Let’s not lament young colleagues who move up and out volunteer engagement. They’re the ones who will elevate the profession.

A few weeks back, Meridian Swift posted a blog about what she calls The Mokita. (and by the way, if you haven’t visited Meridian’s funny and wise site, VolunteerPlainTalk, start now!)

The Mokita post was all about the volunteer engagement profession’s Elephant in the Room: namely, that we volunteer managers see ourselves as undervalued and misunderstood.  And while the post is important on its own merits, the comments generated by the post are equally absorbing – especially the one by CVA Jerome Tenille.

Jerome wrote:

“We need more people with “backgrounds” in volunteer administration to take on these key [top leadership] roles, as decision makers. At the end of the day, it would be my goal that years from now, I AM that Executive Director, or CSR Program Manager, or CEO who can sit across from a Volunteer Coordinator, have an honest conversation and say “I understand your challenges, and I have your back,” and not because it sounds good, but because I’ve been in those shoes and…

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Decision-makers will come around to your point of view IF you take the time to educate them

Here’s a proposal:  how about we replace the designation of volunteer manager with one that more accurately represents what we do?  For me, the clear standout replacement is this:


Whenever I interview a leader of volunteers for a blog post, I am struck by how our success is tied to our ability to educate board members, executive directors, co-workers, the public, about our work.

And while we may resent having to provide that education (wouldn’t it be great if more of our stakeholders appreciated our role from the get-go?), it’s the only consistent path to reaching our goals.

Leah Thibodeaux shared an awesome example of education in action when she successfully advocated to hire a second volunteer coordinator for her food pantry, St. Joseph Food Program in Menasha, Wisconsin.

St. Joe’s serves over 1,000 families each week and provides nutrition assistance to other nonprofits as well. It accomplishes all this with a volunteer force of 350 and a part-time staff of nine.  Even the Executive Director works part-time.


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We may have a ways to go in elevating our profession – but your hard work means the glass is half full

One of the concepts that I like to share with my volunteer manager clients is the notion of The Gap. It’s an idea that’s embraced by entrepreneurs – and as you know, I like to take share business practices that enhance our work in the nonprofit world.

The Gap is a phrase coined by an entrepreneurial coach, Dan Sullivan. Here’s what it means: when we have a goal, we tend to focus on what we haven’t yet achieved rather than the progress we have already made.

It’s important to check in on The Gap and recognize where we need to go. But an unrelenting focus on the unattained brings us down. It provides fuel for beating ourselves up and living in a state of discouragement.

Instead, we need to celebrate our progress – that’s the source of motivation and inspiration to continue moving forward.

I thought of The Gap the other day, when talking with an acquaintance who had just retired and entered the world…

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There’s some risk involved when staff push back on engaging volunteers. Here’s how to take that particular target off of your head.

A couple of weeks ago, I received the most interesting response from a Twenty Hats reader.  It was about a post on how to deal with resistance from co-workers when you want to launch a new project.

The reader said:

“I see the recent [post] on how to deal with staff pushback on volunteer initiatives as a risk management issue.”

A risk management issue? That’s a thought-provoking idea. I had never considered pushback as having anything to do with safety or liability. To me managing staff resistance seemed more a question of stepping up interpersonal skill-building and treating our goals as an opportunity to grow as leaders.

But if anyone understands the connection between running a volunteer program and risk, it’s this reader. He is William Henry of Volunteers Insurance Service Association, Inc. The company has served nonprofits for over 40 years by providing insurance for volunteers. They also help nonprofits find other cost-saving products and services.

I got on the phone to talk with William and get his perspective…

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What happens when a forum meets up with a messaging app?  You get a clever platform for fostering communication.

Do you ever wish communication with your volunteers was simpler? Or that your volunteers could talk to one another between shifts or events? I wouldn’t normally recommend that volunteers slack, but this is one situation where I might.

Slack is the name of an online communication tool that allows groups of people to send messages to one another. It can be used on a computer or on mobile with apps for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. If you and your volunteers are comfortable using messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger or Google Hangouts, you’ll get the hang of Slack in no time.

That’s because, at its core, Slack is a messaging app. You decide who gets invited to your Slack team and then you can send and receive messages to those individuals or groups. Messages get posted to channels, which you can organize by topic. You can tag individuals so they see that you’ve mentioned them. You can also upload files such as Google or Word documents and images. The basic level of…

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Check out the Volunteer Management Progress report for some answers — and a lot more questions

Here’s a saying that you’ve heard umpteen million times:

There’s no such thing as a dumb question.

