National Conference Journal, Day 2

Two days into the National Conference on Service and Volunteerism, and I’ll start by bragging: we got to hear John Legend sing live to us today.  Yeah, that was a big highlight in my day.

The top themes when addressing education inequalities being discussed as John Legend came on stage.

Even cooler was hearing him and others talk at the “Sunday Supper” about what action people are taking to create equality in education.  A Sunday Supper started as a way to bring neighbors together, come to understand each others’ views, and take action.  Hosting one at the conference was amongst the many venues that were offered to start conversations.

The next biggest highlight of this day was the number of conversations taking place amongst AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Alums.  Today was full of opportunities to discuss the impact of AmeriCorps and how the alumni of the program (coming in just under a million, if you could those currently serving this year!) might continue to serve the community as we approach our 20th anniversary.  However we do go on to serve, I believe that Ben Duda is exactly right when he said that those coming through the AmeriCorps system have exactly the skills that the nonprofit world in the 21st century need.

AmeriCorps Alums in a lively townhall discussion

I’m looking forward to more great conversations on the final day of the conference!


National Conference Journal, Day 1

This week is the Big Show for the volunteer and service world. Thousands have converged on Washington DC for the Points of Light Foundation’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service. We’ve joined together, as conference goers do, for workshops, panels, service projects, celebrations and plenary sessions.

Enthusiastic attendees outside the Main Exhibitors Hall on the first day of NCVS
Enthusiastic attendees outside the Main Exhibitors Hall on the first day of NCVS

The theme of this conference is “Service Unites,” and all I can say is WOW.  To illustrate this theme, Wednesday’s plenary session featured several extraordinary and well-known teams of rivals, Including Donna Brazile and Bill O’Reilly, Karl Rove and David Plouffe, and the marching bands from Washington DC’s Duke Ellington and Eastern High Schools.  Seeing groups and individuals who have experienced extreme, even bitter, rivalries come together and literally embrace each other in the name of service was truly awe inspiring.

Watch this space for a Volunteer Maryland Day dispatch from day 2 of the NCVS!

Eric Liu, Founder, Citizen University
Eric Liu, Founder, Citizen University, speaks at Wednesday’s Plenary Session

Volunteer Maryland Alumni Highlighted at NCVS

As you know, I spent most of last week participating in the National Conference on Volunteering and Service (NCVS).  After the closing session, which involved singing along with Percy Sledge and laughing at John Oliver, I attended a meeting of AmeriCorps Alums.  This was a very appropriate way to end the conference, as the presence of AmeriCorps members and alumni was a constant throughout NCVS.   There are now more than 600,000 AmeriCorps alums and about 500 of them attended the conference.  A bunch of them are also Volunteer Maryland alums, and it was wonderful to see their presence.  I saw VM everywhere I looked; Heather Towers, our VISTA member at the ShoreCAN Volunteer Center, was quoted in the NCVS daily newspaper.  In a session called “Innovate to Educate,” Rhonda Ulmer talked about the training and support she received as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator as key to enabling her to help support her children’s school.  In the video shown at the closing session, VM VISTA alumnae from HandsOn Frederick, Eve Shafi, talked about how volunteering gives her a sense of accomplishment.

Also featured in that video was Earl Millett, Jr.  Earl was a VM Coordinator and a Regional Coordinator in 2000 and 2001, then became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador.  Earlier this year, Earl was also recognized by the White House as a “Champion of Change.”  And now Earl is a recipient of a Service Impact Award for environmental stewardship.  As an AmeriCorps alum who now works with AmeriCorps members at Civic Works in Baltimore, Earl truly has dedicated his life to service.  Earl has continued to support VM, most recently by participating on the AmeriCorps Alums panel at Destination AmeriCorps, and it’s thrilling to see him receive some of the recognition he deserves.

As noted in the press release from the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Service Impact Awards recognize the outstanding impact made by everyday citizens who serve their communities. Here’s what CNCS said about Earl:

“For more than a decade, Earl Millett, Jr. has touched the lives of thousands of people through his volunteer service with AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and now as the Volunteer Director of Civic Works, a Baltimore AmeriCorps program dedicated to engaging at-risk youth in community service, particularly projects that promote energy efficiency and environmental improvement. Earl spearheaded a unique service project that engages individuals in environmental stewardship at Baltimore Civic Works, transforming neglected urban spaces and lots into community gardens and shared spaces. He also created Project Lightbulb, a program that sends AmeriCorps teams to low-income Baltimore City communities to provide residents with free supplies and information that they will need to increase home energy efficiency, helping families save an average of 53 kWh per home (approximately $90 each year).”

Earl’s service is inspirational, and is a testament to the impact that one individual can have.  He’s also an example of the power of AmeriCorps Alums.  Not everyone gets this kind of recognition but over 600,000 individuals have participated in AmeriCorps programs that demonstrate real positive impact on our communities.  557 of them were VM Coordinators and 51 were VM VISTA members.  Awards like this enable us to celebrate service and its impact.  They also leave me incredible proud to be a part of this kind of community.  Congratulations to Earl and all VM and AmeriCorps Alums for your service impact!

