How it feels to work in a nonprofit where volunteers are considered as valuable as money

Volunteers and Strategic Plan - Twenty Hats“It was pure luck.”

That’s how CVA Karen Horowitz describes her good fortune to work as Director for Volunteer & Internship Engagement at an organization that recognizes volunteers at the very highest level   ̶  in the strategic plan.

The organization is Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS), and I’ve written about them before. It’s rare for a nonprofit to include volunteer engagement as a strategic priority.

In fact, I tried to gauge the prevalence of this practice by floating the question in a LinkedIn strategic planning forum. Only five of the 74 respondents said they included volunteers in their strategic plan. Most people cited their board as evidence of high-level volunteer inclusion.

This lack of insight from Executive Directors, CEOs, and consultants makes me want to smack my head on the keyboard in frustration.

Clearly, there is work to be done.

Karen and Trina
Newly minted CVA Karen Horowitz (left) gets a hug from CCVA board member Trina Mayhan-Webb.

We know how essential…

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Yes. It’s all about you. Really.

VM Self-promotion Twenty HatsWhen your volunteer program has a big win – or when you achieve something impressive, which of the following do you do?

  1. Share the good news with a co-worker
  2. Go home and tell your significant other
  3. Tell your boss about it
  4. Smile quietly to yourself and go back to your work

Personally, I’m a fan of “all of the above” and most significantly, #3.

Why Promote Ourselves?

We need to promote ourselves when we do something brag-worthy. And not just because it feels good to share something we’re proud of – but because self-promotion is better for your volunteer program.

That’s the point I made last week in a practice session for a conference presentation on advancing your volunteer program. Twelve volunteer mangers gathered at Volunteer Alexandria to learn more about how to strategically advance their volunteer programs and share feedback about how to make the presentation as relevant as possible for the conference participants. (OK, this post is a Spoiler Alert for anyone attending the conference.  Read on anyway – your advance reflection will make the discussion more meaningful.)

The self-promotion question came up because so…

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Another take on certain a certain kind of job frustration

Vol Mgt Implementer to Leader - Twenty HatsDoes your boss frustrate you more than she used to? Seriously – perhaps when you started this job, you recognized that your boss had a different work style from you but you respected that, but now you find that your boss’s point of view or the decisions she makes seem increasingly incompetent to you. Perhaps you see a better way to resolve the issue and feel you are not being heard?

You might even be wondering if it’s time to leave your job because her decisions seem so wrongheaded.

That’s one interpretation. Here’s another: your leader is not the problem. You are frustrated because you are ready to step up and lead, too.

There is a difference between managers and leaders. Leaders are the vision people, while managers are the implementers who make the vision a reality.

But the difference has nothing to do with your job title or you position within your organization. Mid-level managers like volunteer or development directors need to manage AND lead, influencing their boss and co-workers while still doing the daily in-the-trenches administrative…

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Allen Wente wants his volunteers to have the same meaningful experience that he enjoyed. Here’s how he does that.

Fraternity Volunteers - Twenty HatsLast week, I threw out an impromptu question to the participants of a webinar that I held for AL!VE. I asked how many of the listeners had served as volunteers for their nonprofit before joining the staff.  My guess was that many of the volunteer managers started out as volunteers and I was right – the vast majority came to their work with plenty of pre-existing knowledge of the needs and the rewards of volunteering for their cause.  They get it – and their prior volunteer experience helps to strengthen their programs.

Allen Wente was not on the webinar – I met him through my talented colleague Tobi Johnson – but this volunteer manager falls into the “formerly a volunteer” category and then kicks it up a notch. Back in college, Allen not only served in his fraternity, Delta Tau Delta – he founded the chapter after finding himself unimpressed with the other Greek options at his school. Delta Tau Delta “strives to develop young men committed to lives…

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Your vote counts. Help us find a universal hashtag for our profession!

Universal Hashtag FramedA couple of months ago, CVA Liza Dyer cooked up an idea — and I happily went along with it: we would round up nominations for a universal hashtag – one singular hashtag that communicates what’s most essential about our profession to the rest of the world.

It all started when Liza and I were confused-at-the-same time about the vast array of hashtags currently used to tweet or promote our profession in the social media realm. Wasn’t there one tag in particular that set the standard?

That’s when Liza suggested that we ask thought leaders in our field to brainstorm and suggest possible hashtags, with the notion that the list of nominees would feature one hashtag that’s a cut above the rest.

So that’s what we did – we asked a group of influencers to nominate hashtag contenders.  We got a terrific response and came away with plenty of intriguing options  – 18 nominations in all.

