In an ideal world, nonprofit volunteers and employees are all considered staff.  But that doesn’t mean we manage all this talent the same way.

A lot of agencies may take the view that volunteers are unpaid staff and should be vetted, placed and managed as paid staff would be.  I often wonder how well that approach really works for the complexities involved in volunteer management.

I agree with the principal that volunteers should be vetted in the same way as paid staff. Taking the time to do a thorough reference and background check is important, especially if the volunteer is working with youth or other vulnerable clients. Besides the issue of liability and risk, an agency never wants to send the signal that volunteers can “slip through the cracks” of a vetting system.

However, once a volunteer is on board, does the idea that they are “unpaid staff” really hold up? How can/should good volunteer management practice differ from managing paid staff? This is a complex topic deserving more conversation and debate than can be accomplished with one blog, but perhaps the largest difference between paid staff and volunteers is that volunteers chose…

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Hint: it’s part nonprofit culture — and part how you see your role

There are plenty of topics in volunteer engagement that generate a lively discussion: adequate compensation, the size of our program budgets, finding a user-friendly database These are largely discussions among peers who are on the same page.

But there is one topic in our profession that triggers wildly varying reactions from our colleagues, from the sanguine to the heated debate:

That’s the question of cultivating volunteers as donors.

On one end of the spectrum, I have spoken with volunteer managers who report to development directors and see themselves as valued members of the team. For these pros, volunteering is considered an essential point of entry into an organization.  The volunteer program is fully supported and the volunteer services director sits on a leadership or decision-making team. Volunteers are appreciated and respected, relationships are developed over time.

On the other hand, there are volunteer managers who experience a de-valuing of their volunteer programs in the face of fundraising expectations. These are the organizations that talk about “converting a volunteer into a donor, as if an individual somehow mutates from one category to another….

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Data management systems may help build relationships faster than a face to face meeting. Really.

There are best practices. And there are better practices.

Two years ago, I wrote a post about DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) to praise their team collaboration in building deeper relationships with volunteers and donors.

DCCK was (and is) so committed to engaging the community that multiple staff: volunteer, development, communications – even data management, met on a weekly basis to discuss individual volunteers and donors and plan to strengthen those relationships.

I was so impressed by this process that I shared it as a best practice example at almost all of my trainings.

But here’s the thing:

DCCK doesn’t hold those meetings any longer.

With staff juggling busy schedules and housed in multiple sites, it became ever-more difficult to sit down together in person and touch base.

You can relate to this problem, right? While some teams succeed at regular meetings (think Volunteer Solutions, featured here in January), many of us find that the competing demands on our time run contrary to our best intentions.

When the DCCK team realized that it could not meet…

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Like a medical resident who rotates through specialties, reporting to different departments will ramp up your volunteer management expertise

How did your nonprofit decide where to house the volunteer program? Is it part of Development? Does it reside under Operations? How about Program, or Human resources?

Volunteer engagement intersects with so many different functions within our organizations. We are a gateway for community connection, an administrative function that serves one particular type of staff, and the steward to one of the most powerful methods of delivering service to clients. No wonder that nonprofits are often challenged to figure out where we belong.

There is one organization, though, that has embraced the complexity within volunteer management. At Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC, the volunteer program has resided under multiple different umbrellas – and come out all the better for it.

Just ask Lisa Leyh, the Head of Visitor Services and Volunteer Management for the estate. In her 12 ½ years with Hillwood, Lisa has moved with the volunteer program through several different departments within the organization.

“Every move of the volunteer program has brought opportunities,” says Lisa.

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We don’t all belong to departments of one. Here’s how a large team of volunteer managers makes it work.

An email appeared in my mailbox a few weeks back.  It’s the kind of message that I love to see.

The email came from Emily Thomas, who works for Volunteer Solutions, a program within the Fairfax County Virginia Area Agency on Aging.

Volunteer Solutions is a huge program that engages over 3,500 volunteers for a diverse range of volunteer roles – think everything from Zumba instructors to medical transportation. The program is a partnership of the Fairfax County Department of Family Services, Neighborhood and Community Services, and Health Department. They recruit, train, and manage, volunteers for Adult and Aging clients, Senior Centers, and Adult Day Health Cares.

I featured Volunteer Solutions a couple of years ago because the program succeeds at something that’s challenging for large volunteer programs: it is both structured and flexible.

Emily reached out because she’s so proud of the teamwork within Volunteer Solutions. She wanted me to observe it first-hand.

