Reflection on my first few months “building capacity” as an AmeriCorps VISTA

January 11, 2013

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, the work that I have begun and will continue for the next eight months is centered around capacity building within Emergency Foodshelf Network’s volunteer program. Emergency Foodshelf Network is a local and independent food bank with over 200 hunger relief partners and several innovative programs designed to address hunger relief in Minnesota. Upon arrival to EFN, I learned that 12,593 individuals clocked in 30,113 hours of volunteer work at our warehouse and events during the 2011 fiscal year. My initial thought was something along the lines of, “What can I do to increase capacity of a volunteer program that is already so successful during my year of service at this organization?”

I soon learned that while EFN is fortunate enough to have a large and reliable network of volunteers, capacity building does not only apply to increasing the number of volunteers and hours they donated. Capacity building also refers to establishing sustainability of a volunteer program. It is not enough to simply invite volunteers into EFN’s warehouse and hope that they will automatically be satisfied with their volunteer experience. A lot more thought and planning is necessary to maintain a successful and sustainable volunteer program than I had initially thought. From recruitment to recognition, each component of any volunteer program poses several things to consider. How will volunteers be greeted upon arrival to our warehouse and what crucial information about our organization and the hunger relief mission we embody should be presented to the volunteers? How can we maintain communication with volunteers after they leave our building and what methods and tools should we use to keep them involved with our organization? Questions like these are all so directly related to the success of a volunteer program, and even a little change could potentially make a big difference.

Realizing that there is so much out there to learn about effectively managing volunteer programs, I began to do some research. I began researching similar hunger relief organizations, sharing ideas with volunteer managers at those organizations, and looking at their program processes. I followed up by exploring volunteer programs at several other non-profit organizations and looking at more general resources associated with volunteer management. I have really enjoyed learning about volunteer program best practices at non-profit organizations in the past few months through my work here at EFN, and I will say that MAVA has been a wonderful resource to aide my learning.

I stumbled upon a blog that was intended to be a central location where food shelves, food banks, on-site meal programs and other hunger relief organizations could communicate with each other and share relevant information—only to find that it hadn’t been updated in about a year and only had a few posts…but what an amazing idea. I found this concept similar to some of the work that MAVA does every single day. It’s great that MAVA offers members the opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other through workshops, events, the website, etc. For someone like myself who is just learning about utilizing volunteers at a non-profit organization, resources like MAVA are invaluable.I look forward to continuing to learn about volunteer program best practices at non-profit organizations with the help of MAVA and other resources and am excited about the innovation and new ideas to come to the volunteer management field.

Michelle Barcelona

AmeriCorps VISTA at Emergency Foodshelf Network


Appreciation Ideas…

December 7, 2012

We haven’t gotten through the holidays yet and yes, my mind is already spinning with ideas for Volunteer Appreciation week (April 21– 27, 2013).  While I like to think that we verbally and non verbally show our volunteers appreciation every day, I enjoy the opportunity to make one week of the year extra special.  But let’s face it, everyone’s budget is lean.  Where do you get the funding for gifts, banquets and fun events?  Well, some of the best events are free and available to you within your organization.  Here are a few ideas of appreciation activities that were successful with our volunteer group or that I hope will be successful in 2013.  (Forgive me, I work in a hospital so the titles of some of the activities may seem geared only for healthcare volunteers.  But that’s not the case!  Any organization can mold the following activities to suit their needs.)

VIP Hospital Tour

We just hosted a “VIP” tour of the off stage areas of our hospital.  Volunteers loved seeing other areas in which volunteers serve, and areas that the public does not get to see.  Meeting staff in each department was a plus and without prompting our entire administrative team was available at the end of the tour and personally thanked the volunteers who attended.  One of our Guest Services team members coordinated the tour as this is something she already does with community groups.  It was a free event that really took no time to organize and the volunteers left feeling appreciated and more connected to not only their volunteer role but the hospital as a whole.  Even if you work in a small organization, host a “tour” of your facility and have staff members talk about their roles and how volunteers assist them.  Staff can make the connection between what they do, how volunteers assist them and the mission.  Ding, ding, ding!  Can we say increased volunteer retention?!

Haunted Hospital Tour

We are saving this idea for next fall, but I can’t tell you how excited I am just thinking about it!  Our security team recently revealed that they have video footage of inanimate objects moving that they can’t quite explain.  This lead to a conversation about the strange things staff have observed and can’t explain.  Spooky!  I plan to ask our security team if they would lead a tour of the hospital that would focus on the areas in which strange things have been seen and to show the strange video clips.  I have a feeling that a haunted tour in October will be a hit!  Does your organization have any ghost stories to share?

