Volunteer Maryland And The Impact Narrative

As a Volunteer Maryland member and alum, I have frequent opportunities to interact with my fellow alums.  This year, two amazing Volunteer Maryland alums, Nicki Fiocco and Marisa Olszewski, graciously spoke at VM25 regional meetings.  Nicki is the Volunteer and Community Outreach Coordinator at Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks, and she was a member of VM24 who served at Quiet Waters Park.  Marisa is currently balances work at the Robinson Nature Center with graduate school, and she served as VMC at the Dundalk Renaissance Corporation as a member of VM21 and VM22.

Marisa and Nicki both talked a lot about the ways their Volunteer Maryland experience equipped them for professional success, and as they did, one common theme emerged:  Volunteer Maryland had taught them how to demonstrate the impact of their work.  They both knew the importance of being able to tell a good story about a successful project or program, and the people whose lives were changed for the better because of it.  They both also knew that these stories need to be complemented by cold hard numbers. How many volunteers were recruited? How many hours did they serve? How many clients did they serve? How was impact on the clients measured? What were the outcomes?

Being able to tell compelling, empirically supported stories about impact is crucial because, as we all know, funding is scarce, and the spoils go to those who can show that their work has made a difference.

Throughout the service year, Volunteer Maryland requires reporting of quantitative data accompanied by stories about volunteers, clients and the service experience. As such, VM alums are very skilled when it comes to measuring the impact of their work, and they are good at talking about it, too.  In Nicki’s case, she was able to use her impact data and narrative to convince her current employer to create a position for her. And now that she is in that position, she uses the tools and skills she got from VM to continue documenting her service and its benefit to her employer and to the community.

I also just recently had the pleasure of reading narratives written by two of my VM24 classmates, Donté Taylor and Faith Savill,  praising the work of volunteers in their current organizations. Full of vivid examples and impressive data, these narratives left no doubt in the reader’s mind that these volunteers were doing extraordinary work.

Making a difference and being able to show that I’ve made a difference?  Just another perk of being a VM alum.


The CHEARful city of Greenbelt

Kelly MacBride-Gill, Kristen Wharton and some amazing kale at one of the Three Sisters Gardens in Greenbelt
Kelly MacBride-Gill, Kristen Wharton and some amazing kale at one of the Three Sisters Demonstration Gardens in Greenbelt20130712_140431

The end of the service year is an especially exciting time at Volunteer Maryland because we get to look back in wonder at the amazing accomplishments of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators. One VMC who has done extraordinary work is Kristen Wharton, who has served at the Chesapeake Arts and Research Society (CHEARS) in partnership with the Greenbelt Public Works Department. As the name indicates, CHEARS has a broad, wide-ranging mission, which is “dedicated to the  health of all who share the Chesapeake watershed environment.”  Kristen has supported CHEARS work in myriad ways, one of which is developing and sustaining a volunteer program for the Three Sisters Demonstration Gardens.

Last Friday, after our final regional meeting (sad face), Kelly MacBride-Gill and I had the privilege of touring two of these gardens with Kristen (the deluge kept us from seeing the third — so, more sad face).  What we did see was remarkable. CHEARS partnered with the Greenbelt Community Foundation back in 2010 to establish three demonstration gardens in each of the three major geographic areas of Greenbelt (center, east and west). According to CHEARS, “the Gardens continue to offer fun, outdoor spaces that demonstrate sustainable growing practices and healthy food options for a healthier watershed. Aided by permaculture principles, we can significantly reduce urban and suburban run off by changing our dominant lawn-based monoculture form of landscaping.”

That is pretty much a very intelligent way of saying that these gardens are WAY COOL.  Each one has its own vibe, but all have a section in which corn, beans, and squash are grown together, and each features a lovely combintation stunning sunflowers, beautiful perennials and annuals, as well as an array of vegetables, fruits, nuts and herbs. Kristen’s work has ensured that there is and will continue to be a steady stream of community volunteers to maintain these gardens and support the educational and recreational programs that take place in them.

Way to Kristen, Greenbelt, CHEARS and Volunteer Maryland!

Three Sisters Demonstration Gardens, Greenbelt
Three Sisters Demonstration Gardens, Greenbelt
Companion plants:  squash, beans and corn
Companion plants: squash, beans and corn

Telling the AmeriCorps Story

Lately, I’ve been working at a number of career fairs.  These career fairs are a time for Volunteer Maryland to recruit not only for the coming Class 26, but potentially for classes years from now.  What a career fair means for me as a representative is a chance to reach out to the community, to educate people on a world that AmeriCorps is working towards, and to try and help them figure out a part they can play in that.  And whether their part is to start a charity, volunteer a couple hours a week at the pound, to tell a niece or nephew about our organization, or just go home thinking about how they can improve their little slice of the world, that’s fine by me.

