Like a medical resident who rotates through specialties, reporting to different departments will ramp up your volunteer management expertise

How did your nonprofit decide where to house the volunteer program? Is it part of Development? Does it reside under Operations? How about Program, or Human resources?

Volunteer engagement intersects with so many different functions within our organizations. We are a gateway for community connection, an administrative function that serves one particular type of staff, and the steward to one of the most powerful methods of delivering service to clients. No wonder that nonprofits are often challenged to figure out where we belong.

There is one organization, though, that has embraced the complexity within volunteer management. At Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC, the volunteer program has resided under multiple different umbrellas – and come out all the better for it.

Just ask Lisa Leyh, the Head of Visitor Services and Volunteer Management for the estate. In her 12 ½ years with Hillwood, Lisa has moved with the volunteer program through several different departments within the organization.

“Every move of the volunteer program has brought opportunities,” says Lisa.

Lisa Leyh, Hillwood’s Head of Visitor Services and Volunteer Management, has travelled with the volunteer program through multiple departments. Each rotation has strengthened her service to volunteers.

“When I first began at Hillwood in Visitor Services, I was responsible for checking in guests and taking reservations. Those forward-facing roles also involved working closely with the volunteers. Eventually, I was promoted to Volunteer Manager and became responsible for supporting the Interpretation volunteers here at the estate, such as mansion and garden docents as well as visitor services volunteers.”

Six years later, the volunteer program was re-organized to report to the Interpretation Department. Over the course of Lisa’s career, she had worked closely with Hillwood’s head of interpretation on a variety of educational projects for the volunteer program, such as mansion docent training.  The shift to the Interpretation department reflected the close relationship between volunteer management and education.

Then, for three years, the program was part of Human Resources. Now, it is back in Visitor Services, which Lisa has recently been promoted to head.

You might think that the multiple relocations would have caused some chaos within the volunteer program. But if anything, Lisa’s experience has been the reverse.

“Every move has improved our program. For example, the last three years under Human Resources has strengthened our systems considerably. We’ve developed so many policies and procedures – the program is so much more robust now.”

Under the direction of the Director of Human Resources, Lisa streamlined their plan for responding to difficult situations with volunteers and expanded the volunteer services opportunities to other departments. With the new procedures in place, Hillwood’s volunteer program grew 14% at the start of 2017 over the previous year.

“And now that we’re back in Visitor Services, the volunteer program has come full circle. We’re able to engage our volunteers more effectively – especially in times of transition.”

“For example, with so many new and dynamic offerings at Hillwood, folding the volunteer program back into Visitor Services allows for a more cohesive team for the staff and volunteers supporting the front lines operations of the museum”.

Lisa has some advice for colleagues who find themselves in a similar situation: treat these moves as professional development opportunities.

“I’ve been growing as the volunteer program has grown,” Lisa noted. “I’ve benefitted from every shift.”

“All of my supervisors understood the value of a volunteer program. They have mentored me. When I was working in Interpretation, we took the opportunity during the 2014 docent training recruitment to revamp our interview process for volunteers.  The changes to the interview were such a success, the head of interpretation and I will be presenting at this year’s American Alliance of Museum’s conference on ‘Learning How to Hire for Attitude: Matching Staff, Volunteers, and Your Museum’s Culture’.“

“When you get moved, it takes time to understand what’s important to your volunteer manager,” Lisa continues, “You need to make sure that your goals are aligned. Be open to your new supervisor’s perspective and the projects that come your way.”

“You never know where your path will lead because of the networks you are building.”


Want to elevate your volunteer program? My Six Principles of Buy-In will help you advocate effectively.  Email me to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.