Human Bingo

If you’ve never played human bingo at a party or a retreat, search for it on Google.  Templates and sample questions will pop up.  Volunteers played human bingo during the 2012 appreciation week and the competition was shocking!  (If you filled your bingo card you were entered into a prize raffle).  I thought it would be a fun way to pass the time during our open house (more about that later), but it turned in to a great way for volunteers to get to know staff in their departments and throughout the hospital.  Staff got in on the fun as they would help volunteers connect with other staff who could help them complete their bingo sheet.  The activity proved to be a nice break for staff, a great way for volunteers to interact with more staff, a team builder for everyone.

Hospital Quiz

In an effort to test what our volunteers know (or should know) about locations/departments within the hospital, I created a virtual scavenger hunt.  They didn’t physically have to go to all locations, but they could if that would have been helpful or educational.  Volunteers would read a clue and try to figure out what location was being described.  Here’s an example clue:   “Lactation supplies, flowers, gifts and more.  We’ve got everything you might need in this tiny store.” (Did you guess Gift Shop…good job!).  Every volunteer who completed their scavenger hunt correctly was entered into a prize raffle (our prizes were donated by local businesses).

International Service Presentation

Post college and pre career, I served for two years in the Peace Corps.  During 2012 appreciation week I gave a presentation to our volunteers about my experience.  They seemed to really enjoy learning about serving abroad, something they could somewhat identify with since they serve their local community.  I learned that one of our volunteers also served in the Peace Corps and I hope that this year we can do a joint presentation.  Maybe you didn’t serve in the Peace Corps, maybe you like to make cards, or study birds.  Maybe you know the ins and outs of medicare, or like woodworking.  Is there something that you could present on or demonstrate for your volunteers?  You could even turn this into a lunch and learn type event.  Don’t have any skills or knowledge that you think volunteers would be interested in?  What about your co-workers?  What about volunteers themselves?  Or how about friends and family (maybe they owe you a favor you could cash in…)?  Think outside the box!

Environmental Services Open House

A few years ago during Environmental Services week (EVS), our EVS staff allowed our staff to try out their various equipment.  I heard the event was a hoot!  Staff were surprised at how challenging or how simple it was to use some of the EVS equipment.  Do you have a department with “special equipment” that volunteers could take for a test spin?

Eucharistic Ministers Snack & Chat

Our Eucharistic Ministers provide an invaluable service to our Catholic patients and families.  Since this group of volunteers is clearly religious, we played off that emphasis.  We invited our new chaplain to introduce himself at this gathering.  We also invited a local pastor to speak about an appropriate topic.  The time together was an opportunity to talk about successes and challenges after one year of this new volunteer position.  Coffee (donated) and treats (made at home) were brought in for the event.  The volunteers still talk about how enjoyable the event was.  I think we hit the nail on the head by addressing their spiritual needs as well as their volunteer needs.

Open House

Last year we hosted a department open house for the rest of the organization.  Our volunteer room is locked to the general public and the rest of the staff.  Since we are located in a main thoroughfare near the Café, it seemed like an obvious choice to host an open house with treats during the lunch rush.  Our volunteers hosted the room and we had a great turn out.  Showing volunteers that you want them to represent your program is a great way to affirm them and appreciate their role within your organization.  Plus, the staff who stopped by told the volunteers directly how much they were appreciated.  What a great way for volunteers to hear a positive message straight from the staff they serve!

Volunteer Show & Tell

This is an idea that I am toying with for 2013.  If anyone has done something similar, I would love to hear!  I have been thinking about how our staff has so much to offer in a lunch & learn type environment when it dawned on me that our volunteers do too!  I have written previously about how in the interview process I learn so much about volunteer interests and professions.  I get to live vicariously through our volunteers!  Wouldn’t it be great if the staff could too!  An open house or show & tell featuring our volunteers and their interests.  We have volunteers who play pickleball, are into robotics, can knit, collect rocks, play musical instruments, etc.  What if we set up booths where volunteers could demonstrate their talents or talk about their interests?  This type of event, to me, sends the message that while we appreciate all that you do for our organization we also understand that you have interests and passions outside of volunteering.  And, we would love to learn more about those hobbies because we appreciate you, all of you!


So this might sound like a strange appreciation event, but I have found that by hosting a new volunteer orientation during appreciation week you are a.) showing applicants how you appreciate your current volunteers and b.) showing your volunteers that you appreciate them and image of your organization that they present.  In 2012 volunteers were invited to speak (briefly) at our new volunteer orientation about their role within the organization.  Who better to speak about your program than the volunteers themselves?  Volunteers really enjoyed being able to share their story and new volunteers saw that we walked the talk.

