The Power of Choice – Let the Volunteer Lead the Way!

July 11, 2012

By: Arika Quick, Manager of Volunteer Services, MN Landscape Arboretum

Many volunteer managers employ a variety of tactics to help them recruit and eventually place volunteers within their organizations. There is no magic bullet, our golden key that works for every situation and often time’s volunteer administrators find that it is a unique combination of tactics and tools that best fits their organizations mission and distinctive situation. That being said, here is what’s working for us!

At the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, I learned firsthand that adaptability was an important and necessary skill to exceeding in this field.  Before starting my position as Manager of Volunteer Services, the Arboretum focused on a skills based matching system for placing new volunteers. This was mostly done through a one on one interview or small group interviews. I thought yes, this makes a lot of sense…BUT how can you do that for approximately 200 new volunteers each year, in addition to the 800 volunteers the Arboretum already has AND accomplish any other work!?

It quickly became apparent that a new approach that would keep the staff sane and the volunteers happy was needed. It dawned on me that, volunteers are extremely capable, wanted to give back, and beyond giving, they wanted to LEAD! In this sense lead means volunteers placing themselves within the organization. Volunteers would do this by utilizing the knowledge of their own skills and talents to apply for open positions. This meant also tapping into their own desires and self motivations to help them discover their best match within the organization.

Where to start? Firstly I knew, volunteers could not go into an experience blind, some guidance and basic training was necessary as a foundation upon which volunteers could empower themselves into self placement. An important first step was to decide to only utilize larger group volunteer orientations, where 30 to 40 new recruits could be trained together. This method saved valuable time and enabled volunteers to learn about the volunteer program as a cohort, during orientation they could share their desires and passions for joining the organization. Instead of feeling like a robot repeating myself over and over, I felt enthused and excited by the energy of the group, and happy that I could reach a larger audience at one time.

Group orientations also allowed staff and current volunteers the opportunity to speak about and share their stories and experiences. In a one on one setting, it was not logical or even possible to ask staff and current volunteers to come speak in this way. Including the power of first hand stories proved to be an important component of the group orientation experience, something almost impossible to arrange for hundreds of one on one meetings.

Next was the revelation – what if instead of suggesting or placing the volunteers one by one into the positions, we let them choose? What would this mean and how would it work? Using volunteer job descriptions, volunteers would navigate and guide themselves into placement. This isn’t really a new concept, but the idea of almost solely using this method of self guidance was a new idea for the Arboretum.

In the past, based off the interview with the volunteer, the volunteer manager would suggest several options and then send the volunteer’s contact information to the various staff supervisors, thus leaving the staff to take the first step. This seemed like an entirely unnecessary and time consuming step, as it meant staff had to follow up on every lead sent their way. This certainly was not an efficient use of time. So instead, volunteers were asked to apply directly to the staff.  Again, not a new idea by any means, but changing the emphasis from the staff being in charge to the volunteer taking charge was an important role reversal that led to some really positive changes!

Of course, using this method means not every volunteer finds their place, commits, or stays long-term but the ones that do, know that they got to where they are through power of choice! This often translates into a more fulfilling, rewarding and gratifying placement AND subsequent experience for the volunteer and the organization. Furthermore, this method has also become a great natural selection process; the volunteers with sincere motivation and desire discover it’s often easier to find their niche, and stay involved. Not to mention the organization gets better, more motivated volunteers to fill their positions.  Win, win!

The Arboretum has been using an almost entirely volunteer placement model for over two years. It’s had its lumps and bumps, but at the end of the day so much positive feedback has emerged – not only from the volunteers, but the staff as well!  As time goes on, I’ve learned that change, adaptation, and flexibility are valuable keys in creating a successful volunteer program. I am sure a new method will be needed down the road, but for now, this works!  Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is to trust in the ability of the volunteers to decide and lead for themselves. I offer my guidance and leadership as assistance, but not the sole means for them finding their place within the Arboretum.

Dwight  D. Eisenhower once said “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Invaluable words of advice!

Arika Quick has been the Manager of Volunteer Services at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, MN for nearly 3 years. She is also a graduate student at the UMN Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Nonprofit Management. Arika lives with her husband and pets in the Twin cities area, and actively seeks ways herself to be involved as a volunteer in the community. To check out what the Arboretum has to offer visit or you can contact Arika at

Let Go and Let the Volunteers!

July 5, 2012

It’s July and I find myself between two annual events – a plant sale and a garden tour.  Two annual events that didn’t exist when I started working here. Two annual events that have raised more money for our program than any other fund-raising activities prior.  Two annual events started by volunteers!

I’ll be honest, I don’t like special events – as they say, “been there, done that!”  However, special events are usually key activities in the volunteer program leader’s job description.  When I started with our program in 2005, our only fund-raising was through calendar and book sales (mostly to our members,) and honorariums requested for master gardener volunteers to be present at local garden centers or for teaching community education classes.   Funds are raised to support our activities in the community (computers, LCD projectors, tools, seeds, etc.) and volunteer recognition.  When a huge garden center chain went out of business, and as some of the smaller centers disappeared, we suddenly found ourselves with a cash flow problem.

