Sometimes, what’s second from the top deserves your full attention

When I first started Twenty Hats, my primary focus was clear: I wanted to help volunteer managers achieve their biggest goals: advocate for resources, expand their programs, earn a place on the leadership team.

I blogged and trained around what are typically called “soft skills,” sharing advice on how to influence upwards or how leverage our power. These abilities are essential if we want to see our volunteer programs recognized for the value that they bring to their nonprofits.

And while I still feature these topics (see Jenna Jones’ recent guest post) and still love to train around buy-in, my attention has shifted to something on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Now I’m focused on helping us measure the impact of our volunteers.

Why the shift?

If you asked me which was more important, learning to influence or learning to measure, I’d lean towards influencing. No matter what our skills, our greatest power lies in our ability to set a goal and bring others around to seeing it through. That kind of vision requires us…

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What it looks like to start a volunteer program from the ground up

Volunteer managers: did you step into an existing volunteer program?

Most of us do. In general, we inherit our volunteer programs and must improve what we’re given.

That might mean we ramp up staff engagement, set higher expectations for volunteers, or do lots of clean-up to outdated policies that no longer support our programs.

If only we had a clean slate when we started out.

Rachel Sanchez had had almost clean slate when she started out.  As the Volunteer and Employee Engagement Manager for the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), she inherited a program with 10 volunteers and was tasked building it into a museum-wide initiative.

Now, six years later, over 150 volunteers serve the museum in almost every department, from Curatorial to Accounting. Rachel was so successful with her mandate that she speaks regularly now conferences and on panels about best practices for volunteer recruitment, management, and retention.

So, how did she do it? The short answer is, Rachel approached her project proactively, heading off issues before they become big problems. Before she jumped into recruitment, she did plenty…

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I wondered what kind of story we tell funders about our volunteers. So I picked up the phone and asked them. Here’s what they said.

I’ve had a theory for a while now. It’s that nonprofits under-report on the impact of their volunteer programs when communicating to supporters – especially when it comes to foundations and funding requests.

And if that’s true, then — in theory — the nonprofits that report on volunteer impact must have a strategic edge over their peers.

After all, which funding proposal is more substantial?

  1. The one that touts the number of hours contributed by volunteers – or
  2. The one that demonstrates just how volunteers advance an organization’s mission

Needless to say, my preference is for option #2, and I’ve made a point to mention it whenever I offer a training on creating strategic volunteer impact measures.

But recently, as I was planning my next training, it occurred to me that perhaps it was time to verify the soundness of my speculation.  Perhaps funders don’t need these kind of measures, or perhaps they have their own way of evaluating volunteer effectiveness.

Really, who was I to speak on their behalf? It…

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You can influence from the middle to champion your volunteers. This first-person account is proof.

Have you ever heard of The 360 Degree Leader, by John C. Maxwell? The book’s premise is that you can develop your own ability to be influential from “anywhere in your organization.” You don’t have to be high up on the managerial food chain

Seminars and webinars I had taken had made this case too, but it took reading this book for me to truly think on how to be a leader when it isn’t in your job description.  You can have significant impact even if you aren’t part of the high level meetings about the larger picture at work. 

In the volunteer management world, it is very important to advocate for your volunteers to be a visible part of your organization, so that their work is viewed as valuable and relevant.  It’s unlikely to happen without you.

Last October, the Director of Smithsonian Associates (a unit of the Smithsonian Institution which produces 700+ educational and entertaining programs…

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Want to increase volunteer retention? Here’s how to do it and enjoy the process

Let’s start the New Year by taking a show of hands.

How many of you subscribe to this belief?

Creating a strategic plan for a volunteer program is a waste of time. It’s an abstract document, created to please leadership, and destined to gather dust on a shelf.

I’m seeing a lot of hands raised for this virtual poll. In volunteer management, where we are doers who spend our time getting things done, it may be hard to believe that creating a strategic plan is worth the time spent to create it.

Even if your team begins the process with a lot of energy, how do you motivate your team to keep going as other demands eventually take priority? And is it even worth the effort?

It’s Doable — Here’s Proof

The short answer is yes – and here’s the example to prove it.

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When you treat volunteer training like a strategic priority, everything falls into place

Last year at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), a group of Museum Educators and me, the Museum’s Volunteer Manager, came together to discuss how we provide high-quality, engaging, and personalized learning experiences for all visitors to NMNH.

