How would it feel to be part of a team that’s all pulling in the same direction? One volunteer manager shares her experience.

Playing on the Dream TeamIf you train volunteers, you have probably noticed that every group is a little bit different. Each one has its own personality and a special set of interests and challenges.

My last  volunteer managers retreat had that same quality. It was different from my first one, not better or worse – just different.

One of the things that made it different was that we spent a lot of time talking about the relationships between volunteer departments and development teams.  A few of the retreat participants reported directly to development directors and felt underappreciated. They voiced frustration about their supervisors’ limited view of what it takes to run a strong program– not fully understanding their needs or appreciating all of the resources that volunteers bring to the table.

There was one participant, though, who had an entirely different and completely positive experience with her development department. In fact, she is considered an integral and valued part of the resource-building team at her organization.

That person is Jessica Towers, whom you may have seen profiled on Twenty Hats back in April. Jessica is the Volunteer Program Coordinator for DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), an organization that I admire more and more every time I talk with Jessica. This time, I am in awe of DCCK’s big-picture grasp of the teamwork and coordination required to operate a thriving nonprofit.

DCCK Team Light Res

Jessica Towers (front, third from left) and her DC Central Kitchen Dream Team

DCCK gets that it takes a LOT of teamwork and coordination to expand resources.  In fact, the organization’s Chief Development Officer, Alexander Moore holds weekly inter-departmental meetings to ensure that no one who engages with DCCK falls through the cracks.  Jessica is an integral part of a nonprofit “Dream Team” that includes:

  • The Development and Communications Staff
  • The Executive Assistant
  • The “Data Squad”
  • and of course, Jessica, to represent the Volunteer Program.

“Jessica’s role on the team is critical,” says Alex. “She is the face of DCCK for over 15,000 volunteers a year. She is in a unique place to draw connections between people and our organization.”

Sometimes drawing connections means finding the right volunteer opportunity for a  donor. Other times, it’s Jessica who is introducing volunteers to the development staff.

For example, Jessica attends most fundraising events because she understands how important it is to talk to guests, share her passion for the cause, and find a way to engage them in the work of the organization. “Almost always a good place to start is to get folks involved in the kitchen,” she observed.

Jessica also understands that loyal volunteers are likely to become donors, and she takes advantage of events that will foster that relationship. A few years back, Jessica invited one longtime “rock star” volunteer to an appreciation event. It was the first time this volunteer had ever been recognized with such an invitation. After meeting more of the staff, the volunteer made a substantial donation.

And since many companies first encounter DCCK as corporate volunteers, Jessica pitches sponsorship opportunities and then connects the group with the development team to further the relationship.

It takes vision to build a nonprofit culture where all departments work together to strengthen the organization.  But you don’t need to wait for your leadership figure this out – there is plenty that you can do from your position to start building collaboration. Jessica was the first volunteer coordinator to start inviting longtime volunteers to fundraising events – a simple enough step that lead to even greater contributions.  You, too, can take small steps yourself to initiate change:

  • Educate others. Chances are, your co-workers and your leadership need you to explain what it takes to recruit or retain quality volunteers.
  • Take the initiative. See if a volunteer might speak at the next board meeting, or follow Jessica’s lead and invite the “rock stars” to the next big donor event.
  • Trust your instincts. We are often drawn to volunteer work because of our relationship-building gifts – that’s a powerful asset. Remember that the loyalty you cultivate in your volunteers is incredibly valuable to your organization.

We are most likely to expand our organizations when we see examples of what’s possible – it’s the kind of motivation that comes from engaging with our peers, learning from their experiences – and deciding to create that kind of success for ourselves.

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Nonprofits thrive when development and volunteer programs share the same goals, @THNonprofit