And that’s exactly what I did. I attended a Volunteer Solutions’ staff meeting to learn just…

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Do resolutions seem like a waste of time? Start your year this way and see what happens for your volunteer program

You may have noticed a just-for-fun-thing going around on Facebook. It’s an infographic that you create with your defining life quote, complete with your photo and signature.  Volunteer manager Amy Whary, created one that says,

“Stop being afraid of what could go wrong and think of what could go right.”

I thought of that quote this time last year, while planning an Intention-Setting Workshop for volunteer managers and development directors here in the DC-area.

The workshop was all about getting clear on what you want to see accomplished on the job – and then figuring out what needs to happen to make those intentions come to pass.

Intention-setting is about more than ensuring that the big deliverables get done (because we know they will). It’s about making room for the projects that are most important to you. It’s about ensuring that your big ideas – the ones you get excited about but fall to the bottom of the to-do list, actually come to pass.

Intention setting means making your…

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Sometimes we get stuck on our perceived limitations. Here’s how to climb out of that thinking.

It’s no surprise that last week’s post, which was all about the disparity between a volunteer manager’s value and her salary, generated a lot of comments.

The salary question seems to be something that’s always operating in the back of our minds, even when we don’t discuss it openly.

The volunteer managers who commented on the post made some really important points, including the need for an academic degree track for our profession, and the importance of making our accomplishments known to decision-makers on a regular and quite visible basis.

Please do take a look at the comments – and leave your own, if something you read sparks your thinking.

There is another dimension to the value/salary question, though, and that’s what receiving a lower salary does to our personal sense of value.

I’m not just talking about our value on the job – I’m talking about what we fundamentally think and feel about ourselves.

When we work in an environment that does not correspond with our value – because salaries are low, or working…

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Start the New Year by reflecting on your value in the workplace

Last month as we closed out 2017, I asked the members of my Volunteer Managers Leadership Circle to reflect on what they had accomplished over the year together, and to consider on how those accomplishments related to their overall professional value.

The accomplishments were as varied and impressive as the individual members.

Here are just two examples –

•  One member said that her goal starting out was to bring herself back from the edge of burnout and that she not only accomplished that, she discovered that she brought in more volunteers by setting healthy limits around her work and delegating more to her team.

•  Another member had thought she might change professions before the year was out, but since then she has earned her CVA, embarked on a major revamp of volunteer policies and procedures, and realized that she could transform her volunteer program from a department of one to a team that she had the chops to lead.

These leaders of volunteers are probably a lot like you. They are dedicated, incredibly skilled and work with integrity….

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When you nurture what’s best in your volunteers, you hold some powerful change agents in your hands

What and Why of VolunteeringHave you ever had a conversation so thought-provoking that you reflected on it for a good long while afterwards?  I felt that way last week, when I held the first meeting of my Leadership Circle.

The Circle is a group of experienced and dedicated volunteer engagement professionals who are invested in their work and have chosen to meet each month to share advice, support one another, and refine their leadership skills.

We kicked off our first meeting by talking about why we work with volunteers in the first place.

What is it exactly about this work that we find so compelling and rewarding?

I thought the conversation might focus on what volunteers do for our nonprofits because that’s what we’re hired to do – help expand our organizations to meet their missions.  And while that piece was acknowledged as essential, it’s not what these pros shared as their greatest satisfaction. This group receives their energy and inspiration from the transformation within the volunteer.

These were the comments I heard:

I love to teach volunteers about…

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Guest blogger Lisa Marie Porter, MA, CVA, empowered her volunteers to help her solve an unexpected problem. The results are pretty creative.

At the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, we take the practice of volunteer nametags one-step further than usual.

Even though our public engagement volunteers wear official credentials that designate them as ‘Volunteers,’ we still ask them to pin a special nametag to their uniform.

The idea behind it? To make personal connections with our visitors. The nametags share first names-only to make the volunteers more approachable, with the designation ‘Volunteer’ printed in the upper right-hand corner.

We thought our volunteers were perfectly happy with their nametags – until our museum went through a rebranding initiative. When we presented the volunteers with the new look of the nametags, we received some pretty vocal push-back.

The Problem

Our volunteers objected strongly to the use of the word ‘Volunteer’ on the nametag. They argued that the tags seem redundant and do not add anything to the volunteer’s or visitor’s experiences.

Even though the new nametags looked exactly the same as the old ones, introducing the revisions prompted the volunteers to tell us what they…

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