Power Boost: Enriching Your Volunteer Program by Engaging Families

February 24, 2011

When we need a solution, where do we turn first? To family, of course! And that’s where several Twin Cities organizations are turning to find a terrific source of eager, energetic volunteer talent: families. Doing Good Together was called on to help each of these agencies develop programs to recruit and retain families as an ongoing volunteer resource.

The agencies faced varying issues. Metro Meals on Wheels wanted to augment its aging volunteer force with a new program to appeal to families (an “untapped resource”). Global Citizens Network wanted to set itself apart from other volunteer travel groups by making its adventures uniquely family-friendly. Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis wanted to enrich its vast volunteer program by providing its family volunteers with tools for parents to talk with their children about poverty and need. Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly wanted to expand on the valuable intergenerational connections that family volunteers so obviously brought to its elderly clientele.

Regardless of your own volunteer challenges, families with children can be an enthusiastic new category of help and support. They can make a measurable difference in your productivity, public image and fundraising potential. Other benefits of family volunteers:

  • Your helpers will multiply. More people can spare the time to volunteer if they can bring their families. And families end up giving you more hours (23% more per week) than non-family volunteers.
  • Family volunteers donate more to charity—  an average of 2.6% of their income compared to 1.9% for non-family volunteers. Those funds could end up in your coffers.
  • When children volunteer from a young age, we create a whole new generation of volunteers, donors and philanthropists. Research indicates that adults who volunteered as children and whose parents volunteered were three times more likely to be involved in community service as adults who didn’t. You can help start this cycle of giving.

In addition, people who volunteer with family members enjoy themselves more, provide positive role models to clients, and bring important energy to your program. And enlisting family volunteers can increase your profile within the community and cement your good name with the next generation of givers.

To attract families to your mission, you’ll want to create engaging volunteer opportunities that are appropriate and appealing. Some things to consider:

  • Do you have existing opportunities you can expand on? See whether your current volunteer projects can be modified to make them suitable for families. For instance, one mentoring organization began letting entire families mentor a child, in addition to its pool of individual mentors.
  • Would off-site opportunities work for you? Consider what items families could create for you in their own homes. For example, families decorate lunch bags for Meals on Wheels recipients, make tissue paper flowers for elders served by Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, make sandwiches for homeless shelters, and fleece blankets for children’s hospitals. These simple at-home efforts can lead to larger volunteer projects.
  • Could your volunteer programs be reconfigured to integrate families? Even if families with children haven’t traditionally cooked meals for your clients, for example, maybe that is a project they could take on. Agencies are often surprised at the diverse ways children and families can contribute when given the opportunities.
  • Are you being creative enough? One agency serving elders created something called “Bubbe’s Bakery,” in which families with young children bake traditional Jewish foods with their older clients, then enjoy an intergenerational tea party. Another agency encourages families to host lemonade stands to raise money. You are only limited by your imagination.


You’ll also have more success recruiting and retaining family volunteers if you:

  • Focus on flexible and short-term assignments that will fit the schedules of busy families.
  • Motivate child volunteers often with positive feedback and recognition.
  • Structure opportunities so that families can quickly see the impact they are having. For example, Feed My Starving Children has families pack meals for kids in developing countries, and the young volunteers are impressed with their ability to pack hundreds of packets in a short time.
  • Provide reflection materials. Today’s parents use volunteer jobs to educate their children about important social issues. Journals, handbooks and how-tos help make the volunteer experience more meaningful and ensure that service becomes a lifelong value. (See the parent handbook Doing Good Together created for Metro Meals on Wheels.)

If you are interested in building your agency’s capacity to better engage families in service, please contact us at Doing Good Together. We would be happy to look at your specific opportunities and challenges, and suggest solutions tailored to your goals.

Jenny Friedman

Executive Director – Doing Good Together


Leadership Lessons for Turbulent Times

February 17, 2011

A recap on the MAVA Educational Presentation

Thursday, February 10, 2011 at the Roseville Library in Roseville, Minnesota

Tim Reardon (http://www.reardongroup.com/trg/home.htm) understands social services and volunteer management. He began his career at the Dorothy Day Center when it was just a small storefront, working closely with volunteers to advance their mission.  He seemed to feel very much “at home” with our group of 50 MAVA members who gathered to learn more about traversing these complicated times.

Tim began the session by asking people to get up and walk around, reviewing quotes posted on various walls.  People then congregated around the quote they thought best reflected their approach when facing leadership issues in these bumpy times. I chose “When deciding between 2 evils, I always choose the one I haven’t tried before,” a great quote from Mae West.  I met Nicole Burg, MAVA Member Outreach Coordinator, there who also resonated with Mae’s quote.  The exercise moved participants around, mixing us with others who felt drawn to similar quotes.

Tim invoked the teachings of Ron Heifetz (www.hks.harvard.edu/about/faculty-staff-directory/ronald-heifetz), co-author of the book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World.  Tim outlined the 3 goals for the day as:

  • · sharpen our ability to lead others during these turbulent times
  • · increase our self-discovery, confidence and trust to exercise change
  • · understand resistance to change

Tim led us through exercises where we all gave our best efforts to define leadership, explore the differences between management and leadership, and share our views of what leadership looked and felt like.  He then dove into the main concept of the training: distinguishing technical vs. adaptive challenges to ensure appropriate actions when addressing issues.

A quick overview of the presentation:

  • Technical challenges are those issues that need to be addressed by someone who is an authority on the matter and can apply current know-how.
  • Adaptive challenges are those that need to be addressed by the people with the problem. It is the leader’s role to help these people learn new ways to address the adaptive challenges. These issues often need an innovative and newly-designed approach that management cannot simply implement.

