Serving Better

This week I had the chance to attend a reception for participants of Maryland’s Day to Serve, and it highlighted something very important for me.  The nonprofits partners of Day to Serve 2012 each spoke briefly about their work last year and their plans for this year, and made a point of talking about their cooperation and intertwined interests.  They emphasized how they were able to work together to help each other while achieving their own goals.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, while working to improve the environment, started a model sustainable farm.  This farm, in turn, produces food that they can provide to the community.  On the Day to Serve, volunteers at the farm harvested food that was then donated to the Maryland Food Bank, where volunteers prepared it for distribution.  Neither one needed the other to succeed in their work, but through their synergy these organizations created more good than they could have alone.

Daikon Kathryn’s Kloset, which I heard about for the first time here, spoke as being a nonprofit made explicitly for helping other nonprofits.  Much like the Baltimore Community Toolbank, they exist to provide critical items to other nonprofits, so that they can serve their community.  And while the Toolbank helps by loaning out items like shovels and power tools  Kathryn’s Kloset helps by working with large manufactures who have usable products slated for the landfill, taking that as donations, and sending that to nonprofits in state, out of state, and even internationally.  I even got to hear about them shipping a number of medical tables, donated by University of Maryland because they had upgraded to newer versions, to Senegal where doctors used them as work tables.

What this highlighted for me was the value of cooperation and synergy among organizations.  Sometime we lose sight of how much benefit we can gain from working together.  Oftentimes organizations (especially nonprofits) have very compatible goals, and can produce greater resources and public goodwill by seeking out connections like these.  Don’t forget that you exist as part of a network of similar people and organizations, and that networking events can pay off more than with just new job leads.

What local companies could you work with to improve how you serve your constituency? What do you have to offer to others in your area?


You Grow, We Know: How Partnering with Volunteer Maryland Could Work for You

Here at Volunteer Maryland, we are in the midst of receiving applications from potential partners for the coming year.  Each year, Volunteer Maryland partners with about 30 organizations, each one unique in what it does and how it operates.  Going to meet next year’s partners has been exciting and inspiring for me.

What I’m learning is that nonprofits evolve into a role, and the pieces of the nonprofit grow organically with it.  If one division of the organization discovers a need for volunteers, maybe it will start recruiting.  And then maybe another staff person may have started recruiting from their own network to fill a different volunteer role.  Now, as they move forward, they need to bring all of that together and figure out key items such as which staff member do volunteers report to?  What is the written description of the volunteer role?  And who’s tracking how many volunteers there are and how many hours they give?

As the organization grows in size, the methods that may have served it once now are no longer enough.  The staff may have an intuitive sense of what is working or not working for their organization, but they may have not had a chance to check in with staff members, the volunteers, and the community they serve to really assess that all needs are being met.

Volunteer Maryland fits in here as a means to take a step back, review the entire situation, and look at what changes might make the volunteer aspect of your program thrive.  And the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator comes in providing new eyes to the problem, often providing extra manpower, that can provide new and novel solutions.  Whether our partners are responding to a new or shifting need, or are improving on what is already in place, they do so to better engage and serve their community.

Spring is a time of renewal for the world around us, and it can be a time of new beginnings for your organization too.  If you are thinking about partnering with Volunteer Maryland, do not hesitate to be in touch.  You can even join us on May 9 for a lunch & learn and have any questions answered.  It’s a relationship that can benefit both you and your community for years to come.


Orienteering and Orientations

scroll-mapIf you were dropped into the wilderness with no idea of where you were, you’d want a compass and a map before you felt ready to start exploring.  An orientation gives the potential new volunteer their compass and map in this new environment.  A well-done orientation can leave a volunteer feeling prepared for their relationship with the organization.  It has let them know why they are there (cause), how they will be volunteering (system), and how they fit in with the organization (social).

What do you like about orientations that you have been through?  For instance, I really like having the history of the organization explained because then I can understand their roots.  If you haven’t been through one recently, take a look at orientation videos from the Red Cross and from the American Cancer Society.  If there was something that sticks out in your mind as particularly good or particularly unhelpful,  let that guide your approach.  But be open to feedback from others, since everyone has a different learning style.  Take the time to figure out what approach makes the most sense for you and your organization.

Maybe you normally have an hour or even several hours to orient new volunteers, but if you only had ten minutes, you would need to focus on a few key areas.  As I mentioned earlier, an orientation can be broken into three sections.  You have the cause; which includes the need in the community, who is being served, the organization’s mission, its programs and services, and a general overview of the organization.  The system is usually introduced next; this can be the structure of the organization, how volunteers contribute to its programs, a tour, an overview of major events coming up for the organization, and the policies and procedures.

Finally, it is vital to include the social aspect.  This makes for more comfortable and happy volunteers.  The social aspect covers a welcome by the staff, leadership, and current volunteers, a description of the organization’s culture, and (always important!) information about how to share this volunteer opportunity with friends.

At our next In-Service Training for Volunteer Maryland, we will ask each Volunteer Maryland Coordinator to pretend we are potential volunteers and give us an orientation for their service site.  Each will give us the lay of the land, and perhaps even get the audience ready to explore as a volunteer!

