For CVA Krista Gilmore, the point of volunteer management is to cultivate volunteer leaders
Give away the good stuff. That was the advice I received 25 years ago from an experienced volunteer director. I was new to a children’s ministry position and had little experience managing volunteers. But I was eager to learn and determined to do a good job. I had big plans for programming, outreach to families, and working with volunteers.
All was going well until I made the first of many mistakes in volunteer coordination: my ego and inexperience prevented me from fully supporting a volunteer leader’s new, creative ideas. I was more focused on my vision for programs than the people I was supposed to empower. I did not yet understand how vital volunteers are – especially volunteer leaders – for program growth, ownership, and sustainability. I did not want to give away the good stuff.
Fast forward to the present. For the past 16 years, I have coordinated volunteer programs within local government. Our volunteer pool consists primarily of older adults and through them I have grown to realize why I continue to remain in the field of volunteer management: there is great joy in helping a volunteer discover – or rediscover – purpose through acts of service. And, as with the volunteers in my children’s ministry position, I have encountered volunteers wanting an opportunity to do more, to stretch, to grow…to lead.
Volunteer leadership has brought welcome changes to our programs. Two years ago, a long-time volunteer “retired” from her position with the ceramics program, giving another volunteer an opportunity to transition to that role. The new leader’s fresh approach included revamping the operational structure of the program, dividing, and sharing leadership responsibilities with two additional volunteers.
Although it is easier and safer to develop my own menu of opportunities rather than allow volunteers to realize their own ideas and help develop programs, I am missing the point if I do not find ways for volunteers to step into leadership roles. Three years ago I worked with a consultant and created a volunteer leadership development program for adults 55 and older. We educated the volunteers about community challenges, provided them with project planning and leadership development training, and then asked the volunteers to come up with solutions to those challenges.
The result? Volunteers met for six, three-hour weekly sessions, hearing from leaders and doers who provided programs and services to address interconnected community challenges. The volunteers continue to work with local organizations to address needs as direct service volunteers, ambassadors for a cause, and resource development project leaders.
The volunteers’ leadership program has challenged me in unexpected ways. In year two, we added a new workshop session, “volunteer speed dating.” Organizational representatives were allowed 10 minutes to share their mission, programs, and services to small groups of volunteers; a whistle was blown when time was up, and volunteers moved on to the next organization.
Great conversations, connections, energy, and laughter flowed through the room! A project idea emerged as a volunteer asked if a system existed to promote local volunteer opportunities to the public. I was happy to say yes, our department manages a volunteer connection website, which led the volunteer to ask why don’t I know about it? Ouch. I was embarrassed to realize I had not effectively promoted this resource. Other volunteers echoed her question. Double ouch.
The volunteer spent time reviewing the website and then decided she wanted to lead a project to enhance it, making it more accessible and effective for organizations and potential volunteers. This was a great idea but one that caused me to squirm just a bit (okay, in all honesty, a lot). The website was my pet project, but in recent years I had been unable to devote time and attention to it. It was uncomfortable to receive constructive criticism, yet it was something I knew I needed to hear.
In this instance I had a familiar choice to make; stand in the way of a volunteer’s initiative OR step back and let the volunteer lead a project to benefit organizations and potential volunteers. So, what did I do? I stepped back, of course, as I did not want to repeat my mistake from 25 years ago. However, I am still involved in the project as a supportive team member (and yes, I do need gentle, humorous reminders to stay in my lane!). It is a pleasure watching the volunteer lead with purpose, determination, and creativity. And for me, that is the good stuff.
Krista Gilmore, CVA has worked for Cecil County (MD) Department of Community Services since November 2004 and currently oversees an AmeriCorps Seniors program. She recently completed a five-year appointment to the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Service & Volunteerism. Krista received her CVA in 2013 and was recertified in 2018.