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…

Read More

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…

Read More

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…

Read More

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…

Read More

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…

Read More

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…

Read More

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…

Read More

Meditate on the content of these books, then act accomplish more in the new year

I’ve noticed something. In just about every workshop, training, and retreat that I hold, there are three books that inevitably enter into the conversation – and they are not books about volunteer management.  These particular titles address those nagging mindset challenges that get in our way when we want to create standout programs.

These three books are SO good that they merit a blog post all their own. Here are the titles and why every volunteer manager should read them.


The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

Have you ever felt like your email is a bad influence, monopolizing your time and making it impossible to get anything done? If yes, rest assured that you are not alone –  most of my clients feel the same way. The dopamine hit that we get when we check email is so darned seductive that it sweeps us right into reactive mode before we can even start to plan our day.

The solution is to establish set times to check your email and alternate them with longer blocks of time to get…

Read More

Don’t have the resources to get the job done right? Try a different POV

thinking-about-volunteer-managers-twenty-hatsWhen I managed volunteers, one of the biggest eye-openers came from a poverty simulation that the county held for my program. You may know this simulation: the participants are assigned roles in various families, and they must try to get to jobs, pay for medications, send their children to school, etc. with no car, no savings – hardly any resources at all.

Everyone loved the role playing – especially the staff. One of our supervisors took the role of ”criminal” and caused all kinds of mayhem.  But mostly, we were humbled and horrified by how difficult it was to do the simplest things without access to resources.

As one volunteer put it, “living in poverty is a full time job.”

Here’s the thing about that experience.

Sobering as it was, the simulation felt kind of familiar – because it resembled nonprofit life. Oftentimes, (and big caveat here – this is a generalization), working in a nonprofit is like spending time in poverty.  The constant worry over funding and other resources creates a scarcity mindset, where we focus on trying to preserve…

Read More

Can’t we do better than this one phrase?  Challenge yourself to a list of more compelling alternatives.

find-a-better-phrase-twenty-hats-jpegI have a pet peeve. Whenever I teach a persuasive writing class and ask students to write about the impact of their volunteer program, they all use the same expression.

“We make a difference”

Well yes, sure – we DO make a difference. That’s the bottom line for all volunteer work – and all nonprofits. That’s why we exist. To effect change, improve lives, and make a difference.

The problem is that there are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States alone. And if we are all making a difference, how do we stand out from all the rest?

Not only that, science has shown that our brains ignore over-used phrases. That puts making a difference right at the top of the useless list. It’s a waste of time just to type the words.

So how do we communicate what’s different and special about our particular organization without resorting to clichés?

You may always start with a persona. I’ve blogged about personas before – no need to revisit here, except to say that they…

Read More