A Culture of Volunteerism

What does a culture of volunteerism mean to you?  It looks a little intimidating on first sight, not a phrase that I would use in the course of an average day.  So why am I writing about it?  At this month’s training, our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and their Site Supervisors took part in roundtable discussions, with one of the topics being “Developing an Organizational Culture of Volunteerism”.

Joining on that conversation was a great opportunity to learn what that phrase meant in practice, and to hear how important it is to an organization successfully making volunteers a part of the team.  We’ve seen that a nonprofit can flourish when it utilizes volunteers as a full part of an organization’s work.  So what impediments prevent that seemly natural partnership from taking root?

Some of the things that came up in discussion were: getting the needed infrastructure in place, and resistance to change.

Recruiting and training volunteers is a scary idea for any time-strapped staff member.  One suggestion is to reframe the use of volunteers: show the value of that investment.  Would you turn down the offer of a grant?  No, you would find a way to make it happen.  Volunteers are worth that consideration too!

One of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinator described her strategy of sitting down with each staff member to assess what their volunteer needs are.  She then builds orientations and training specialized for each volunteer need.  But sometimes, if may be even better for the staff members to create those volunteer positions themselves.  They know what they need better than anyone else, and by creating a volunteer position now can get a volunteer with exactly the skills they need.

Another Volunteer Maryland Coordinator said that her service site’s staff meeting, she would use her time to speak to highlight one exceptional volunteer that month, but  also a staff member who had a done a great job of embodying the welcoming spirit and volunteer-employee partnership.  This also allowed her to reward the staff member for their great work, while also encourage a change in thinking.

I’m glad that I joined this discussion of volunteerism – it reinforced that nonprofit organizations can gain from a volunteer-friendly environment.  Training staff (and maybe even yourself!) to treat volunteers as a part of the organization, and not just ancillary elements, is key to successfully integrating volunteers and creating a new culture.  All of the pieces need to be working together to achieve the best results.  What techniques have you been using to create a culture of volunteerism?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A new wave of volunteer talent is building. Some nonprofit leaders will take advantage of this opportunity and exponentially grow their impact; the rest will be left behind trying to make do the old way. 


Appreciating Volunteers

Most of my work is behind the scenes, with a focus on the overall structure of a volunteer program.  But National Volunteer Week is the time to focus on not the programs or the clients, but the volunteers.  What amazing work are they doing?  What makes the experience worthwhile to them?

Volunteer Maryland encourages us to build time into our weekly schedule to do community service, and I love the insights that this allows me.  This week I got to experienced all the perks of being a volunteer with the Maryland SPCA during National Volunteer Week.  As one of the wonderful tokens of appreciation, each volunteer received a letter of thanks from Senator Barbara Mikulski.  There was a line in there that just stuck with me:

When Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about America, he said “America is great because she is good.”  He noticed the spirit of of volunteerism, neighbor-helping-neighbor, habits of the heart that bred habits of humanity

When we celebrate volunteers, we should not only be celebrating the wonderful work that they accomplish, but also celebrating how volunteers contribute to building “habits of humanity”.

As we come to conclusion of National Volunteer Week, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the importance of volunteers, and to thank everyone for their hard work. Without volunteers, all our ideas would remain just that – ideas. It’s their passion, enthusiasm, and devotion to sharing their good fortune with others that allows us to make our ideas into reality and bring goodness to the world around us.

America is great, because she is good. Her people are caring, giving individuals. And we should make sure they know just how much we appreciate that.


With abject apologies to T.S. Eliot, I would have to observe that April is the busiest month.  It’s National Minority Health Month,  National Fair Housing Month, and National Poetry Month.  April 3 was Maryland’s Arbor Day, April 15 was Patriot’s Day, and April 22 is Earth Day


Because we  partner with a wide range of amazing organizations, all of these celebrations are close to our hearts here at Volunteer Maryland.  But in the midst of all these celebrations, two stand out to us:  National Volunteer Month and National Volunteer Week.

In particular, National Volunteer Week, which is April 21 – April 27, is a special time for Volunteer Maryland Coordinators as they find meaningful ways to let their volunteers know how much they are appreciated.  Whether it is a posh gala, a simple potluck, a thoughtful gift, a heartfelt note or a verbal thank you, it means the world to volunteers to be acknowledged.

