Managing Up

Today I had the pleasure of participating in “Volunteer Engagement Toolkit: Realities of Resource Allocation,” a fantastic training given by Kate Scherr-Adams of KS Solutions.   Sponsored by the Association of Community Services and the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County, this training focused on the true cost and value of volunteer programs.

Scherr-Adams’s audience today was comprised mostly of volunteer coordinators, and the questions we pondered are perennial:  How do we build a culture of respect for volunteerism? How do we prove the value of our volunteer programs?  And how do we leverage this respect and awareness into adequate organizational resource allocation for volunteers?

Many of Scherr-Adams’s excellent suggestions were familiar to those of us from Volunteer Maryland.   She recommended, as Volunteer Maryland does, that volunteer coordinators listen to staff about what they need from volunteers and give staff an opportunity to help design volunteer opportunities.  One great idea that Scherr-Adams shared is from Ivan Scheier’s Building Staff/Volunteer Relations:  Provide staff training on working with volunteers, and then commend staff when they have done a good job in this area.

Scherr-Adams ended by emphasizing that a big part of the “managing up” that volunteer coordinators do involves demonstrating the success of the program through both numbers and words.  My fellow Volunteer Maryland member, Stephon Hutt, was able to share with the group that Volunteer Maryland has already given her all the tools she needs to measure the outcomes of the volunteer program at Center of Help.  And Scherr-Adams’ was quick to give a shout out to Volunteer Maryland regarding the training we give our members in telling stories about their volunteers.  

Today’s training was a great reminder that all of us in the volunteer management world are continuing develop an impressive array of best practices.  And if you want to know more, Mickey Gomez, Director of the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County, live tweeted the entire training.


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.

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?

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!

From Training to Reality

It’s been a few days since we finished Pre-Service Training and I’m anxious to hear how our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are doing at their Service Sites.  By the last day of training, there was a healthy mix of excitement and anxiety as they prepared to take the theories and practices of training and apply them to the realities of their Service Sites.  I have no doubt they will work wonders this year.

Why am I so confident?  Haven’t I talked before about how tough the AmeriCorps service year can be?

I’m confident because I know this group can take on the challenge.  They were fantastic to work with in training – and that is a great indicator of what’s to come.  See, training requires one to be engaged even when you’re tired or uninterested.  Training means working at a pace that might be a bit fast – or sometimes too slow – for you, because you have to adjust to the norms of the whole group.  Training participants can make or break each and every workshop and this group really made it.

They were thoughtful in discussions, thorough in assignments, and managed to maintain high energy through 11 full days of training.  This all bodes well for developing and improving volunteer programs.  Being open to others’ ideas, bringing important points to help make a decision, staying motivated even when it’s difficult – these are all characteristics of successful Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.

In short, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s Pre-Service Training.  I enjoyed it because of the energy that this class brought every day.  I was impressed and I’m sure I’ll continue to be.  No doubt they will face challenges and have moments that push them further than they thought possible.  If they can retain the passion that has fueled them so far, though, they will meet those challenges and do what they came here to do – serve those who need it the most.

Hooray for VM24!