Hint: it all comes down to one key element

If you are a CVA, you may have seen (or even answered) a question posed in the CVA Facebook forum by our intrepid colleague, Liza Dyer.

Liza took a census. She wanted to know how her peers organize their volunteer data and asked them to post an emoji to express how they feel about their current system.

This simple question generated tons of responses – 51 comments in total – and a string of emojis that ran the gamut from hearts and smileys to frowns and weepy faces.

I’m not surprised. Finding the right volunteer management system (VMS) matters when you’re tracking volunteers, coordinating with development, and (ideally) measuring your program’s impact. It’s the difference between spending minutes entering data and running reports from one source, or taking hours to manipulate a spreadsheet for relevant information.

There are a lot of VMS choices out there, probably something for every program, depending on your size and budget.

The question is: how do you select the right one?

Abbey Earich may have the answer for you.

Abbey Earich, Recruitment and…

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It’s leaders of volunteers who forge the heart-centered connections to nonprofit brands

You may have noticed that I like to feature volunteer managers in my posts. These colleagues have mastered a practice or innovated in a way that’s worth sharing with the tribe.

That’s why I featured CVA Heather Lother a few months back. Heather talked about what it’s like to lead a stand-alone volunteer engagement department as Senior Director of Engagement. She had some great insights into what’s possible when you sit on your organization’s senior team.

We need to hear from peers like Heather. Her experience expands our view of what’s achievable in our profession.

I’ve come to realize, though, that I’m doing a disserve to readers by focusing solely on volunteer managers.  There are other perspectives that matter – including the outlook of our nonprofit leaders. The value that they place on volunteer engagement puts our work into context, framing it against the organization’s over-arching goals.

So this month I picked up the phone and spoke with Heather’s boss. That would be Paige Stephenson, President & Chief Executive Officer of United Way of the…

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Don’t drop your specialization. Just shift your focus.

I’m thinking of offering a new workshop.

This one would be directed towards nonprofits leaders rather than volunteer managers. It would be called “Deconstructing Engagement.”

In this workshop, we would take away all of the conventional titles for nonprofit connectors – development, outreach, communications, volunteer management – and reorganize around one idea:

How can we fully engage individuals in our cause, so that they want to support us in every possible way?

My guess is that this workshop would lead to two inevitable conclusions, namely:

1.  Individuals who care about your cause and love your organization will want to support you in multiple ways: by volunteering, giving financially, and donating in-kind

2.  Individuals will rotate through these various forms of giving at various times. That means they may volunteer for a while, then shift to giving. Or they may choose to only give for a few years. Or they might do the reverse, and only volunteer – perhaps shifting from one kind of volunteer role to another.

In other words, it’s not about labels like volunteer, donor, or board member. It’s about bringing community members into…

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On why it matters to report to the CEO

A lot of ink has been spilled in the volunteer management world, trying to figure out where a volunteer program should sit on the org chart. Do volunteers belong within development, programming, human resources, or maybe operations?

I’ve joined this conversation more than once, debating the relative merits of one department over another, and featuring colleagues who thrive in those areas.

Then I had a conversation with CVA Heather Lother, only to realize that the conversation may be off track.

The reason we keep debating this issue is because, ideally, volunteer management does not rank below any other organizational function.

Volunteer engagement is a stand-alone department on its own.

Heather, who has managed volunteers for seven years, sought out her current position because engagement was treated as valuable in and of itself, operating as its own department.

For the past three years, Heather has served as Senior Director of Engagement for United Way of Piedmont, where she oversees a staff of four, managing over 5,000 volunteers annually, and reporting directly to the President & CEO.

Heather was drawn to the position…

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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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