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

The “IT” Factor

June 18, 2012

It seems that I am developing a theme when it comes to blog entries.  People…interviewing, screening, scheduling, serving, helping, PEOPLE.  This week at Maple Grove Hospital we are bringing on more people, more volunteers, to assist in summer only positions.  These volunteers, of course, went through the due process that any volunteer would.  However, this group stands out in my mind as they are the first ever junior volunteer only group that we have processed.  These students are interested in summer positions and will help bridge the gap over the summer months when the student groups that we work with through Osseo school district and Hennepin Technical College are on vacation.

After interviewing 30 volunteer applicants I began to wonder, “What is “IT” about these volunteers that make me want to bring them into our program?”  I think this is a critical question for all volunteer coordinators, managers, directors, etc.  What about an applicant makes you think, “Yes…I need this person in my program!”?

Here is a list of the qualities, among many, that stand out to me during the interview process that leads to my stamp of approval…

Are they are on time, prepared and presentable?

If an individual (junior or adult) can not make it to their interview on time, do not have the necessary paperwork, and are not dressed in business casual attire it leads me to wonder how they will perform as a regularly scheduled volunteer.  Will they be on time for their shift?  Will they know their role and be capable of performing it?  Will they complete necessary paperwork in the future, in a timely manner?  Will they be a positive representation of volunteer services throughout the hospital?  Will they be professional and adhere to dress code standards?

Are they articulate, enthusiastic and easy to talk to?

As I interact with applicants I try to look at my experience with them through the lenses of a guest or patient.  Would I trust them to give me directions in the hospital?  Would I, as a staff person in another department, be proud to have them on my team?  Also, would the volunteer be able to “fend for themselves” as it were?  Would they be comfortable asking questions and speaking up when something is wrong?  They don’t have to be extroverted and loud in order to have these abilities.  But they need to be comfortable and confident in their own skin.

Do they identify with our organizational values, or do they have values of their own?

Our organizational values of respect, accountability, communication, teamwork and pride are crucial to our success as a hospital and emphasized during our orientation and interview process.  When asked what values are important to them, many people are hard pressed to come up with one or two values.  Many have never thought about this question.  Some don’t know what values are.  But when an applicant can not only name values that are important to them, but can name them with conviction, I take that as a sign that they not only “get” our values but will be able to uphold them in their role as a volunteer.

I’d love to hear what qualities help you identify volunteers that have the “IT” factor for your organization.  While there are very tangible questions (Can they stand for a four hour shift?  Are they a people person?  Are they interested in a front of the house or back of the house role?  Do they have a specific schedule in mind?)  to answer, the unspoken questions are just as important.  Are there questions that you ask yourself when determining whether or not an individual is the right fit for your organization?  Please share!

Jennifer Nelson, Volunteer Services Coordinator

Maple Grove Hospital

Group Projects Matter

June 4, 2012

Hosting volunteer groups for a few hours can mean a lot of coordination for volunteer managers: finding suitable projects, communicating with leaders, providing supervision during the volunteer time, etc. And having a few bad experiences with group volunteers can sometimes make us wonder why we work with groups at all. I would argue, however, that hosting group volunteers is worth the time and energy it takes. Here’s why:

New faces-Hosting a group of volunteers most likely brings in volunteers previously unfamiliar with the mission and programs of your organization. A group means an opportunity to share the value and stories of your organization, and you never know what results this may yield-donors, board members, advocates, etc.  At one recent event Community Thread hosted, we sent volunteers to work at a nonprofit community farm. One of the volunteers we sent owns a well-known restaurant in the area, and through learning about the farm, he decided to start purchasing the produce for the restaurant directly from the farm. What a great connection!


Recruitment-Even if the group is planning to volunteer only once, you have the opportunity to recruit individual volunteers. Volunteers who enjoy their experience may decide to sign up for an ongoing position at your organization. And youth should not be written off! Youth may talk to parents, friends, and relatives about their experiences, or decide to plan a supply drive for your organization.


Community Building-Volunteers who work alongside each other can make great connections, thereby creating a stronger community, which benefits us all! We’ve seen volunteers make friends, find jobs, discover new skills and interests, and make business connections. Volunteering in any capacity, whether just once, or weekly, has the power to inspire, and inspired people can do wonders! By offering the opportunity to volunteer, we are contributing to instilling the value of service in the general population.


Work gets done!-Group volunteers can accomplish a LOT in a short amount of time, and group volunteers are often willing to do some of the more tedious tasks, such as weeding garden beds or stuffing envelopes. Working with others can make any task fun!

A few tips for working with volunteer groups.

