The Art of Sustainability

Ah, June.  Kids are out of school, outdoor pools are open.  There are weddings, graduations, barbecues and trips to the beach.  And, in the AmeriWorld, there is sustainability planning!  Woo-hoo, right?

Actually, woo-hoo is right.  As the Volunteer Maryland service year draws to a close, Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and their Site Supervisors are looking toward the future.  In two short months, Volunteer Maryland Coordinators will complete their service and move on to other adventures — but what about the organizations where they have served?  Who will fill the VMC’s shoes?

Good question!  And that is a major topic of conversation at those fabulous site visits I wrote about last week.  The great news is that VMCs have been preparing the answer to this question since the beginning of the service year.  Remember the Cycle of Volunteer Program Development?  Of course you do!  Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are not simply an extra pair of hands, or two more boots on the ground.  They are developing programs tailored to the needs of the communities and organizations where they serve.  They are creating volunteer position descriptions, recruitment materials, policy and procedure manuals, orientation and training materials, and many other delightful resources that will live at their service sites long after everyone tearfully waves goodbye to the VMC.

These materials, you might say, could easily languish in a filing cabinet, share drive,  the cloud, or what have you, for an eternity without ever being referenced again, right?  Right.  But one of the many wonderful things about VMCs is that they build strong relationships with their Site Supervisors,  as well as staff and volunteers at their service site.  This means VMCs have become experts on, among other things, who is good at what, who does what, and who wants to do what.

The next two months in lives of the VMCs will be focused on a few very important things:  continued program development and coordination, lots of meaningful volunteer recognition, and putting the right materials in the right hands.    Right now, VMCs are working hard to ensure that enough people know how to do what they are doing — recruiting, screening, orientating, training, supervising and recognizing volunteers — to keep it happening after they leave.


Early in the service year, one VMC said to her peers, “We’re like Super People!!”

I couldn’t agree more.


Hello! My Name Is…

This week, about half of the class of VM25 will meet for a regional meeting hosted by VMC Casey Lowe at the beautiful Accokeek Foundation.  Between a potluck lunch and an exploration of the beautiful Piscataway Park, we will discuss an issue that comes up time and again for VMCs:  establishing new relationships with other organizations.

One of the many lovely vistas we are sure to enjoy at the Accokeek Foundation tomorrow.

One of the earliest stages of volunteer program implementation is identifying good sources of potential volunteers.  These could be local colleges, houses of worship, nonprofits, or for-profit businesses.   For some VMCs, reaching out to these organizations easy.  Their service sites have long standing relationships with them, and reaching out is like getting back in touch with an old friend.

In other cases, however, VMCs are making cold calls.   While the VMC might have good reason to believe this new partnership could solve everybody’s problems and create wonderful opportunities all around, the organization she is about to contact has never even heard of her service site.  What should she do?

There is no one answer to this question, but here are a few pieces of advice, courtesy of the wise and wonderful Volunteer Maryland Staff:

Know exactly what you want before you approach another organization — Make a very direct ask.  Write a script if you need to!

Do your homework.  Make sure you are clear on the history, mission, culture and capacity of the organization before you come calling.  Do they have any history of helping organizations such as yours?  Is there any overlap in your networks?

Determine what is in it for them.  Why should this organization encourage its members to volunteer for your service site?  Will doing so contribute to service learning requirements?

Streamline the process.  If you have all your ducks in a row before you contact, say, a school counselor, you can pitch a very simple process that you have already developed for her to direct students to your organization.  Busy people love it when most of the work has already been done for them!

Ask a staff member from your service site to come along.  Creating lasting, sustainable partnerships with organizations whose members will reliably volunteer at your site is a long, labor-intensive process. Don’t be afraid to ask a staff member to join you in this venture.  Staff involvement in the partnerships you develop greatly increases the likelihood that those partnerships will flourish long after you have completed your service year. 

Finally, don’t be afraid!  Once you’ve done the legwork and your homework — pick up the phone — great things await.

A Beautiful Friendship

About  a year ago, my daughter and I joined Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Abby Becker and several other volunteers to help with fall cleaning at The St. Francis Neighborhood Center (SFNC) in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood in Baltimore.  Though we were there for only a few hours, there was no doubt in my mind that this was an extraordinary place.

