Three Things I Have Discovered About Volunteer Management Since I Stopped Managing Volunteers

Leaving my volunteer management job was like starting a journey towards an exciting new POV

Three Volunteer Management Discoveries - Twenty HatsWhat can happen in fifteen months – besides another birthday, more gray hairs, and 53 blog posts under your belt?

That was the question that I posed to myself this week, when I decided it was time to take stock of what was different since I left I left my volunteer management job in March 2015 and went full-time as a trainer and writer about volunteer engagement.

It took about half a second to land on the biggest shift – and that’s my point of view about what’s possible in this profession. I came to this work from a CASA program, where we specialized in one type of volunteer – and switched to supporting the work of colleagues in all kinds of organizations where volunteers hold every imaginable type of position.

What I’ve found is that my new POV has less to do with transitioning out of hands-on management and more to do with my relationship to my peers. As a trainer, it’s my job help my colleagues become as capable and professional as they hope to be. I see how committed we are to our causes and how experienced and capable we are with our volunteers.  I know how important it is for us to do work that creates positive change – and I see how discouraged we feel when that work is minimized or under-appreciated.

Here are three things I have discovered from working with volunteer managers that I never would have appreciated in my old job:

#1 — We have more power than we realize.

My students often voice frustration around a perceived lack of influence to advance their volunteer programs. This is why I train frequently around how to achieve buy-in and how to make our great ideas become realities.

I want my nonprofit colleagues to appreciate that they already have the ability to educate and persuade their leadership, co-workers, and volunteers around important issues. What they need is a safe forum for figuring out how to leverage the power they have to promote their ideas. That ability comes with careful skill-building, practice, and commitment.

#2 — When we get creative, important things happen.

The work we do may sit on the backbone of HR practices and functional items like job descriptions and performance evaluations, but the way we engage volunteers is limited only by our vision.

I think of the special programs that have been created by colleagues, such as Lynne Allebach’s team of disabled high school students who have expanded the reach of staff at her retirement facility, or of the wildly popular school backpack program launched by Nikki Clifford for her food pantry. Consider the Girls on the Run program that developed a heart-centered approach to engaging coaches and boosted volunteer retention. The creative projects that we enjoy the most are often the ones that have the greatest impact on our workplaces.

#3 — We manage one of the most valuable resources around: PEOPLE.

While many of us fall into volunteer management accidentally, the ones who stay come to realize that volunteers are as important as dollars for fulfilling a nonprofit’s mission.

I think that’s why volunteer managers ranked third in the Forbes list of most meaningful jobs. I also think of Tobi Johnson’s impressive survey, the Volunteer Management Progress Report Survey.  Among many important findings, her results backed up the commitment to the profession and the satisfaction that we experience from working with volunteers and solving community problems.  If you ever need motivation to keep going in your work, take a moment to pause and affirm your place as the leader of an essential resource.

This is not a job for pencil-pushers – it’s the calling of purpose-driven individuals who love working with people and bringing out the best in them to enable a cause. Whether we intentionally enter this profession or choose it along the way, I believe we are unconsciously drawn to volunteer engagement because of its huge potential for impact. Think about how you might expand your own personal reach.

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