Misdiagnosis of an issue is a common problem. Trying to fix an adaptive issue using technical solutions will not produce success.    Tim’s main mantra was: most thorny issues tend to be adaptive, not technical.   An outside person (or person of authority) will not be able to ride in and solve the issues.  Tim outlined 6 principles of Adaptive Work:

  1. Get on the balcony (meaning, take a high-level look at the issues)
  2. Identify the adaptive challenge
  3. Regulate distress
  4. Maintain disciplined atttention
  5. Give the work back to those involved
  6. Protect those people close to the work who offer new ideas and are often not considered leaders

Tim’s session was highly informative, loaded with content that was understandable, usable, and could be implemented in our many & various organizations.  People stated they could have stayed  longer, investigated these concepts further, and spent even more time on this topic. I felt that it was a very worthwhile educational opportunity. He stressed:

  • Staying true to yourself
  • Holding steady
  • Focusing attention on the issues
  • Aligning yourself politically
  • Giving the right work back to the right people
  • Drawing attention to the right  questions
  • Controlling the heat on the issue
  • Orchestrating the conflict
  • Anchoring yourself

These are all great concepts for each of us to incorporate every day in our ever-tubulent work!  Tim reminded us of the wise words of Mohandas Gandhi that so elequently addressed an adaptive approach:

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”

Sandy Bergeron

MAVA member from Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota

Can you just say “no?”

February 9, 2011

I’m lucky!  For the first time in my career as a leader of a volunteer program, I do not have to recruit potential volunteers.  There are numerous reasons for this – the economy, the local foods movement, heck, even the Baby Boomers.  Gardening is more popular than ever.  Not only are our potential volunteers qualified, they’re full of excitement, wanting to learn more about gardening, but to then share their knowledge with the community.  And here lies the problem – there are too many qualified people out there.

Our program has always had more potential volunteers than were accepted into the program, but in 2010, applicants were outstanding.  We received 67 applications, interviewed 65 of those applicants, but could only bring in 28 new volunteers.  Our program has reached capacity – we’re unable bring in too many new individuals until we do some restructuring.  We want our new volunteers to have a good experience, thus the smaller numbers.  Most interesting for us this year – people we normally would have brought into the program, we had to turn away.  Applicants were just that good!

Saying “no” is not only tough on the job, but also in our “real” lives, and not just for Minnesotans.  Even Oprah has come up with 54 situations on how to say “no” effectively (http://www.oprah.com/spirit/How-to-Say-No-Social-Etiquette_2.)  When saying “no” to applicants in the past, I’ve always encouraged people to apply again in the future. I refer them to other horticultural organizations utilizing volunteers, and refer them to Hands On Twin Cities (www.handsontwincities.org) to find other volunteer opportunities.  Most of the time, I don’t get a response from those rejected, or I get a “thanks for letting me know.”  And then there’s the occasional “I’d like to grow from this, what could I have done better?”  This year was quite different.  Not only did I hear from 5 applicants “demanding” to know why they were not allowed into our program, I heard from 7 of our current volunteers expressing “concern” that their friend (or friends) wasn’t allowed into the program.  WikiHow does have some nice tips on how to say “no” respectfully (http://www.wikihow.com/Say-No-Respectfully) however no one has really come up with the solution to saying “no” multiple times effectively!

For the majority of programs I’ve worked with, saying “no” has been easy.  Most of us are protecting our clients or customers, many of us are working with youth and vulnerable adults.  We can say “no” with confidence, knowing that we’re saving our organizations from legal fees and heartaches.  There’s a nice article at Helium.com on why we should say “no” to a potential volunteer:  http://www.helium.com/items/1511373-saying-no-to-a-potential-volunteer.  However, when you’re saying “no” to someone you know could do the job, but you just can’t utilize them at the moment, no one feels good!

The good news is that we have started the process to see how we can continue to grow our program in a cost-effective way (read: we’re not going to ask anyone for more money or staff.)  Just as the number of potential volunteers has increased, so has the number of community partners and residents wanting answers to their horticultural questions.  We can easily find meaningful work and the qualified individuals to do it.  However, one of our biggest obstacles in growing the program is meeting space for our monthly educational sessions.  Believe it or not, there are not many spaces in Hennepin County that can seat 225 individuals, don’t cost much, and have free parking!  I do believe our current volunteers are motivated to continue to grow our program, taking on more responsibilities to insure an enjoyable volunteer experience for everyone.

And maybe I’m just too much of a nice guy (after all, I have lived in Minnesota all of my life.) Then again, maybe this gardening thing will just fall out of favor and I’ll go back to having a recruiting plan!

Terry Straub, Program Coordinator

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners in Hennepin County

Welcome to the MAVA Community Blog

February 2, 2011

Broaching topics from balancing the workload in our very unique jobs to exposing the best kept recruitment and recognition secrets, this blog is a resource and a communication tool where we are our own experts, here to support one another as we work towards building our communities together!

As you know, we in volunteer management are an interesting breed of professionals that deal with a wide variety of issues and tasks. Communication, marketing, human resources, law, project management, event planning, technical support, conflict resolution, youth engagement, diversity, database management; these are just a few of the many topics we dive into in our daily support of volunteers. And let’s not forget how we have absolutely perfected the art form of saying thank you!

So how do we keep track of it all while staying in constant motion? How do we learn as we go, and share as we learn? This blog is just one way that MAVA hopes to assist volunteer management professionals in answering these questions. But MAVA can’t do it alone. For a community blog to flourish, we must contribute to it to receive the benefits of our colleagues contributions. If you are interested in blogging, please contact Nicole Burg at: nburg@mavanetwork.org.

Welcome to a great new tool that has the potential of making our jobs and our communities a little bit better!

Molly Kennedy Lageson

Volunteer Resources Specialist – Science Museum of Minnesota

Marketing & Technology Committee Member – MAVA