Founded in 1963 by a group of priests, seminarians and community members, SFNC is, according to its mission statement, “committed to breaking the cycles of poverty through education, inspiring self-esteem, self-improvement, and strengthening connections to the community.  SFNC strives to give people hope for a better tomorrow by providing them with the tools they need for a better today.”

SFNC provides a wide range of programs and services, including Peace Patrol WalksCommunity Mediation, and the Power Project, which is a multi-faceted youth development program.

Three years ago, SFNC began partnering with Volunteer Maryland, welcoming their first Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, Corrine Handy.  At that time, the SFNC staff had virtually no staff, and the Power Project hadn’t even started yet.  Today, SFNC has a staff of four, including Corrine and two subsequent VMCs, Sara Sullivan and Abby Becker.  That’s right — SFNC built its stellar staff and strong programming in large part by partnering with Volunteer Maryland three years in a row.

VM doesn’t deserve all the credit, of course.  SFNC staff have an amazing aptitude for building partnerships and leveraging community resources.  Reflecting on her year as a VMC, Abby Becker writes, ” I am proud to have cultivated wonderful volunteers who are reliable and dedicated to our programs in the long-term, particularly to working with The Power Project.  Each day, we now have at least one person who is truly tied to our mission and deeply connected to the young people.”

photo credit: Ran Zeimer

Now that Abby (pictured above with the rest of the SFNC staff at the Reservoir Hill Festival) is a permanent staff member, she continues to be enthusiastic about the many opportunities SFNC has to offer. “We have many fall community programs, including Free Job Readiness Workshops, Free Personal Finance Workshops, and the continued Free Community Yoga classes, all of which are open to the public.

In the Power Project, students have loved our fall enrichment activities:  printing press workshops, African Drumming and Dancing with Zebra Kids, and a special arts series in partnership with the Walters Art Museum, focusing on Black Renaissance Art.  The students’ artwork will be featured in an exhibition this weekend at the Walters Free Renaissance Family Festival.  And don’t forget:  the Reservoir Hill Festival was September 15th – our most successful yet!  It featured 10 live bands, a community resource fair, and The Gathering – Baltimore’s premier food trucks.”

Suffice it to say, SFNC is a happening place, and one of the most beautiful examples of what a long, fruitful partnership with Volunteer Maryland can yield.

Happy Birthday, Volunteer Maryland!!

Yesterday VM turned 20 years old.  It was on September 9, 1992 that the Maryland Governor’s Office on Volunteerism was notified of its selection as a National and Community Service Model program by the Commission on National and Community Service.  Just a few months later, in January 1993, the first Volunteer Maryland Coordinators began their service.

Since then, VM has worked with hundreds of nonprofits, schools, and government agencies; 612 AmeriCorps members (or pre-AmeriCorps members!) have successfully completed the program and created strong, engaging volunteer programs that serve our communities.

We’re so proud to have been a model of what was to become AmeriCorps – from our first members entering the field in 1993 to the launch of AmeriCorps at the White House in 1994 through the 2009 Service America Act, and today, as we get ready to start our 25th Class.  Names, logos, and titles have changed (did you know our first name was not Volunteer Maryland but the Ten-Four Corps?), as have focus areas and priorities within AmeriCorps; but needs within our community remain.

Twenty years after a survey of Maryland nonprofits said that volunteer management was a need within our state, we continue to rely on volunteers to help serve our citizens and communities.  Twenty years after the first 55 VM Coordinators and Associates began their service, we still hear from organizations about how much our service is needed, how important it is to develop and sustain quality volunteer programs, and how essential Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are to this work.

So, with as much energy as mustered by our first Executive Director, Ellie Falk Young, the VM staff, and those 55 Coordinators and Associates, we continue our work.  With little fanfare, we’ll start our 25th class in just a few weeks.  Across Maryland, they will enable their Service Sites to better serve their clients and communities – and our team of three staff and two Peer Leaders will continue to support them.  Our multiplier model remains the same and continues to thrive – this year, a small support team and 30 Volunteer Maryland Coordinators Service Sites will engage 5,000 volunteers in service to up to 60,000 community members in need.  Just as importantly, the service this year will continue to strengthen our communities, leaving programs in place that will engage volunteers and better serve communities for years to come.

