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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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…

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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…

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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…

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Irked by a co-worker? Personality may not be the problem

getting-in-the-way-of-volunteer-management-twenty-hatsZoe is the volunteer manager for a literacy program. Sometimes she gets calls from volunteers who have been inactive for months – sometimes years, and want to pick up where they left off.

Zoe gets concerned about the casual way these volunteers treat their commitment and their lack of current training – she would rather see reliable volunteers in their place.  But several of her co-workers are pressuring Zoe to start scheduling some of their favorites. Zoe feels coerced and thinks that her co-workers are interfering way too much.

Zoe is not real, but perhaps this scenario rings true for you. And if not this exact scenario, then perhaps some variation of it.

These situations bring a lot of angst and discord because they feel so personal –  as if your colleagues are creating problems just for you. Or, it may seem even more global like you’re just plain unlucky and ended up with co-workers who are biased, oppositional, and downright hard to deal with.

If only the Zoes of the world worked in a more mature environment. They could get a lot more…

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The title’s a tongue twister, but this volunteer administrator is clear on what keeps a team working together.

building-a-team-volunteer-managers-twenty-hatsIf someone took all of my blog posts and analyzed them for content, no doubt a good 80% have to do with two out of the three directions required for leadership  – influencing upwards and achieving buy-in laterally from co-workers.

Those skills are essential for our profession because we spend so much time educating others about the what, why, and how of engaging volunteers in a meaningful way.

But what about that third direction? – what about the downward management that’s essential to keeping an entire department running smoothly?

When you direct a large volunteer program and supervise others, your ability to lead your direct reports matters just as much as your ability to lead volunteers. (and maybe more.)

Teri McCormick Hinton knows this, and she’s proud of the close, collaborative culture that she’s created among her volunteer specialists.

Teri is the Regional Volunteer Services Officer for the National Capital Region of the American Red Cross. Her 20+ years in the Red Cross and her commitment to the organization helped her get up to speed quickly when she shifted…

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fifteen-minutes-twenty-hatsSomething’s afoot – and it’s a great thing that’s been a long time coming.

I’m talking about the groundswell of awareness that we volunteer engagement pros need to raise our standards. We need to advocate collectively for the value that leaderships brings to our nonprofits and our communities.

Taking our leadership seriously is something I blog about all the time, and I’m far from the only one. The 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership seeks to advance the national visibility and impact of those within our profession. As the organizers state, “emergent leaders in the field have no clear path to become thought leaders to take this profession to new levels of performance and impact in the future.”

But we don’t need to wait until next July to advance this goal.  We can share our experiences now by participating in Tobi Johnson’s Volunteer Manager Progress Report Survey.

The progress report is one of the few surveys out there that asks practitioners in the field – people like you – about how you work and how your work is supported and recognized.

And unlike similar surveys, conducted over the years, Tobi has…

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