About this time, a group of volunteers attended a Master Gardener conference in Milwaukee.  This group came back to report that Milwaukee was raising funds through a plant sale.  Not only were they bringing in $50,000 annually, but Milwaukee was willing to share their model with us!  “Oh, great!” was my response, while actually thinking “oh-oh, here we go.”  Then, another group thought it would be wonderful to expand our “volunteer only” tour of master gardener gardens, and start to charge the public to join us – they also thought it would be great if we held demonstrations in the garden, so it would be a “learning garden tour!”  “Super.” I said, all the while wondering “will I ever get to spend time with my family again?”  As with many volunteer programs, I’m a single program coordinator working with a large group.  Frankly, I just didn’t see how I could manage two special events in addition to everything else going on with our program.  But, I did sense that there was a lot of energy around these two events.  Also, that if these events were to be successful, it would need volunteer support and not mine.  So, I let go and let the volunteers! And because of that, our bank account has slowly increased over the past 5 years.

What’s at work here was not rocket science, but basic project management principles:

Define the outcome:  Pretty simple – we were going to hold two special events to raise funds for our community programs.

Set timelines and deadlines:  This was also pretty simple, especially with an event.  It was easy set dates, and then work back from the event date to establish timelines and deadlines.

Work on the terms of the volunteer’s, not your own:  As mentioned earlier, there was only so much I could do to support this effort.  I let volunteers know I was available, but they determined what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, who was going to do it, etc.  I was only included when necessary – like getting contracts signed and covering expenses.

Budget:  Let folks know how much you’re willing to invest, and what will make the project.  Volunteers determined that $4,000 would be a good amount for them to work with.  That became the budget.  I did share with folks that all I wanted to do was to break even.  They were sure we’d bring in $50,000.  We actually netted $8,000 that first year, so truly a good investment.  I did share with our volunteers that if we just broke even, or lost money, we would really need to evaluate whether we’d continue with the events.

Delegate as much as possible; be flexible:  Both projects were under total volunteer control.  All I was asked to do was to purchase cash boxes and show up with cash the day of the event (which I conveniently forgot for our first plant sale!)

Celebrate the successes, and share with others!  We celebrate each committee at our annual recognition banquet, but the real celebration occurs after each event when volunteers hold their own recaps and celebrations.

Our finances would be much leaner had I said “no” when asked about these events.  I also think that the events wouldn’t be as successful if I was the one who said “hey, let’s have a plant sale!”  So, great things can be accomplished by just letting go!  Today’s volunteers seek higher-level roles and want to use their skills – this can be accomplished by just letting go.  Everyone can win when you let go and let the volunteers!


Terry Straub, Program Coordinator

University of Minnesota Extension
Master Gardener Program — Hennepin County

Educating Your Volunteers

July 2, 2012

As volunteer managers, we are experts at recruitment, training, and supervision of volunteers, but we often forget education. Education can be a powerful tool for recruiting and retaining knowledgeable, committed volunteers in our organizations. Whether we work for an organization that addresses health, poverty, disabilities, animals, environment, or another cause, we can work to incorporate volunteer education into our programs. Because we know so much about the cause we serve, it’s sometimes easy to forget how little the general public might know. We need to back up to square one and provide a solid background for volunteers, as well as ongoing training throughout their volunteer position.

Education can be time-consuming—so why take the time and energy to educate your volunteers?

Educated volunteers know why they’re doing what they’re doing. One of the biggest reasons volunteers choose to quit is because they don’t know how they are making a difference. This is especially true of volunteers in roles behind the scenes, such as office work. Providing education about the cause your organization serves, and how the volunteers’ work contributes, leads to volunteers working with a clear-cut purpose.

Educated volunteers will communicate what they know to others. If volunteers are excited about what they’re doing, they will talk to others! This will spread the word about your cause, and can lead to new volunteers, funders, etc.

Educated volunteers stick around. Volunteers who are committed to the mission are more likely to stay connected with your organization and brainstorm new ways to help. We can all use those types of volunteers, can’t we?!

Educational events can also be great networking/community building opportunities. Education doesn’t have to be a lecture or a list of facts volunteers are required to read. It can be fun! Think of an educational event you could host that allows volunteers to interact and network with one another.


  1. Written/online materials. Your website, blog, newsletter, and social media is a great place to start. Add a few statistics, a story, or a link to an article related to your cause.
  2. 2.     Volunteer orientations. Do you require a volunteer orientation and/or ongoing training? If so, incorporate some education about your cause into these events. For example, if your volunteers will be working at an animal shelter, include some statistics about how many animals in the community are abandoned each year or a printed article about the common causes of abandonment.  If your organization serves refugees, provide some education about the country the refugees are from and some information on their culture.
  3. 3.     Events. Be creative! Have a film screening and discussion or a guest speaker. Host a book club on a relevant book for your volunteers to attend. If your organization addresses poverty, consider a poverty simulation or a poverty dinner.  The possibilities are endless!
  4. 4.     Online tools.  Using already existing online tools or resources is a great way to save your time and take advantage of what is already out there! Tap into tools such as or browse the websites of similar organizations to see what they have put together.

Education can take time, but it is worth it. One of my favorite stories comes from a volunteer who helped remove invasive species at Warner Nature Center. The organization did such a fantastic job educating the volunteers on what plants to remove and why it was important that the volunteer started identifying and removing the species on her own during her daily walks! Let’s work together to educate and inform our volunteers about our causes. Through these means, we will contribute to creating a community knowledgeable of local needs.


Elena Ballam, Volunteer Center Program Manager

Community Thread