I hope this list inspires you to think outside the box and create free or low cost events in house to appreciate your volunteers this spring and throughout the year!


Jennifer Nelson

Volunteer Services Coordinator,  Maple Grove Hospital

A Volunteer’s Perspective from (Close to) the Beginning

October 31, 2012

As I enter my 3rd month as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at Tubman, I am pausing to take stock of what has brought me here, to look forward, and to explore how what MAVA is teaching me can help Tubman grow.

Tubman is known as a leader in providing shelter and supportive services to women and families facing the crisis of domestic violence.  I chose to apply to volunteer at Tubman because its mission closely matches my concern for the difficulties women face in a world of discrimination so entrenched that it is often invisible.

I was selected to volunteer as a Community Advocate answering phones and providing resources to women exploring their options, including emergency shelter, legal, housing, parenting, mental and chemical health, safety, and a wide range of services.  Sometimes, all I did was listen supportively, yet these seemed to be the most meaningful calls. I soon discovered that being able to help out women in a wide variety of situations made me feel good too and I realized I wanted more.

Imagine my good fortune to discover that Tubman had been selected by MAVA to take an AmeriCorps VISTA position.  The goal of this position is to help grow capacity in the newly renovated Tubman East facility in Maplewood.  I felt even more fortunate to be selected for the position!  The renovation is finally close to completion and we preparing to move from our older, smaller shelter into this newly renovated facility.

Being at a new facility and starting up a new program has had its own challenges.  I have had to work hard to turn vision into reality and create structure from thin air.  Luckily I have had some great support and helpful ideas from the talented and experienced Tubman staff.

My supervisor, Director of Sustainability Services, Janet Golden, has been helping me complete an analysis of services we could provide our clients.  This project has required lots of time researching on the internet and sorting through the data I found.  Luckily I’ve had Janet’s advice on how to make sense of all of the data! I hope to soon have made some choices of what we would like to offer.

I am so excited that we will have the shelter community at the new location and the classes can start to be implemented.  I am currently wrestling with how to motivate the community to attend the classes we are shaping for them.  I just finished reading Daniel Pink’s “Drive” and am hoping I can figure out ways to harness the intrinsic motivations of learning.  I believe the community as a whole benefits any time anyone grows and learns.  I would love to figure out a system to highlight the fact that class attendees are helping more than just themselves.  Maybe we could decide as a team to send half of the registration fee to a charity of their choice?  If any of MAVA’s blogs readers have ideas, please send ’em my way!

I just came back from meeting with the first program we might partner with.  I can start to see what services we hope to bring in for our clients and the community and am overwhelmed with gratitude that I have had this opportunity to participate in bringing in these services.

Having seen both sides of the volunteer equation, I am so excited to be recruiting and managing volunteers to participate in such a wonderfully supportive environment.

Patricia Zetelumen, AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer at Tubman

Volunteer Recruitment: It’s all about Relationship Building

September 28, 2012

I work for AccountAbility Minnesota (AAM), a nonprofit organization that provides most of its direct service during tax season (from January through April). Given that I am now ramping up to recruit about 400 volunteers for our 2013 tax season, I figured it would be a good time to talk about the recruitment tactics that I have found most effective. While we’ve done different things to recruit volunteers over the years, the foundation for our volunteer recruitment revolves around one simple tactic – relationship-building. Below are a few ways we use relationships to bolster our program.

Tap into your volunteers: Reaching out to volunteers already involved with your organization is one of the most effective ways to bring in new volunteers. At AAM, I reach out to about two dozen volunteers to ask them to help with recruitment. I start by asking if they have friends or family that might want to volunteer in a role similar to theirs. Often, I’ll ask a volunteer to help us spread the news about volunteer opportunities in their workplace or school. This could be as small as sending an email to coworkers. I often have volunteers help create a lunch and learn type of event at their place of work or school. The volunteer helps by booking a room and advertising the session. I’ve found these events to be a great way to get more people involved. If volunteers don’t have the time to set up an event, I’ll ask them to send a flyer around and have interested volunteers contact me directly. These tactics have helped us significantly increase our volunteer commitment from several Twin Cities corporations.

I have had a few volunteer managers tell me they’re nervous about asking volunteers to do this because of the impression that they’re asking too much. Volunteers are involved with your organization for a reason and most are interested in getting involved in other ways. It’s been my experience that most volunteers I ask to get more involved say yes. And many are happy that I asked, even if they decline. Either way, it’s worth the time to talk with your most dedicated volunteers about getting involved in additional ways.

