds.

I recommend you spend a bit of time thinking about the relationships that you nurture (or need to nurture!).  How are you ensuring that your volunteers are satisfied?  How are you keeping donors engaged in meeting your mission beyond writing checks?  What relationships are you building to better serve your clients?

Always Learning!

How time flies!  It’s December and we’re as busy as ever.  Tomorrow we rejoin all the members of VM24 for our second In-Service Training.  I’m so excited that we’ll be joined by Mickey Gomez, Executive Director of the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County.  Mickey is going to talk with us about technology trends in the nonprofit sector, an area where she excels and we can all learn more.

One of my favorite parts of the service year is working with guest trainers like Mickey.  See, no matter how long one works in this field, there’s always something new to learn.  Working with guest trainers is one way we can keep improving our knowledge.  So much about being an AmeriCorps member – and staffing an AmeriCorps program – is about learning.  We have to continually learn in order to provide the best possible services to our communities.

Over the last couple of years we’ve had guest trainers from Business Volunteers Unlimited’s Volunteer Central, Community Mediation Maryland, Purple Cat PR, the Baltimore Sun, and so much more.  Every time is an opportunity to better support our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and their sites which, in turn, helps create stronger volunteer programs and meet community needs.

This year, we’ve added a new component to our training program – more training for Service Site staff.  We already have three days throughout the service year where the supervisors join the VMCs for training days.  Now we’re implementing a series of webinars for site staff, in an effort to further institutionalize the best practices of volunteer management.

VM24 Joint Training Day in September 2011

We’re working toward sustainable programs and we believe that quality training is one key to meeting that goal.  So, we’ll head into tomorrow looking to learn as much as we can.  Next week, we’ll have our second training webinar.  And we’ll keep on going and keep on learning and keep on improving.

We know we have a strong program, great partners in our Service Sites, and an incredible amount of knowledge, energy, and passion in our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  Training helps pull all of that together.  So thanks, in advance, to Mickey for spending time with us tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to learning from you!