The career fairs aren’t just about asking for jobs or offering jobs – a career fair is a chance to give people whole new ideas of where they might end up, or what they might want to explore.  Any number of the attendees of these fairs have never heard of AmeriCorps and Volunteer Maryland before, making the fairs the perfect place to start educating.  We talk about what Volunteer Maryland exists to do, its history, and their possible place in it.  We explain what AmeriCorps is, all the places it ranges and community needs it addresses.  It might take me several minutes to tell a student everything they need to know.  Hopefully at the very least, I’ve exposed them to the idea of working for a non-profit, or at least inspired them to look into how they can volunteer for something they care about.

All of this talking is for a bigger purpose than just recruiting.  Whether that person I just talked the ear off of decides to apply this year or not, they now have an invitation to learn more about the AmeriCorps world with them.  As that idea incubates, it might just grow into a relationship with us and with the AmeriCorps world.

For me, this fits in neatly with the mission of AmeriCorps Week.  This approaching week is a time for those who have or are taking part in AmeriCorps to educate.  We will be sharing our stories and explaining what a year of service means to us.  My elevator speech will become a multi-layered story- talking about service broadly across the nation as well as my own experience this year with Volunteer Maryland.

All of us here at Volunteer Maryland will be sharing our stories this coming week in the hope of informing and inspiring.  Check in on us every day to hear about our adventures and achievements in AmeriCorps!

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?

In-Kind Fever

Here at Volunteer Maryland, we love in-kind donation success stories.   Anyone who as ever solicited in-kind donations knows that 1) It can sometimes be awkward and intimidating to ask businesses for free stuff, and 2) it feels amazing to get free stuff!

We are so passionate about in-kind donations at Volunteer Maryland that our Support Team provides thorough training on how to do it.  We cover everything from designing the ask, to researching good businesses to approach, to how to give our donors lots of publicity, and how to thank them in a way that makes them feel truly appreciated and that maintains an excellent partnership.


Ellen Dahill-Brown, VMC at CALM Frederick
Ellen Dahill-Brown, VMC at CALM Frederick


One member of Volunteer Maryland Class 25 who has done a brilliant job of soliciting said free stuff is Ellen Dahill-Brown.  Ellen is VMC at CALM Frederick, which is a conflict mediation center.   Among her many other responsibilities, Ellen is responsible for making sure volunteer mediators are fed throughout long training days, which is a daunting task indeed.  The results of her hard work?  See for yourself!  When I asked Ellen to list the donations she received for the most recent training at CALM, she wrote:

“Starbucks:  1st day and 3rd day travel containers of coffee, enough for 20 people.  Cups, cream, and sugar for the coffee.

Dunkin Donuts:  1st and 3rd day 3 dozen donuts each day.

Wegmans:  $50 gift card, used to buy a deli tray.

Weis:  $32.50 gift card, used to buy a deli tray.

Giant:  $20 gift card, used to buy bananas, oatmeal, ice and creamer.”

About her process, Ellen writes

“For the most part, the people I requested donations from don’t have online forms (other than Wegmans).  So my strategy was to cold call the organizations.  I asked them what they would need from me to even proceed with an ask.  When I called Dunkin Donuts they didn’t let me finish my question before they said it wouldn’t be a problem for them to donate 3 dozen donuts.  They said that a letter would help but that it wasn’t necessary.

The majority of the organizations require a request letter on the organization’s letterhead.  Some of the organizations want proof of nonprofit status.  Making the initial contact, and letting them know that I’m trying to make their life as easy as possible, has really opened the door for relationship building.”

So there you have it.  Don’t be afraid to approach local businesses (whether truly local or part of a chain) with clear information about what you need and your wish to make things as easy as possible for them.  Congratulations to Ellen and to all the VMCs who are supporting the work of their organizations and their volunteers by bringing in all these important donations, and thanks to all the businesses who so freely donate to local nonprofits.

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. . .

A Little Something New

Nearly a year ago, we started this blog. It had been a long time coming and it was an exciting launch. Since then, we’ve featured posts on many different subjects relevant to the nonprofit sector and, in particular, to those in volunteer management and the AmeriCorps world. When we launched, I hoped that you’d get some inspiration from hearing the stories of our writers; what I found is how inspired I was to read them, as well as how much new information I received – and hope you have, too. Now I’m excited to tell you about a new development in our blog, the introduction of guest bloggers.

One of the purposes of our blog is to show the experience of AmeriCorps members serving with VM. You already hear from Megan and Corrine (as well as all of our bloggers from our previous service year), and now we’re going deeper into the field and getting the first-person perspective. Because, while I’d love to tell their stories, I’m no Andy Goodman.

As Corrine and Megan continue to share their insights as Regional Coordinators, I hope you enjoy the additions of our guest bloggers. Stay tuned – they will debut before the month is up!

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.