Tales from the Road

As the Program Manager of Volunteer Maryland, I feel so lucky to get to work with an incredible group of individuals.  Our AmeriCorps members, better known as Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs), work tirelessly to support and refine volunteer programs at nonprofit organizations across Maryland.  With the amazing guidance from their designated supervisor (a.k.a. their Site Supervisor), wonderful things happen in less than a year of partnership.

I get to learn more about these efforts when I visit each of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and Site Supervisors each fall/winter.  For the past two and a half months, I have engaged in what we like to call our “site visit season.”  This is a very educational experience in which I travel with a member of our Support Team to meet with each of our 30 partnership sites.  This is one of my favorite parts of my role, as I get a first-hand glimpse of where our AmeriCorps members are serving, as well as gain the opportunity to reflect and learn more about their service.

The knowledge and stories from the site visits have been so insightful and inspiring. Listening to such positive progress is an important reminder of the great things Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are able to accomplish in such a short period of time. I’d like to share with you a few reflections from the site visits that exhibit the impact of our AmeriCorps members.

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators research and implement smart tools that refine the process of volunteer management.

For example, Brinley, VMC at Court Appointed Special Advocates of Washington County, recently instituted a new tracking tool called OurVolts.  OurVolts can be used as an app on a mobile phone, making the process of reporting hours convenient and accessible for volunteers. This process will not only be easy for the volunteers, but help the organization gain an accurate understanding of how many hours their volunteers will serve.  As a result, this data will also be useful for reporting and recognition purposes.

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators understand the importance of recognizing volunteers.

The effort to celebrate the hard work of volunteers has a lasting impact on the quality of the volunteer experience.  An example of such recognition occurs in Baltimore where Montressa develops a regular “Volunteer of the Month” spotlight to recognize outstanding volunteers who serve at the St. Francis Neighborhood Center.  Also, Jessica, the VMC for the Frederick County Department of Aging’s Meals on Wheels program, is developing ongoing recognition events, and will soon be hosting a celebration titled “We Love Our Volunteers” (cleverly tying into Valentine’s Day!).

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators build meaningful connections.

This occurs on a such a significant and multi-faceted level.  Bintou, who serves at Moveable Feast, facilitates orientations for volunteers before they assist with preparation and packaging of nutritious food that will go to individuals who are fighting severe illnesses.  Through her orientation, Bintou connects volunteers with the mission and history of the volunteer program, making the experience so much more effective and rich for all involved.  Over at Education Based Latino Outreach, Johana builds connections with staff through weekly meetings, during which they discuss the progress of volunteers and additional resources to support volunteers.  Through relationship building, the staff can work together more cohesively to best support and supervise volunteers.

While the next piece of information did not necessarily derive from the site visits, it would be a shame to not include it!

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators recruit and manage qualified volunteers as a result of their strategic outreach methods.  I’m proud to share that since October 2014, this group has recruited nearly 900 volunteers and helped manage over 4000 volunteers.  Collectively these 4000+ volunteers have served over 9,000 Marylanders.  Wow!

This is just a snapshot of some of the great work that’s being done by the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators in Class 27, and so much more is yet to come this year!

Reyna and Johana (EBLO)
Reyna (Site Supervisor) and Johana (Volunteer Maryland Coordinator) are a great team at Education Based Latino Outreach.
A group pose during a site visit with Partners In Care. Each person in the photo is or has been an AmeriCorps member with Volunteer Maryland!

It’s the People

The following is a guest post from VM’s Outreach Manager, Patrice Beverly.

Patrice (in the middle) surrounded by people - AmeriCorps members and staff of Volunteer Maryland
Patrice (in the middle) surrounded by people – AmeriCorps members and staff of Volunteer Maryland

Ever think about why you do what you do?  If you are like me, this thought wanders into my mind as I am stuck in traffic on my commute into Baltimore, or during long meetings, or when the gate to my parking lot will not go up after multiple swipes of my card.  I know, not really deep problems, but these are just the things that can derail your passion for what you do.

As a culture, we are a tad obsessed with what we are doing, and why we are doing it.  Hello Facebook.  We search for books, blogs, and websites that will help us validate our choices or help us to be bold and strike out on new adventures.  Each day we are faced with more information about how what we are doing is either helping us live longer or ruining our health.  But in all of this, it never gets at the heart of why I do what I do; and then it came to me.

I am a self disclosed affiliator.  An affiliator, according to Dr. David McClelland’s theory on motivations, focuses on relationship with others, and enjoys team work and collaboration.  We also enjoy Pina Coladas, and getting caught in the rain, but that is for another post.  What this means to me is people motivate me in my life, and therefore in my work.  Volunteer Maryland talks a good bit about motivation.  So much so it is a part of training for the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  So this got me thinking about the next group of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.

