How one determined volunteer manager expanded her program

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:

Educator.

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.

Leah Thibodeau made the case for hiring a second volunteer coordinator by equipping her board with all of data they needed to make an informed decision

For Leah, that meant she had approximately 34 hours a week to recruit, schedule, and supervise a volunteer corps that handled almost all of food pantry’s operations – picking up donations, sorting them, packing them, greeting clients, distributing items to clients, and qualifying clients for assistance.

That schedule worked fine for many years – until changing volunteer demographics led to a decline in available volunteers.

“We have a very loyal volunteer base that enjoys volunteering in traditional ways, with a weekly set schedule, but they’re getting older” says Leah.

Our volunteers are no longer able to do the sort of heavy lifting that’s required. We need to bring in younger volunteers, but Boomers, GenXers, and Millennials are not committing to work the same kind of traditional schedule.”

“We needed to devise new volunteer roles and ways to accommodate the needs of the different volunteer generations,” Leah continued, “But I couldn’t take on that task and manage the day-day activities of the volunteers. I was tearing my hair out trying to get it all done.  We had to hire more staff”

Fortunately, Leah was quick to spot her opportunity to advocate. When the Board went through it’s bi-annual strategic planning session, she created a comprehensive report on volunteerism that provided board members with the education they needed.

“Historically, St. Joe’s has prided itself on relying on a ‘free labor force’ to deliver on its mission. I needed to show the board that a strong volunteer program is not free – it requires an investment.”

Here’s how Leah educated her board:

  1. She illustrated the current state of the volunteer program by documenting the number of hours that volunteers contributed to the organization, and the dollar value of those hours.
  2. She walked the board through the challenges posed by the generational demographics, explaining how current volunteer contributions are at risk of declining due to changing volunteer preferences.
  3. She proposed a solution — hiring a second volunteer coordinator — and  shared detailed job descriptions to illustrate each coordinator’s duties.

At every step, Leah made sure to document her arguments with charts, graphs, and statistics.  “I did not want the board to take my word for it when I explained that we needed more staff. I knew I needed evidence to make my case.”

Leah simplified the board’s work as much as possible. She even highlighted the salient facts that they needed to consider.

As evidence, Leah included:

  • Articles about the different generations of volunteers and their various commitment levels
  • Data that showed the kind of volunteer activities most likely to retain Boomer, GenX, and Millennial volunteers
  • Human Resources statistics that demonstrated standard supervisor to employee ratios

With documents provided, Leah went one step further and actually highlighted the salient points that required the board’s attention.

The result of all that careful preparation? The board approved Leah’s proposal to hire a second part-time volunteer coordinator.  The new coordinator was hired, trained, and on the job within four weeks.

What strikes me most about Leah’s approach is that she made it easy for the board to understand her position.  She did the legwork for them. The statistics, charts, graphs, job descriptions – even the underlined facts – all facilitated the board’s ability to absorb new information and make a different decision.

By educating her board members, Leah achieved something remarkable: the first full time equivalent staff role at St. Joe’s. And that role is not for an executive or program position – it’s for volunteer management.

Want some more tips for persuading your board, boss, co-workers, or even your volunteers? My Six Principles of Buy-In will take your influencing skills one step further. Email me to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.

2 thoughts on “How one determined volunteer manager expanded her program

  1. Pauline Black

    Congratulations to Leah! We are facing many of the same challenges as older volunteers begin to grapple with more physical issues, and younger volunteers are often less willing to accept roles that require frequent or long-term commitments. I wonder if Leah would be willing to share her research on generational differences and volunteer activities that are most likely to retain younger volunteers? Thanks in advance.

    1. Leah Thibodeau

      Hi Pauline,

      Here are a few of the articles I referenced in my proposal:
      Generational trends & Issues in Volunteer Engagement. JFFixler Group. May 18, 2014
      Generational Traits Impact Volunteerism by Leslie Biggins Mollsen
      “Why so few Boomers are volunteering” by David Eisenberg 4/1/13
      “Recruiting and Engaging Baby Boomer Volunteers”, Ken Culp, April 2009

      This brief from The Corporation for National and Community Service is also a great reference. https://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0307_boomer_report_summary.pdf

      The size of our program was another issue. This article, along with some general human resources information, helped me make the case for needing additional staff. http://www.ozvpm.com/2015/03/29/how-many-volunteers-are-too-many-volunteers/

      I looked for phrases or words that would validate what I was experiencing – a less-committal volunteer base. I recommend you start the journey and then follow the trail. As you read articles you’ll see mention of other studies or articles. Check those out too. Look for general information on volunteer trends, and blend in some information specific to your service or mission.

      Best of luck to you!

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