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

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 www.arboretum.umn.edu or you can contact Arika at pauk0011@umn.edu
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