And they should be acknowledged!  The current estimated value of an hour of a volunteer’s time is $22.14.  Volunteer Maryland, our partner organizations and the many communities they serve could not function without this gift of time.

Whether you observe National Volunteer Week by volunteering, thanking a volunteer or learning more about volunteer opportunities, we here at Volunteer Maryland hope you truly enjoy your celebration of service… and minority health… and the planet… and trees… and fair housing… and…

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.

Learning Through My Travels

Through all of the site visits that Volunteer Maryland makes around the state, we get to see a lot of great ideas in practice, like Mosaic Community Center featuring the artwork of their clients throughout the office, or the Dundalk Renaissance Corporation’s multi-pronged approach to engaging their community.  On a recent visit to Shepherd’s Clinic in Baltimore, I was able to see a medical center that provides its care using almost exclusively volunteers.  With so many volunteers playing a role in Shepherd Clinic’s work, I wondered how they make sure everyone felt recognized and appreciated.

Shepherd mosaic

As I soon learned, some of the methods they use were quite eye-catching.  As we toured the clinic, we walked by a beautiful mosaic that combined a timeline of Shepherd Clinic’s history and testament to the many volunteers that have given their time over the years.  I could imagine as a volunteer walking through the hall, this would give me a sense of history and belonging.

We also saw an interesting way of combining name tag storage with learning each others name.  Each volunteer had a picture of themselves on a board next to the check-in station where their name tag would be clipped whenever it wasn’t being used.  Not only does each volunteer get to feel like a star with their picture on display, but it can be helpful for learning names and faces in such a busy place. Building camaraderie in a big volunteer base can be a challenge, and this is a fun way to help address it.

Shepherd board2I loved seeing how Shepherd’s Clinic creatively integrated volunteer appreciation and a sense of unity into the everyday structure of their work.  One of my favorite parts of the site visits is seeing the different approached that each nonprofit takes to serve their volunteers and community.  Each site has something that we can learn from, and I know I will continue to be impressed as we travel!and this is a fun way to help address it.

Photos courtesy of Shepherd’s Clinic

Of French Fries and Tater Tots

Last night I indulged in one of my guilty pleasures – I went to the grocery store and bought bad frozen pizza and french fries.  When I got home, though, there weren’t only french fries in the bag, but tater tots, too!  It was only a few, but it was like a little prize in my bag of french fries.

Little surprises are great.  They make me feel like the universe is saying, “Hey, way to be awesome today.”  Last Wednesday was like that, except it wasn’t the universe, and it wasn’t tater tots in a bag of french fries.  Last Wednesday was the first time I’d gone to a volunteer appreciation as a volunteer instead of as the person who planned it.  It was nice to have someone say thank you for volunteering, and it was nice to meet some of the other people who volunteer with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake.  I saw one of the volunteers I had recruited last year at the Maryland Department of the Environment, too.

The construction crew leader at the Habitat site I work at was there, and I walked by him when he was talking to a group of people.  I overheard him say that he really likes Wednesdays at the site, because that’s the day that he knows he’s going to get things done.  He said he can just give people a task to do, and he knows that it will get done, so he can use the day to prep for the rest of the week.  Wednesdays are the day that I’m out on site, so that meant a lot to me.

On the way out of the event, I was given a bag of things that I didn’t really look at because I had somewhere else to be that night.  When I got home, I looked through the bag: brochure on volunteering, brochure on faith based group volunteering, papers, annual report, a construction pencil with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake’s logo… and a thank you card that looks like it was made by one of the children of a homeowner.

Now, say what you will about generational volunteer characteristics, and how volunteers from certain generations like to be rewarded for volunteering, but this Gen X-er really appreciated the thank you card.  Especially because it had painter’s tape on it.

As if the nice dinner and grab bag wasn’t enough to say thank you, the next day I got a card in the mail from Habitat.  It wasn’t handmade, but had a nice note from a future homeowner thanking me for allowing her to begin her own foundation.  I’m not sure if it’s a foundation that grants out money or provides services, or if it’s the more literal version.  Either way, though, it was a very nice note.

The day after that, I got a note from one of the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators thanking me for a donation I’d helped her get.  Instead of a kind of boring, pre-printed note, it was hand written.

I’ve got to say, it’s nice to get a thank you for the things you do.  I know it’s not volunteer week anymore, but if you work with volunteers, make sure you tell them you appreciate their work.  High fives are awesome, too.