Our museum is impact-focused, and within my department we track a great many indicators that guide our work and ensure that our activities are connected to the strategic priorities of the museum. In this particular meeting, we identified a key point of visitor engagement being their interactions with our volunteers.

Working backwards from that point, we realized that we needed to take a deep, hard look at our volunteer training. Ultimately, the nature of the visitor’s experience depends on the quality of the training that our volunteers receive.

We wanted to make sure that our trainings aligned with the museum’s strategic priorities. So we decided to inventory all of our trainings, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that our volunteers were equipped to enhance the visitor experience.

Here’s one example, connecting an introductory training module to one of the museum’s strategic priorities:

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More respect. Higher salaries. Better technology.  It’s all possible if you add your voice to the Volunteer Management Progress Report.

Volunteer Managers, do you ever wonder if it’s just you?

Do you wonder if, in your (often) solo role as a leader of volunteers, that your struggles are not shared by your colleagues?

I’m talking about the BIG issues that you take on every day, the ones that affect your success on the job.

I’m talking about things like:

  • Recruiting enough qualified volunteers
  • Building a high-retention volunteer base
  • Increasing co-worker acceptance of volunteers

Tobi Johnson, MA, CVA and Founder of VolunteerPro, is here to assure you that you are not alone.

After having conducted the VolunteerPro Volunteer Management Progress Report survey for three consecutive years, Tobi has identified some very consistent trends in our collective experience – including difficulties with volunteer recruitment, retention, and co-worker buy-in.

“In addition to the quantitative survey questions,” Tobi explains, “we always ask an important open-ended question: ‘What’s your number one biggest challenge as a leader of volunteers?’

“By far, the prevailing response is volunteer recruitment. Engaging enough volunteers to fill needed roles is cited as a…

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How far can a volunteer’s experience reach? This leader of volunteers got curious

If someone asked you what’s so valuable about the volunteer role, what would you stress?

You might start by explaining how volunteers enhance the quality of life for clients, or how volunteers help deliver on the mission with a high return on investment.

Or, you might make the connection between strong volunteer relationships and financial giving.

Or, conversely ― you focus on the how the experience benefits the volunteers – about how they come to see your cause in a new light, or master a new skill, or achieve greater meaning and purpose in their lives.

That’s an impressive list of reasons to appreciate volunteers, for what they accomplish within an organization and the personal growth triggered by the experience.

But that’s not the end of the list.

There is another often-overlooked area where volunteers add value, and that’s when they spread the word about their volunteer experiences, and (intentionally or otherwise) increase the reach and visibility of the nonprofits they love.

Donna Finney, the Volunteer Services Manager for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO), is keenly aware of this…

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Your volunteers tell a compelling story. It’s time to share it.

If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you might think you’ve been switched to the ‘Volunteer Impact Channel.’ I’ve focused heavily on this question because strategic volunteer outcomes do the heavy lifting when it comes to volunteer program credibility.  These metrics connect the dots in a concrete, data-driven way between organization’s mission and the value of your volunteer.

One thing, though ― for all of this emphasis, there is one important message that I want you to remember:

You don’t have to wait until you’ve created volunteer impact measures to start promoting your volunteer program. 

If you’re not quite there yet – and I know many of you need to plan the process for a future time, you still have plenty of quality material to educate and inform Executive Directors, Board members, Corporations, Faith-based organizations – and even your volunteers.

And best of all, you can achieve this education by creating a document that is easy to access and full of great info:

You can create a Volunteer Management Annual Report

This report is very similar to an organizational annual report. It’s a summary…

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It’s trickier than you think to describe impact – and that’s good

Every time I offer a volunteer impact measures training, I’m struck by some new takeaway the helps me better explain how to do master this complex-but-valuable process.

Today, my takeaway is this:

When you create impact measures on a matrix, one column stands out as the trickiest to complete – and probably the most important.

That column has to do with (drum roll, please)… Indicators.

Let me back up for a sec. Impact measures are created using a logic model. A logic model is a matrix that maps out all of the components needed to evaluate the effectiveness of a program.

The various columns within the matrix – the activities, the inputs, the outputs, the indicators, etc. – all of these pieces lead towards creating the outcomes you actually want. It’s the outcomes that demonstrate exactly what your volunteers accomplished that served your clients or delivered on your organization’s mission.

You can’t create relevant outcomes without putting a lot of consideration into your Indicators.

The Indicator describes what improvement looks like, so that you can set a quantifiable goal to work towards.

Here are some general examples…

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