Using teachers to recruit students:Many volunteer programs depend on students for a significant part of their volunteer needs and teachers are key to reaching them. Students can be great assets. Here at AAM, they’re able to fill many of the daytime volunteer shifts that we’ve had trouble filling in years past. While many schools offer opportunities to recruit volunteers (i.e. posting on a website or attending community involvement fairs), I have found the most effective way to recruit students is through teachers. Teachers are an incredible avenue to students because of the established relationship they have with students. Case in point is my experience with a professor at a law school. She had not heard of our program prior to reaching out to her. However, she had experience working with low-income taxpayers and understood the value the volunteer experience could bring to her students. She invited me into her classroom to make a five minute pitch for volunteers. Because of that connection and her advocacy to her students, we were able to get 18 student volunteers. The best part is that is required very little time on my part.

I would encourage you to think about the relationships you have in your volunteer network and how they may help you with your volunteer recruitment or other needs. I would love to hear what others have found effective. Please post your ideas in the comments section below.

Adam Faitek

Volunteer resources director, AccountAbility Minnesota

The Value of Skilled Volunteers

September 21, 2012

More than ever, it is a time of wearing many hats. Of multi-tasking and added responsibilities. Of doing more than we thought was feasible. All of us as volunteer managers recognize that our organizations could not function without volunteers, and we rely on these volunteers to do everything from mailings to tutoring to preparing meals to taking leadership roles.

My challenge to you, however, is to think about the skills you’d like to have, or the type of staff you’d like to hire, and try to find a volunteer to fill that role. In managing the everyday responsibilities of the Volunteer Center at Community Thread, I have often thought, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we had a volunteer who would do such-and-such?”  Several times when this thought has popped up, I’ve dismissed it, thinking there was no way we’d ever find a volunteer with those particular skills. However, I’ve learned that it never hurts to put it out there. Deciding to post the position on social media, our database, and our website has yielded some wonderful skilled volunteers for our organization! Another terrific way to identify skilled volunteers is to learn what some of your current volunteers do for a living and what their hobbies are. I find that most volunteers are thrilled to contribute where their skills lie, even if that means volunteering in a different way than they originally signed up for. Here are a few of our success stories in implementing skilled volunteers.

Graphic Design-Community Thread is small and does not have a Marketing Manager or a staff with skills in graphic design. We had a volunteer sign up to help seniors stay in their homes by offering cleaning help once a week. However, I noticed on her volunteer application that her work history was in graphic design and event planning. I asked her if she might be willing to design a few logos for some of our annual service days, and she was extremely honored to be asked. She has so far designed logos for our Spring Into Service event and our Rake a Difference Day, making our marketing materials much more attractive!

Blogging-Our new volunteer opportunity with the feature of having blog content feed into the front page. Since we previously didn’t have a Community Thread blog, I was suddenly tasked with creating and updating a blog for our organization. On a whim I posted on facebook for a volunteer willing to try various volunteer opportunities and blog about her experiences. A few days later I was contacted by a college student excited to fill the role, and she turned out to be a very talented writer! Her blog posts have yielded more traffic to our blog than any of our other posts.

Photography-I had been hoping to find someone who could take quality photos for our marketing materials. I found out that one of our Holiday Bureau sponsors was a professional photographer, and asked her if she might be willing to volunteer her time as a photographer for some of our events. She was more than willing to help out, and has since taken pictures at several of our events, created a video for our website, and conducted a photography tutorial for our staff members.

The combined efforts of these three volunteers has saved me a lot of time, and has helped increase the quality of our marketing efforts and our ability to tell our story. These are just a few of the many talented volunteers to come through our doors. When we utilize the unique skills of our volunteers, there is no limit to what we can accomplish!

Elena Ballam
Volunteer Center Program Manager, Community Thread

The Importance of Volunteer Leaders

September 14, 2012

The Webster Dictionary defines volunteer as “a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service: as a : one who enters into military service voluntarily b (1) : one who renders a service or takes part in a transaction while having no legal concern or interest.”

But volunteers are so much more than that. We are an extraordinary group of people devoted to improving not only our own life, but the lives of those around us.  We work hard in what we do, even though we may not always receive recognition.  We understand the importance of giving back to the community, and helping those who need it the most.

Leading this special group of people is no easy feat. It takes someone who is organized and can handle stressful situations. It is someone who is able to recognize the hard work of the volunteers. And most importantly, it takes someone who can inspire others on the importance of giving back to the community.