Vote Every Day

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.
—Marjorie Moore

The recent election has been the focus of the nation for a while now, and now that it is done people are refocusing their energy back to the everyday.  But your chance to vote isn’t over.  Think about what issues that got you fired up.  Why not take that passion and apply it every day of the year?

Voting is all about using your voice and your power to make a difference in the world around you.  You vote in order to support people who will make the world a better place.  But you don’t need to vote to do that.  Many organizations exist with the mission of bettering their community.  The people who volunteer through these organizations see something that could be and work towards making that vision reality.  They know that volunteers can create the changes they want to see at the lowest levels, at the foundations of society.

This Saturday, I will be joining a volunteer group with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake as a part of the efforts to rebuild homes along McCabe Avenue in Baltimore City.  Though there will only be ten of us doing a day’s work, I know that I will be a part of bringing a once strong neighborhood back to life. This is the strongest way for my voice to be heard, even when it’s not election season. Don’t let your voice only be heard once a year – make every day a chance to let your neighbors and your community know that they can work to improve the world around them.

Think about how much power that gives you, that every day can be a vote.  This is the time to get passionate and build up the excitement about how you can create the community you want to live in.  Why volunteer your time?  For the same reason that you vote; because you care and you want to make your voice heard.

Thinking about investing in your Volunteer Program? Come talk to us!

It continues to be an interesting time for the nonprofit sector and for AmeriCorps.  With the economy continuing its struggle, we all seem to be living with a bit more of the unknown than we did a few years back.  Still, there are some things we know for sure – and right at the top of that list is an increased need to serve our communities.

If that’s you, then you might think about investing in your volunteer program as one way to help meet those community needs.

Volunteers aren’t free and they never will be.  It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and expertise to run a successful volunteer program.  But I don’t need to tell you that.

What I can tell you, simply, is how we may be able to help.  Are you looking to start a new volunteer program and need someone to come in and set up the structures?  Is your volunteer program struggling and in need of someone to update and re-energize things?  If so, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Each year we partner with about 30 different organizations to help them with their volunteer programs.  It takes energy on all sides and it’s no easy feat.  We provide intensive training to the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and make training available to the staff at our partner organizations.  We work to conduct needs assessments, develop program structures, recruit volunteers, and evaluate everyone’s efforts.  Sometimes we’re helping to start up a brand-new volunteer program.  Other times we’re coming in to grease the wheels.

It takes a real investment from all parties but we know that it works when that investment is solid.  It’s an investment of time, commitment, and money.  An organization commits one – three hours a week to working directly with a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, plus attends mandatory trainings three times over the year and optional online trainings every other month.  Add in a cash match ranging from $4,750 – $9,750, and you have a full-time person working on your volunteer program.  Commit to an ongoing investment in their success and you can have a sustainable volunteer program – one that meets your increasing community needs – for years to come.

Marie McSweeney, VMC at Digital Harbor High School
Marie is the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator at Digital Harbor High School

If you’re interested in thinking more about how we can help you with your volunteer program in the upcoming year, there are a few ways to learn more.


Want to learn more about what we do? Register for one of these!

Want to know how to submit a successful application? That’s right here!

For the application and other supporting documents about the application process, check out our web site


When: Monday, February 6, 10:00 am – 11:30 am

Where: Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore

1324 Belmont Avenue, Suite 401 – Salisbury, MD  21804

When: Tuesday, February 7, 10:30 am – 12:00 noon

Where: Prince George’s County Public Library – Hyattsville

Conference Room

6530 Adelphi Road – Hyattsville, MD  20782

When: Wednesday, February 8, 10:00 am – 11:30 am

Where: Maryland Nonprofits – Silver Spring Office

8720 Georgia Avenue, Suite 303 – Silver Spring, MD  20910

When: Thursday, February 9, 1:30 pm – 3:00 pm

Where: Queen Anne’s County Public Library – Kent Island Branch

200 Library Circle – Stevensville, MD  21666



Finally, never hesitate to get in touch! Here’s our contact information.

What is YOUR Story?

I had the pleasure of spending time over the holidays with most of my brothers. I have six; the one who lives in Texas didn’t make it east this year. Jon, the eldest, is quite a storyteller. You’ve heard of “fish tales”? In my family we have “The World According to Jon”. It’s always entertaining when he regales an uninitiated guest with one of his “tales” of growing up in our family. Usually by the second or third sentence at least one of us has chimed in, “that is not what happened.” Somehow, when Jon tells a story the lines between fact and fiction get blurred. He calls it “embellishment.” If he is recanting a story about you, this can be alarming. He is masterful at getting people’s attention. Often the discussion that follows is even more entertaining than the story itself.

I was introduced to storytelling as a tool, i.e. Andy Goodman and Kivi Leroux Miller, last year during pre-service training for Volunteer Maryland Coordinators. Other leaders in the story-telling arena include Michael Margolis and Seth Godin. Telling an engaging, evolving story is a technique invaluable to nonprofits and volunteer coordinators. Seth points to TOMS Shoes as an exemplary nonprofit that gets ambassadors to spread the word by telling a compelling story. Is your story an invitation to join the cause and spread the word?