Currently, we are interviewing for this next group of AmeriCorps members, and as you can imagine, that motivation questions does pop up.  This is a tough question as it gets to the heart of why you want to do this.  I have heard many different responses to this question, but at the heart is always the need to make a difference.  To help.  To push the needle just a bit forward and to feel satisfied in doing so.  Not an easy task.  But here is the thing, this is a pretty broad motivation that will be narrowed and defined during the course of an AmeriCorps service term.  Maybe even more than once.  It really is amazing that each year Volunteer Maryland is flooded with applications from people who are motivated by a simple yet so complex desire: to see change.  Changes in communities, and people, and volunteer programs, and that is pretty cool stuff.  This blog is full of stories about just regular people who get up each morning motivated by making a difference.  Maybe you would like to add your story to this difference making effort.  There really is no time like right now to check in with your own motivation, and see if it is that you want to make things a little better.  If it is, I would love to hear from you.  Remember, I am motivated by people, and you are just the kind of person I am looking for.

Describe It to Me

“We need volunteers!”   Who hasn’t heard that refrain before?  Just about every organization out there could use some help.  But a general call for volunteers tell us very little.  What will the volunteer do?  How does that task relate to the mission of the organization?  What community need will the volunteer meet?  How?  What are the requirements of the position — is there a big time commitment?  Is prior experience necessary?   What are the benefits of the position?  Sure, volunteers don’t get paid, but there is plenty they can get out of it:  professional experience, an opportunity to socialize with others, and the satisfaction of addressing a compelling need, just to name a few.

A good position description begins with a great title.  Ironically, volunteer positions should not have the word “volunteer” in the title.  For example, when people volunteer at Paul’s Place, a nonprofit that serves the community in Pigtown and Washington Village in Baltimore, they have the opportunity to help give clothing to guests.  Rather than fall back on boring descriptions of clothing distribution and a clothing bank, Paul’s Place recruits “Personal Shoppers” and “Organizing Pros”  to help guests choose items from a room that is set up like a regular clothing store.  

These fantastic job titles already do a lot of the work when it comes to explaining the purpose and requirements of the position.  The rest of the description is really just an elaboration.  In the case of Personal Shoppers at Paul’s Place, it looks like this:

Purpose: Provide personal support and foster a sense of dignity to guests while choosing outfits.

Description of Duties: Assist guests, one-on-one, with picking out clothing in the department store designed shopping room.

Qualifications: Interest in shopping and picking out matching outfits with a cheerful and caring attitude.

Benefits:  Offers hands-on experience with one of the community needs AmeriCorps addresses.  allows participants to to connect with other volunteers, and learn about poverty and its effect on a neighborhood. 

A strong volunteer position description attracts the best volunteers and allows those who are not a good fit to self-screen.  It is also a great marketing tool, in that it does a great job explaining the mission of an organization.  

So the next time you want to sell people on volunteering for you, remember:  Describe it to them.  

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?

Thanksgiving – A Lesson in Outsourcing

The following is a guest post from VM’s Outreach Manager, Patrice Beverly.

Today is a rather sad day.  It is the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers.  Sure the stuffing is not as moist as it was week ago, and the mashed potatoes may have lost a bit of their softness, but the taste is undeniably Thanksgiving.  As I scrap the container for the last few morsels, I started thinking about the amount of coordination that went into this food fete.  I come from a big family, so long ago we abandoned the one person does all mentality of Thanksgiving.  It has become a symphony of outsourcing.  Each year members of my family tackle the questions of how to feed about 30 – 40 people, or as we call it, a small intimate gathering.  I am a pretty good pie maker, and am always game for a side dish or two.  My nephew makes great mashed potatoes.  My niece makes a mean green bean casserole with jalapeño peppers as an awesome pick-me-up to an otherwise mushy concoction.  I realize this coordinated effort is not new as many a Thanksgiving table is set with contributions from all that attend.  But this year it got me thinking about outsourcing and Volunteer Maryland.

I am not great at cooking a turkey.  As a matter of fact, on one of my first attempts, a dish rag that I was using made its way into the cavity of the old bird, and was baked in with the stuffing.  Dish rag stuffing is still a favorite story in my family.  So I go to the experts here.  I want quality, and know that within my reach are several experts in preparing turkey. So why struggle with doing something I am not sure of, and will come away with so-so results?  This is where I see Volunteer Maryland.  Not in the turkey prep role, but in providing real solutions to volunteer program problems.  See, there are so many variables when looking at volunteer program development, it can bring on that feeling of an overwhelmed host trying to prepare the perfect feast.  Preparation, timing and execution not only are the keys in the kitchen, but the keys to volunteer programs as well, and Volunteer Maryland can take them all on.  With 20 years working in the volunteer program development test kitchen, we got this down and continue to find better, more effective ways of creating, building and sustaining volunteer programs.  It really is a no brainer.  So let’s talk turkey, I mean volunteer program development.  Join Volunteer Maryland for a 45 minute webinar detailing what we provide.  More information is on Volunteer Maryland’s web site.  You don’t even need to bring anything, and I promise you will leave full of information and food for thought.

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.

October = Graduation

The following is a guest post from VM’s Outreach Manager, Patrice Beverly.