With a wonderful mix of excitement and pride, we say Happy Birthday to Volunteer Maryland!  Happy birthday to all of the VM Coordinators, Associates, Regional Coordinators, Peer Leaders, VISTA members, Service Sites, and Host Sites that have been part of the last 20 years!  And, as long as we’re needed, here’s to another 20!

Traveling on Retention Road

Over the past couple of weeks (and for the next few), I’ve been out on site visits meeting with organizations that submitted applications to be Service Sites in the upcoming year (Class 25!).  It’s so interesting to learn about new organizations; I really enjoy this piece of our work.  We have several organizations this year that are looking to start a volunteer program from scratch, while others are looking to improve their volunteer program structures and recruit more volunteers.

One thing that comes up a lot during these conversations is the idea of volunteer retention.  I’m asked this question a lot: How do we retain our volunteers?

Unlike volunteer position descriptions or policies or recruitment materials, you can’t sit down and spend time on “retention.”  Retention comes from getting all of the other elements in place and, even more importantly, keeping them in place.  Retention comes from putting the right volunteer in the right position.  Retention comes from relationships between staff and volunteers and clients.  Retention is not something that can be checked off a list; rather, retention requires an ongoing effort to engage volunteers effectively.

Partner with us and have a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator create your volunteer program?  Perfect.  That’s right in line with what we do.  Have the VMC put all your volunteer program structures in place and recruit like crazy and plan ongoing, year-round volunteer recognition.  Awesome.  That’s the perfect VMC position.  Ask the VMC to work on retention?  Hmmm.

See, a VMC can definitely retain volunteers during the course of the term of service.  But what happens next?  If there’s not a plan in place to maintain those efforts, then retention falls off.  Volunteer Maryland – and AmeriCorps in general – is a short-term solution.  AmeriCorps members come in with crazy amounts of energy and passion and get more done in 10-12 months than often seems possible.  Then they leave – and that’s exactly how it should happen.  Let them infuse your organization with energy and infrastructure and, throughout that term of service, work together to figure out how you’re going to maintain it.  Plan from the beginning.  Use this opportunity every way you can.

Do that, my friends, and you’re on Retention Road!

Evaluation and Fund raising and Relationships, Oh my!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Finger Has a Heartbeat”

Ever since “Elf” was released in 2003, it has been one of my favorite holiday movies!  Will Ferrell plays the character Buddy, and in one scene, he holds a cotton ball to his finger after receiving a needle prick and states, “My finger has a heartbeat.”  Makes me smile every time.  As much as I would like to rant about how entertaining the movie “Elf” is, that will not be the premise of this post.  Try not to get too teary eyed :). I reference “Elf” because during In-Service Training on Wednesday, the guest speaker, Mickey Gomez from the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County, said something that stuck in my mind.  Mickey encouraged the audience of AmeriCorps members and VM staff to “keep our finger on the pulse of what is going on.”  As Maureen mentioned in an earlier post this week, Mickey’s presentation focused on the trends of modern technology and how nonprofit organizations can and should appropriately capitalize on them.  The “pulse” Mickey spoke about was that of the progression and liveliness of technology, but I think this pulse concept can be applied to many aspects of the nonprofit sector, including volunteer programs.

A goal for many of the Service Sites we have partnered with this year is sustainability.  Creating a system, various materials, and the man-power for a sustainable program is arguably the most difficult step to complete  in the Cycle of Program Development.  Many nonprofits, including Service Sites, operate with a small staff wearing many hats.  The Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs) assist the nonprofits with the development of volunteer programs; however, their time at each of the Service Sites is limited to ten months.  Some VMCs may choose to continue a second year, but for VM24 the service year does end on July 31, 2012. At which time, a transition of responsibilities from the VMC to the nonprofit officially takes place.

What is sustainability?  Sustainability answers the overall question, “How will the volunteer program survive after the service year?”  In order for nonprofits to retain volunteers, they have to keep their finger on the pulse of service and volunteerism in their organizations.  This can include, constant communication with the volunteers, utilizing new and popular outlets for recruitment, making sure previous and new volunteers are properly motivated (i.e. matching them with innovative volunteer opportunities) and recognized for their service, and accurate reporting and record keeping of service hours and participants. Sustainability can be daunting for the nonprofit sector, but it can be done!  In my next post I will review the four basic sustainability strategies Volunteer Maryland recommends.