Stressful situations are bound to happen when leading volunteers.  Communication and being organized are vital in preventing these unfortunate circumstances. Organizing and dividing up tasks for the volunteers is required in making sure everything gets accomplished and the volunteer’s time is not wasted. Communication between the site and volunteers is necessary in making sure volunteers understand their role and to stop any problems before they occur. Errors in scheduling, not enough volunteers at an event, or too many volunteers and not enough work are all possible situations for a volunteer leader, but through communication and organization, these problems can be reduced drastically.

In order to make the volunteering experience with the organization both meaningful and memorable, a connection with the volunteers should be made. This connection starts when matching the qualifications and interests of the volunteer with an activity where they can strive and make the site even better.  Throughout their time volunteering, it’s important to connect with the volunteer to ensure they know the organization truly appreciates the time they devote and the work they do really does make a difference.  By doing so, this will help to leave a positive volunteer experience and will hopefully inspire them to volunteer in future.  Making a connection is also important with potential volunteers as a volunteer leader can help an individual understand the value of volunteering and motivate change in the community.

Recognition of the volunteer’s hard work and devotion to an organization is also an important piece of leading volunteers. And it doesn’t always mean having awards and ceremonies. A simple thank you can go a long way.  It is also important for volunteers to be recognized in the community.  According to Independent Sector, the estimated value of volunteer time was $21.79 per hour. This is an enormous impact volunteers are making the community, and the community should be aware of all the hard work they are doing.  In order to have the community recognize this impact, leaders of volunteers should be collecting information on volunteer numbers and hours. Not only will this information be very helpful when presenting at community meetings to share the impact of volunteers, but also in the recruitment of new volunteers.

Volunteer leaders are in a unique position where they can inspire change in individual volunteers and truly make a difference in someone’s life. Their job is anything but easy, but through communication and recognizing the hard work of the individuals they really can make a giant impact in the community and improve the lives of so many people.

Veronica Kneeland, MAVA VISTA 2012-2013

The Individual Volunteer

September 7, 2012

In my seven months as an Americorps VISTA, I’ve worked on recruitment and retention projects that will build capacity within the Volunteer Services Department at Second Harvest Heartland.  There’s no question that our organization will increasingly rely on volunteers to fulfill our mission of ending hunger through community partnerships.  Instead, the question on our minds is how can we best recognize volunteers for the tremendous contributions they make to that mission?

Why is the answer to this question so elusive?  For me, it cuts straight to the sometimes contradictory, sometimes complimentary reasons that volunteerism is so important.

Volunteers are logistical magic: they help our organizations provide services and goods to our communities that would simply go missing without them. Their work is tangible, immediate and real. At Second Harvest Heartland, volunteers donated over 61,000 hours of time last year. That’s more than 7,500 workdays that volunteers spent delivering food to seniors, registering clients for nutritional programs and doing the essential work of simply sorting and packing the food that we send to our partner agencies.

It’s no wonder, then, that our department of Volunteer Services reports to our Chief Operations Officer. Our daily work revolves around our warehouse and its policies, procedures and processes, and the metrics we use to accurately report the volunteer impact to our partners, donors and, of course, the volunteers themselves.

Yet in another sense the real value that they bring to our organization is intangible.  As essential as volunteers are to our internal operations, they are also one of our most important ties to our community. They volunteer with us because our work resonates with their values, motivations and goals.They’re our heart and voice, not just a pair of hands.

No doubt that’s why the secret to volunteer appreciation is hard to pinpoint. We thank our volunteers every time they come in, recognize them in annual events and keep them informed about how their service uniquely impacts our work.  I’m thrilled that we’re working to design processes that make appreciation a priority and a fixture in our relationships with volunteers.

But I think the key to great appreciation is giving it when it isn’t necessarily practical or part of the plan.  The inconvenient and unexpected are par for the course for recognition that also acknowledges the enriching intangibles of lasting relationships. Whether we’re volunteers or volunteer administrators, at the end of the day it’s all about the relationship between people with unique values and motivations.

I’ve certainly found this to be true of appreciation at The Soap Factory (TSF), Minneapolis’ inspiring gallery for emerging artists, where I volunteer and am always looking to steal some ideas.  When I began my VISTA position, TSF Program Manager Lillian Egner met with me to show me the ropes of volunteer coordination even though I was no longer a current TSF volunteer. Later, Volunteer Coordinator Dani Hans shared her knowledge about gathering qualitative information on volunteer motivations and sentiments.  Their receptivity to my new goals was so generous that I’ve been back and volunteering since.

My organization’s need for volunteers is growing, as is the emphasis we put on volunteers’ needs, not least among them recognition.  Appreciation that’s sincere and timely will never miss the mark, but the best recognition gives volunteers to celebrate a deep relationship.

Kaia Arthur Volunteer Program Developer (Americorps)
Second Harvest Heartland