Each fall, as the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators head to their Service Sites, I am filled with elation and dread.  Elation that a new group of fresh faced, getting-things-done-peeps roll onto the streets of cities, towns, and burbs in our little State.  It is an exciting time as Volunteer Maryland launches into our twentieth year and our twenty-fifth group of coordinators, but dread as it means I need to begin again.  As soon as one group (or class, as we call them) launches, my task is to begin the process of finding the next group of both sites and Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  In a way it is so freeing.  The idea that anything is possible, and being ready to go to something new, brings me back to that feeling you have at graduation.  The celebration of a hard fought accomplishment, but knowing next day would bring a new, uncharted reality.  I was in a post-graduation funk without the benefit of walking across a stage, carrying a diploma that certifies my accomplishment, or a party full of celebration for me.  I am not looking for a party, and – let’s be honest – those robes are not flattering on anyone, but the launch that ceremony offers seemed to be lacking.  Then I remembered the thing that most graduates forget: the commencement speech.  The 25-minute or so impartment of wisdom given at a time when all you want to do is get going, and have a few more laughs with the people that helped shape this time.  I needed that wisdom.

October is great for apple picking, Halloween, and all things pumpkin, but graduations are pretty rare, so I took to the Internet for wisdom.  I watched about 20 different speeches over about seven days.  There were the heartfelt ones filled with hope for the future.  There were the lessons learned ones with an underlying message that failure is learning.  There were ones with the message of you are the best and brightest and the world is waiting for you to shine.  Some were filled with humor and a few were rather boring or awkward.  (Those made me feel a tad antsy in my seat as if I felt I wanted to look into the bleachers to find my family.)  But, within each, I found a nugget of wisdom or inspiration that began to move me from dread to “let’s go.”  Good reminders in being present in moments, to not fear failure, and knowing that there are good people who stand with you and are ready to offer help.  Believing in what you do in life.  Never stop learning.  Being generous with our time and giving back to our community.  All needed at this time of starting over.

So I move my tassel and toss my cap for the past 12 months of seeking, negotiating, and launching Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, and take all of this wisdom with me as Volunteer Maryland heads into its twentieth year and I into my eleventh recruitment season.  Congratulations class of 2012 outreach, and welcome class of 2013.

Let’s Talk About You

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

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

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

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

VM25 & Blue Water Baltimore
VM25 & Paul’s Place

Are you part of our next class?

Seriously, what in the world happened to June?  It was just a minute ago that I was blogging from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service and now, here I am, looking July straight in the face.  Remember how summers as a kid went on forever and ever?  I’m longing for a bit of that right now!

Summer is an interesting time at Volunteer Maryland.  It’s the time of year when we truly live in two worlds.  Our current AmeriCorps members continue to serve at the sites, while we plan for finales and summer celebrations.  All the while, potential AmeriCorps members are coming in and out of our office as they are interviewed for Volunteer Maryland Coordinator positions.  It’s always a bittersweet time, as we plan our goodbyes at the same time we start saying hellos.

On June 16, we formally launched into the recruitment season (though we’ve been running ads and attending career fairs since the Spring) with our new Site Supervisor Orientation.  After months of reviewing applications and negotiating partnerships, we have a pretty good sense  our partner sites for the upcoming year.  The Site Supervisor Orientation gives us a few hours to look at the VM program model, clarify roles in the partnership, clarify expectations, and prepare for recruitment, selection, and a VM service year.  It really is a fun day, as it’s just all about potential.

On this day, we envision the perfect Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  We dream about the impact they will have within organizations and the impact their volunteers will have on our clients and communities.  It’s a day for dreaming – and a day for the realities of planning to reach the dream.

See, finding the right Volunteer Maryland Coordinator is no easy feat, especially when we receive well over 300 applications for just 30 open positions.  We see incredibly qualified applicants, with all levels of experience and education.  We interview applicants who are looking for professional development opportunities and others who are looking to find their passion in service.  Our job is to make sure the applicants are the right fit for VM, for the Service Sites, and for the AmeriCorps experience.  And, of course, all of that needs to be a good fit for the goals of the applicant.

See, if the person isn’t the right fit, we don’t get to replace them.  If the placement doesn’t work out, then everyone loses.  We don’t get to refill the position with another candidate and the person doesn’t get the advantages, both tangible and not, that come with completing an AmeriCorps year with VM.  Being a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator is not a “job;” it’s a true service commitment.  And so our recruitment, screening, and matching process has to vet for that.

VMCs hold words: persistant, focused, take initiative, engagement, collaborative, determined, motivated
Current Volunteer Maryland Coordinators show what it takes to be successful.

So we’re on the hunt for the right people.  We’re searching for individuals who are highly qualified and extremely passionate.  We’re looking for candidates who want to be part of the Volunteer Maryland community and the AmeriCorps network.  We’re looking for people who are interested in learning, willing to sacrifice, and able to give of themselves for the benefit of others.  We are looking for Volunteer Maryland’s 24th class of change agents.

Think you’re one of them?  Then it’s time to start your application.  We can’t wait to meet you!