AmeriCorps Director John Gomperts, CNCS Board Chairman Mark Gearan, Earl Millett, Jr, and CNCS Acting DirectorRobert Velasco II

A Smattering of Resources from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service

It’s nearing the end of Tuesday at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, so I thought I’d share some of the resources I’ve jotted down throughout sessions today.  Why?  Well, because try as I might, I can’t always keep up with the twitter feed.  Plus, if there’s one thing I’ve come to learn about conference attendance, it’s that the conference should be just the start of learning, reflection, and action.  So as my day has moved along, I’ve been keeping a running tab of things that deserve more research.  This is by no means an exhaustive list – and I’d love for anyone and everyone to share some of their resources here, too.  Why just talk the collaboration talk when we can walk it? Good film about Measuring to Outcomes; many of the resources below were shared in this film and I can’t wait to check them out. Nonprofit performance management software Tools and Resources for Assessing Social Impact Center for Effective Philanthropy The Center for High Impact Philanthropy National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy “Collective Impact,” an article in the Social Innovation Review Employee Volunteer Program ROI (Return on Investment) Study by Reimagining Service

Oh, and don’t forget to follow the NCVS blog for conference highlights!

Greetings from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service

Good Monday morning from New Orleans! I arrived yesterday to incredible sticky heat and a city full of service leaders. That’s right; it’s the 2011 National Conference on Volunteering and Service!

The National Conference on Volunteering and Service (NCVS) is an opportunity for service leaders to gather together to learn new skills and improve existing ones, generate new ideas, network, and “be inspired and develop strategies to address the critical issues facing our nation.” I’ve been here for less than 24 hours and I’m already on my way to meeting those goals.

I love the networking part of this conference. Each year, I have the opportunity to reconnect with former colleagues and partners and meet people who are working in all kinds of ways to engage individuals in service. Yesterday was a great start to this year’s networking.

It started before I even got off the plane (which, I’m pretty sure, was filled with NCVS goers!) when I met Abby from Atlas Corps, a fellowship program that describes itself as a “multinational Peace Corps for Social Entrepreneurs.” Abby is an AmeriCorps*VISTA alumnae and incredibly dynamic, so I was pleased we met and am looking forward to seeing her again throughout the conference.

Shortly thereafter, while checking into my hotel, I ran into Michelle, a former co-worker of mine from Experience Corps  who leads efforts to promote encore careers in education through Civic Ventures.  As we hopped in the elevator, Michelle told me about a session she attended during the pre-conference about a new service leadership institute being developed. I already know I’m following up on that one!

After registering and running into another friend from Experience Corps and John Gomperts, the Director of AmeriCorps, I moseyed, with AmeriCorps Alums Jen from the Maryland Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism and Christy from Genesee Valley Outdoor Learning Center, into the French Quarter for the AmeriCorps Alums NCVS Kick-Off Party.

What a great event! AmeriCorps Alums put together an evening of casual networking, complete with a get-to-know-you bingo game, dancing, food, and drinks. It was exciting to catch up with the new Executive Director of AmeriCorps Alums, Ben Duda. Ben and I were in AmeriCorps*NCCC  together many moons ago, so we swapped stories and shared updates about our fellow classmates before he got down to the business of formally welcoming everyone to the party. Ben talked about AmeriCorps members and Alums as present and future leaders and, as I looked around the room I realized he could not be more right. I was surrounded by people who became part of AmeriCorps for a million different reasons and they all continued to serve, keeping true to the AmeriCorps pledge of serving “this year and beyond.” It’s both exciting and humbling to be a part of such a group of people.

As the evening went on, I met people (some of whom I had interacted with on Twitter and now met in person for the first time) from within – and outside of – the service sector. I met two women from Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, an alum of City Year and NCCC who now works in the Boston Mayor’s Office, the brains behind AARP’s social media efforts for Create the Good, social media leaders like Nolan Hoshino and Bryan Dainty, Executive Director of MyImpact Chris Golden and staff from the Points of Light Institute including our very own Volunteer Maryland Alum Michael Nealis  (plus, of course, conference penguin, Hamilton Stand).

This was a wonderfully fun and inspiring event to start NCVS. Meeting new friends and connecting with old ones is energizing. It reminds me of the impact that AmeriCorps and service has on those who serve. And, while we do this for the communities that are most in need, we know that those who provide the service are impacted for life. Many of them, like those I met yesterday, become our most innovate leaders in the service movement. They come up with the ideas to help us meet our greatest needs.

They also, to my wild surprise, really enjoy line dancing. But that’s another story altogether.

So, I’m off to the conference. The networking will continue as I take part in sessions about evaluation and policy, volunteer management best practices and more. More to come!

PS – I’m trying really hard to be one of those cool, relevant, social networkers. So I’m tweeting a bit throughout NCVS. Feel free to follow me at @mkeccleston, the conference at #NCVS and, as always, @VolunteerMD.

Why I’m Optimistic

Today I’m focusing on a quote that I’ve had hanging on my computer screen since June 2009.  It’s from Paul Hawken, who spoke at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service.

“If you look at the science about what is happening on the earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data.  But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

We’re at the halfway point of our service year.  At this point, it’s not uncommon for AmeriCorps members to wonder if they are making a difference or to become pessimistic at the slow rate of change.  Paul Hawken reminds us to balance the struggle for change with the optimism that we can make our world better.

It’s Monday and the morning news didn’t give me much to rejoice about.  But I am optimistic because I know AmeriCorps members, nonprofit staff, and community volunteers are working every day to improve our world.  And I am optimistic that, with their continued service, we will restore the earth and the lives of the poor.

Have You Got a Story To Tell? Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have You Got A Story To Tell?

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

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

 Content is king, and platform doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I Can Make it Here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lights here really are inspiring.