Now it’s your turn.

We want you to vote and help us identify the Ultimate Universal Hashtag for the Profession of Volunteer Management.

But – it may not be…

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How would it feel to be part of a team that’s all pulling in the same direction? One volunteer manager shares her experience.

Playing on the Dream TeamIf you train volunteers, you have probably noticed that every group is a little bit different. Each one has its own personality and a special set of interests and challenges.

My last  volunteer managers retreat had that same quality. It was different from my first one, not better or worse – just different.

One of the things that made it different was that we spent a lot of time talking about the relationships between volunteer departments and development teams.  A few of the retreat participants reported directly to development directors and felt underappreciated. They voiced frustration about their supervisors’ limited view of what it takes to run a strong program– not fully understanding their needs or appreciating all of the resources that volunteers bring to the table.

There was one participant, though, who had an entirely different and completely positive experience with her development department. In fact, she is considered an integral and valued part of the resource-building team at her organization.

That person is Jessica Towers, whom you…

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These three steps from an organizational change expert will help you speed the process for your volunteer program.

Ball Rolling Framed - Twenty HatsRemember “Nora” the volunteer manager? She was the one I introduced last week, who was responsible for everything volunteer-related, even though she was not the only staffer to interact with the volunteers.

The burden of responsibility for recruiting and retaining enough volunteers to meet demand was causing Nora considerable stress and leading her to question her abilities. But the real problem was that this volunteer manager worked within an organizational structure where the decision-making and the responsibility for volunteer results was not shared among the entire staff. It was a lopsided organizational system.

In a situation like this, someone like Nora has a choice to make:

  • Either accept her position as-is and make the best of it (or find a more gratifying job)

or —

  • Step forward and initiate the change that will lead to more staff engagement.

Re-organizing a system seems like a move that needs to come from the top down. It can feel very daunting to initiate that kind of change from a mid-level position. But research shows that…

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Part One: why it’s worth sharing the decision-making around volunteers

A Story

Sharing and Volunteer Decision-MakingWhen I recruited and trained volunteers for a CASA program, the toughest part of my job was rejecting applicants. It gave me heartburn, quite frankly, to hear the disappointment or anger voiced by people who for one reason or another were not a good fit for our program – especially when they did not anticipate that they might be turned down.

One angry man warned me that it was “our loss” to reject him. Many, many others cried when they heard bad news that they did not expect. Over time, I reached a point where I simply could not tolerate the stress of turning away another person who did not see rejection coming their way.

So I asked my CASA supervisors for help – and a very specific kind of help: I asked them to let anyone they interviewed know up front that they might not be accepted into the program and to understand that the decision came down to fit and was not personal. We mentioned all of these things in our information session, but I needed their…

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Volunteers and donors come in all shapes and sizes.  Start speaking each person’s language with personas.

Different personas - Twenty HatsLast month I introduced you to Trudy, the persona who helped me recruit volunteers for my program.

So now you might be thinking, “Well that sounds like a fun project. But I’m not seeing the relevance. How will a persona help me on the job?”

Here’s how.

Personas make it much easier to market your program. Instead of guessing at what appeals to a volunteer or donor, you have a “conversation” with the ideal version of that person. You learn about their needs and wants and then show that you have the solutions they seek.

You might event want more than one persona. Volunteer managers and development directors may create multiple identities to represent different groups of stakeholders.

And that’s when it gets interesting, because your messaging changes when you are “talking” to a completely different persona.

Let’s take an example.

Persona # 1 is Max. He is the 30-something manager of a big box store that has an employee volunteer engagement mandate. Max is always looking for volunteer opportunities where his staff can team up to help family-related…

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If you want more buy-in for your volunteer program, start with a reframe of those limiting beliefs.

Myths reframed - twenty HatsThe more I coach volunteer managers, the more convinced I become that the pride and satisfaction we gain from running a high impact volunteer program hinges around one thing.


When we’ve got the buy-in of our leadership and co-workers to engage volunteers effectively, we can move mountains.  When we don’t, the lack of buy-in IS the mountain that gets in the way of progress.

The whole buy-in question has been top of mind for me since last week, when the subject came up in my Leadership Circle and at my one-day retreat.  Just about every participant had a buy-in challenge that they wanted to overcome  ̶  bringing staff on board with engaging more volunteers, helping a supervisor see the commitment required for an effective program, showing development staff the resource-building potential of a strong volunteer base.

These issues really weigh on us. I see how discouraged my colleagues become when they can’t figure out how to turn things around. And I see how motivated they feel when they learn strategies that help them reach…

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