I was so inspired by the biographical stories on Michael’s blog and website that I experimented with writing my resume as a story last spring. Recently I registered for his webinar, How to Tell Your Story with a Better Bio. I definitely need some guidance. My attempts during the holidays to practice the story crafting techniques Patrice taught us to were less than successful. And, the Maryland Nonprofits’ 19th Annual Conference is coming up in March. Michael Margolis is the keynote speaker! His story: “I’m left-handed, color-blind, and eat more chocolate than the average human.” I am still working on mine. . .

Moveable Feast’s Recipe for Successful Volunteer Management

Volunteer Maryland’s new class of AmeriCorps members recently completed two weeks of Pre-Service Training. These sessions orient the current class of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators to service, program development, communication, and leadership skills. Volunteer Maryland Coordinators examine and experience best practices of volunteer management. Experiential practice prepares members to apply the principles at their respective Service Sites. Incorporated into the training session is a service project. Participation in this project provides the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators with an opportunity to learn about a specific community need, experience volunteer orientation and training themselves, and demonstrate what was learned. This year we volunteered at Moveable Feast. Here, each day, 1,100 nutritious meals are prepared and delivered to homebound members of our community suffering from HIV/AIDS and breast cancer. Last year, over 11,000 volunteers served more than 50,000 hours. Here is how Moveable Feast makes it happen:


~heartfelt passion
~a solid understanding of the community need and agency mission
~a handful of humility
~knowledge of staff/volunteer investment, policies and documentation
~heaping helping of flexibility
~effective recruitment, orientation/training, and recognition
~healthy sprinkling humor

1) Have Volunteer Coordinator, Tom Patrick, share his passion and that of Moveable Feast with you. He began “helping out” over 20 years ago and continues to carry the mission of volunteer work at Moveable Feast forward.
2) Choose from several areas in which to commit your time. Our volunteers were divided between the kitchen, garden and office. However, it rained. . .and then it poured. No worries, Tom was quite masterful at finding alternative tasks crucial to the program. Because Moveable Feast’s volunteer procedures and position descriptions are clear and well-defined, the garden group easily took on other responsibilities including, follow-up phone calls and writing Thank You letters to volunteers.
3) Tom was adept at weaving our service that day into the rich tapestry of Moveable Feast history. We also received training in required procedures, were invited (recruited) to return for upcoming events and, walked out feeling like we had made a real difference.
4) If you’re interested in “tasting” Moveable Feast’s recipe for volunteering first hand, contact Tom and add yourself; groups are welcome!

At the conclusion of our Service Day, the Volunteer Maryland Peer Leaders, Joy and I, facilitated small group discussions with the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators reflecting on what we had learned at Moveable Feast. The reflections acknowledged the importance of including flexibility, humor and structure in a successful volunteer program. Each group prepared a demonstration that symbolized their experience. The demonstrations included group spoken word, ingredients to build a volunteer cupcake (Did you wonder where I got the idea for this post?) and a family convincing reluctant teenagers to get involved in service. This opportunity gave the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators personal practice in a successful volunteer experience. Now, they are putting this process into practice as they recruit and manage volunteer programs at their Service Sites.

I Have A Secret…

I’ve started doing something that I’m willing to bet not a lot of people in the nonprofit world do.  Something that I’m not sure I should admit to.  It felt a little wrong when I started doing it; I’d switch my computer to another window whenever someone would walk by my desk.  I didn’t want to get caught.  After a while, I became more comfortable with doing it at work, but was still a bit wary about sharing.  Eventually, I admitted to my coworkers what I’ve been doing.

I’ve been reading the Harvard Business Review.

It’s a really great resource for people in the nonprofit world; it’s full of great ideas.  There’s nothing wrong with a nonprofit looking to the business world for ideas about how to be more successful.  I know that I’ve gotten some great ideas about how to be better at my job from what I’ve read in it.  Here’s some of the writers whose articles I make sure to read:

Umair Haque: His Awesomeness Manifesto is what turned me on to the Harvard Business Review.  It is, in a word, awesome.  His articles always have something in them that I can use to make myself better at what I do.

Dan Pollotta: Dan writes on change and ideas in the nonprofit sector (see, it’s not all just business.)  His article See Things as They Are-Then Change Them was the first article of his that I’d read, but that didn’t stop me from going through a lot of what he has written.  Let’s Call It the Humanity Sector is a great read for anyone who works in a nonprofit and has ever been asked, “So, what do you do?”

Just last week, we had a training with our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  In the first half, we talked about characteristics of generational volunteers.  The very next day, an article about how people view Millennial workers shows up in the Harvard Business Review.  Timely, no?

Even if you don’t read the articles, I want you to take some time to look at what people outside of your job are doing in order to be better at what they do.  You might learn a thing or two that makes you better at what you do.  We all want that, don’t we?  Don’t worry, I won’t tell.  Your secret’s safe with me.