And while that might be generally true – we want to inquire without feeling judged – I have a whole new respect for good questions and more questions after speaking with Tobi Johnson.

Tobi released a survey full of good questions last fall, when she launched the second annual Volunteer Management Progress Report. The report compiles the results of 53 questions that pertain to the state of volunteer management and were answered by volunteer managers. In total, over a thousand leaders of volunteers responded to the survey from the US and 18 countries.

The report is one of the most comprehensive sources of information around about our experience as leaders of volunteers in recent years.

When it comes to the survey, the findings shared by Tobi and her research team (Trina Williard  of Knowledge Advisory Group and Pam Kappelides of LaTrobe University) suggest that we need to answer a whole new set of questions.  We need to…

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Co-workers may resist your big ideas, but that doesn’t have to derail you

Here’s what’s great about volunteer managers:

We really, really care.

We take our responsibilities seriously. We want to make sure that our volunteers are tended to and engaged in ways that make it possible for our programs to achieve much more. We’re about helping others – and we’re not so interested in positioning ourselves front and center.

I’m especially mindful about what drives us after last week’s Intention-Setting Workshop. We spent our workshop time figuring out what kind of accountability and supports are needed to make our dream projects actually come to pass.

What impressed me most were the intentions themselves. These volunteer managers focused on projects that would do great things for their organizations – create more engagement, simplify systems, improve the volunteer experience. There was not one intention that anyone would call self-serving or a detour from a nonprofit’s mission.


The flip side to those great intentions was the participants’ very valid concern about resistance to their plans from co-workers or decision-makers. And behind their concern was a fear that the resisters had the power to derail their projects.

Let’s think about…

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You can measure some pretty high expectations from volunteers – IF you market to the ones who will deliver

Twenty Hats - Volunteer ExpectationsI hear a lot about how the paradigm is shifting within volunteerism: volunteers are busier than ever, and many organizations are looking to engage volunteers differently. The trend is towards micro-volunteerism and short term assignments.

Does this trend mean that we need to expect less from volunteers overall?

Absolutely not.

Opening up to new volunteer positions does not mean we need to expect less from volunteers. It means we need to reframe the discussion and ask ourselves what is most needed to meet the mission of the organization.

Take my former program, Fairfax CASA. CASA volunteers are appointed by a judge to advocate for the best interests of an abused or neglected child. Volunteers must make an extensive commitment because to do any less means that an abused or neglected child goes unserved. To advocate properly, every volunteer must remain on a case until it is closed by the court – and many cases last two years or longer.

That’s a huge commitment. And yet, there are people out there who…

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Sometimes it’s not humanly possible to get more done. Here’s what happens when nonprofits expand the volunteer management team.

Does this sound like you?

You are the only staff member for the volunteer program, and you do it all: recruiting, placing, supervising, acknowledging, and keeping all the data straight. And on top of that, you are also responsible for in-kind donations and helping out with special events.

You spend many, many evenings and weekends at work to oversee volunteer projects. In spite of the hours your put in, you can’t seem to engage more volunteers or even stay in touch with all of your current ones.

There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done.

Nicole Dillon’s job was just like that for a couple of years, but now things are different.

New Hope Housing Volunteer Coordinator Sami Smyth (foreground) and Development and Special Events Associate Nicole Dillon (background), manage volunteers — and a wealth of in-kind donations

Nicole is the Development and Special Events Associate for New Hope Housing (NHH), a nonprofit in Alexandria, VA that serves individuals…

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Volunteer programs aren’t always equated with value.  This one event may help to change that perception.

Last month, I tried something new. In addition to holding a retreat for volunteer managers, I held a separate one for Development Directors. After all, DDs are our cousins in the nonprofit world.  Their work is also about building capacity, but with dollars instead of volunteers.

And while the issues we discussed were slightly different, the need to meet collectively to share ideas, receive support, and explore the what’s meaningful about the work was the same.

There was one other difference that I noticed between my volunteer manager and development director participants: in general (and this is a big generalization to make a point, readers), the development folks who attended the retreat did not question the price   ̶  or the willingness of their workplaces to fund their attendance.

When you are the person who brings dollars into an organization, the need for your role is rarely questioned.  It’s like the expression of a simple equation:

Money = value.  Value = power to get needs met.

Volunteer managers, on the other hand, seem to have more trouble asking their workplaces to…

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