In a way we should be like Buddy and realize that our “finger” has a heartbeat and work to not let that pulse fade.

Always Learning!

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

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

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

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

VM24 Joint Training Day in September 2011

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

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

Welcome to the newest AmeriCorps Alums!

By now you know that tomorrow is the last day of our service year for VM23.  It’s an exciting time; we’ve seen the results of their service and are ready to celebrate tomorrow with our Class Finale at Carroll Community College!  On Wednesday, the office will be a quieter and the VM staff will be a bit tired as we close the door on the year and truly shift gears to the next class.

Every class is so different.  This year’s class was somewhat younger than our average and a lot quieter.  They are a highly educated group and several of them are going on to graduate school in just a few weeks.  Several others have been hired at their Service Sites, while others are still looking for employment.  We all know that this is an incredibly challenging time to be looking for work.  I wish them all well – and I know they are significantly stronger candidates now than when they started our program in September.

One of the interesting things about our work is hearing from our alumni in the years after their service and I look forward to seeing how Class 23 gets on.  We’ve just completed our annual alumni and site surveys; we follow up with both for three years after our partnership year.  This year showed us that some alumni are looking for work (whether employed or not), many remain involved in service (88 percent), and quite a few (63 percent) are still involved with their VM Service Site in some capacity.

For those still involved in their Service Sites, they have the opportunity to see their work continued.  For others, they should be pleased to know that 96 percent of responding sites reported that they have sustained or improved their ability to manage, recruit, and utilize volunteers effectively.

Being a Volunteer Maryland AmeriCorps member is not easy.  Making sustainable change is a huge challenge.  We’re extremely proud of the 29 VM Coordinators and two Regional Coordinators that will soon be successful graduates of Class 23.  I know all of us at VM look forward to following up with them, and their Service Sites, over the next three years.  I look forward to hearing about their ongoing service activities and the work they accomplish in their careers and school.  I also look forward to sharing the impact that this year of service will continue to have on their Service Sites and in communities throughout Maryland.

And so, by the end of the day tomorrow, I’ll have said my goodbyes to Class 23.  I don’t know what the future holds for them or for our Class 24.  I can say confidently that I’m looking forward to both.

Congratulations, VM23!

International Volunteer Managers Day

What kind of a person enables volunteers to meet serious community needs like homelessness, environmental disasters, hunger, illiteracy, and more? Volunteer Coordinators!  That’s why I’m so excited for the upcoming International Volunteer Managers Day on November 5!

As stated on the International Volunteer Managers Day web site, “volunteering does not succeed in a vacuum. Behind this army of volunteers lies an equally dedicated group of individuals and agencies who are responsible for the coordination, support, training, administration and recruitment of the world’s volunteers – skilled professionals who are adept at taking singular passion and turning it into effective action.”  It’s a wonderful thing to know that this service is recognized by nonprofit organizations, cities, states, and countries throughout the world.

In Maryland in 1989 – 10 years before the founding of International Volunteer Managers Day – Governor William Donald Schaefer commissioned studies to identify the best approach for leveraging additional volunteers in Maryland communities.  Not surprisingly, the research findings showed that nonprofits sorely needed volunteer help to serve their clients and, overwhelmingly, citizens wished to serve in their local communities.  At about the same time, the Commission on National and Community Service began awarding grants to fund demonstration programs as part of the National and Community Service Act of 1990.  As a result of both of these efforts, Volunteer Maryland was born in 1992 as a volunteer generator program.

Since then, 557 AmeriCorps members, serving as Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, have created and improved volunteer programs at nonprofits throughout our state – programs that have sustained themselves and continued to serve their communities long after the AmeriCorps service year.  That is what’s amazing about Volunteer Coordinators: it’s not just about recruiting volunteers; it’s about creating sustainable programs, recruiting the right volunteers for the right positions, and retaining great people to meet serious needs.

There’s been such a push for increasing volunteerism over the last 20 years – and I’m all for that push.  But if we really want to see the impact of volunteers, then we need to create lasting programs to support their efforts.  International Volunteer Managers Day recognizes that it takes a certain kind of person, one with incredible skills, knowledge, and abilities, to make that happen.

So please join me on November 5 in recognizing the incredible service provided by Volunteer Coordinators and Volunteer Managers.  Because of them, millions of volunteers are able to turn their passion into effective action.