On why it matters to report to the CEO

A lot of ink has been spilled in the volunteer management world, trying to figure out where a volunteer program should sit on the org chart. Do volunteers belong within development, programming, human resources, or maybe operations?

I’ve joined this conversation more than once, debating the relative merits of one department over another, and featuring colleagues who thrive in those areas.

Then I had a conversation with CVA Heather Lother, only to realize that the conversation may be off track.

The reason we keep debating this issue is because, ideally, volunteer management does not rank below any other organizational function.

Volunteer engagement is a stand-alone department on its own.

Heather, who has managed volunteers for seven years, sought out her current position because engagement was treated as valuable in and of itself, operating as its own department.

For the past three years, Heather has served as Senior Director of Engagement for United Way of Piedmont, where she oversees a staff of four, managing over 5,000 volunteers annually, and reporting directly to the President & CEO.

Heather was drawn to the position because volunteerism was embedded within the organization’s mission statement, credo, and strategic plan. “I liked the value proposition. It was clear that volunteers were valued and fully supported,” she explained.

If you look at United Way of the Piedmont’s staff page, you will see that Heather serves as part of the Executive Team. She takes part in senior team meetings, runs committees and contributes to decision-making at the leadership level. This structure is considered a best practice promoted by United Way Worldwide.

Heather Lother (first row right) with her volunteers at United Way of Piedmont)

“I’m grateful to have a seat at the table,” Heather continued. “I get to see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes. I’m expected to run committees and model a high level of professionalism.”

Leading at a high level has helped Heather take her work more seriously.

“I’m expected to make presentations to the Board to demonstrate the value of volunteer engagement. Being held accountable has challenged me to track and document the effectiveness of my program. I’ve learned to gather more data and present my outcomes in a dashboard. I want to communicate the full scope of what we do.”

For board meetings, Heather documents her program’s impact in multiple ways, including:

  • Return on Investment (ROI) and Wage Replacement Value calculations to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of the program. “Our margin is low – 10% on most things. I want to underscore how we support the organization’s bottom line.”
  • Data on the number of volunteers participating and the number of clients served
  • Photos of volunteers in action
  • Testimonials from clients
  • Stories of volunteer impact

Heather’s board report aligns engagement data with the organization’s priorities

“In the future, we’ll be able to track more impact outcomes for projects, too. For example, we’re partnering our volunteers with a reading program for underserved children. We’ll be able to connect data about the kids in the program and compare it to the performance of other children in the classroom. That’s exciting!”

I asked Heather if she had any guidance for volunteer managers who work for organizations where the volunteer role is under-valued. Her advice?

“If you want to be taken seriously, you need to set goals and answer for them. Hold yourself accountable for what your program achieves and figure out how to document those achievements. Without taking this level of responsibility, how can you expect others to value what you are doing?”

“If you’re really struggling in the trenches, take a step back.”

Heather suggests that you ask yourself these questions:

  1. What’s going on? What’s the bigger picture here? If your organization is struggling financially, they may not be able to connect the dots and understand volunteer value.
  2. Why are your volunteers there in the first place? There’s got to be a clear, strategic purpose for the organization to engage volunteers.
  3. What is the language of value that your organization speaks? Learn to communicate in that language. Don’t abandon statistics like the Wage Replacement Value and ROI. Those are figures that resonate with leaders and get their attention. You can build on those figures to demonstrate impact in other ways.

“Finally, make sure to connect with your local AVA (Association for Volunteer Administration). They can help you crowdsource your problem and spare you a lot of trial and error. Hearing what’s normal at other organizations can help you appreciate what you’ve got.”

Sharing with colleagues and hearing about their experiences can also motivate you to look elsewhere. If you are finding it’s a heavy lift to elevate your volunteer program, it may be time to move on.

There are organizations out there that embrace their volunteers and empower their volunteer leaders.

Just ask Heather.


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