  1. Organize projects that meet real needs. Don’t just brainstorm projects to keep a group busy—make sure it is work integral to the needs of your organization. Even if you have volunteers pulling weeds, help them to see how that contributes to your organization’s mission (and allows staff to accomplish more!)
  2. Consider speed volunteering projects-Do you have a mailing project? Could volunteers make greeting cards, tie fleece blankets, assemble toiletry kits, bake cookies, make dog toys, or complete another task off site? Speed volunteering projects are a great way to involve group volunteers without the need for you to be present to supervise. Also, groups participating in speed volunteering projects are often willing to purchase the materials on their own.
  3. Double and triple check group size. A group that arrives with significantly more or less volunteers than their initial number can cause stress for you, whether you’re wondering how to get the rest of the work done, or trying to find more projects to keep the extra volunteers busy. Check in with the group organizer a few days before the event for an updated number.
  4. Plan for quick workers. Many groups have a specific time slot to fill and do not want to finish early. Have several additional projects on standby in case your volunteers accomplish the work more quickly than you anticipated.
  5. Plan for different learning styles. Provide instructions verbally and, if possible, in written form. For those volunteers who tend to “space out” during your intro speech, it’s helpful to have notes on hand. Handouts or a whiteboard task list can work great!
  6. Recruit, recruit, recruit! Take the opportunity you have in front of an audience to sell your current volunteer needs. You might be surprised how effective this strategy can be.
  7. Take advantage of your local volunteer center. Find yours here:  Most volunteer centers coordinate large, community-wide service days that member organizations can take part in. For example, Community Thread’s Spring Into Service event on May 5th sent 300 total community volunteers to 17 different nonprofits. We recruited the volunteers, trained the volunteer leaders to provide supervision on site, and communicated with the group leaders regarding project details. Volunteer centers can also help your organization recruit individual and group volunteers throughout the year as well. 

Elena Ballam

Volunteer Center Program Manager

Community Thread

Be Inspired: Volunteer Stories

May 16, 2012

As I write this entry (my first blog entry ever!) I appreciate the lull of activity between two rounds of new volunteer orientation.  Our orientation in April provided many strong volunteer candidates.  Our May orientation is focused on a summer only, junior volunteer program in our Food Service and Materials Management departments.  The first summer only program at Maple Grove Hospital.  I’m excited for this new opportunity to involve youth in our organization and accommodate their increasingly chaotic schedules.

I’m not going to lie…as an introvert in an extroverted role, I can also be very worn out by orientations and interviews and follow ups.  I have a feeling that many volunteer coordinators are in my same shoes.  If you are an introvert like me you are very organized, like seeing open volunteer shifts filled, you enjoy checking tasks off your to do lists.  You enjoy empowering people in your community to give of their time and talents.  You go to bed at night feeling good about your profession and how you see yourself as a professional of service.  But, during the on boarding process you often come home exhausted by all of the talking.  You come in to work relieved when you only have one interview for the day, and dreading the days when you have 5 interviews back to back.  Not because of the time it takes from the hundreds of other tasks that you must do that day, but by the amount of talking, the repetitive nature of sharing the same messaging from applicant to applicant.  You throw you’re hands in the air after an applicant doesn’t stop playing solitaire on their phone during their interview, or blatantly says they ultimately want a job at your organization, and volunteering will help them “get their foot in the door”.  I’ve gotten really good at striking up conversation with complete strangers.  I have a list of questions to start up small talk with the junior volunteers, the college students, the working professionals, stay at home moms, the retirees.  But still, I am an introvert at heart.

So what is the point of all this babbling about being an introvert?  Well, whether you are introverted or extroverted by nature it’s beneficial to remember the good fortune we have in meeting all of the people who are drawn to serve our organization and through it, our community.  Through volunteer applicant interviews I’ve gotten the inside scoop on what it is really like to be a flight attendant.  I have learned about karate, lifeguarding, theater, swimming and pickle ball.  From my desk I have entered the worlds of finance, aerospace, photography, civil service, homeschooling, small business ownership, even the FBI.  I have been enlightened on various Christian denominations, Hindu temples and Muslim holidays.  I have sympathized with applicants whose personal experience with our hospital, or hospitals in general, have motivated them to give back in a medical setting. Applicants have taken me to Australia, Italy, India, Hawaii and many other destinations, all from the comforts of my office.  I understand the challenges and perks of being a Target Field volunteer.  Applicants have taught me about scrapbooking, card making, knitting and origami.  I know more about carpet sales than I ever thought possible.  Through the stories that applicants share in their interviews, I have been fascinated by languages, cultures, professions and hobbies that I would otherwise never know.

At the end of the day, the stories that are shared in the four walls of my office inspire me.  They keep me energized for the next round of interviews.  They remind me what a rich and diverse volunteer corps we have at Maple Grove Hospital.

Jennifer Nelson, Volunteer Services Coordinator

Maple Grove Hospital

Celebrating Volunteers!

May 1, 2012

The question of the month, what are you doing, or what did you do, for National Volunteer Appreciation Week?  Large events, small events, many words of appreciation or few words of appreciation, it’s hard to know, in my opinion, what is the “correct” thing to do.  How do we ensure that every volunteer knows how much we appreciate them?

A few years ago my boss had our volunteer services team read a book called “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman.   At first I was a little confused about why in the world she would ask us to read this book for work.  BUT it didn’t take me very long to figure out the benefit of this book in my work, and also in my home.

I didn’t realize that every person feels loved/appreciated in a different way.  Much to my surprise, not everyone is a quality time person.  Some people have the love language of affirmation or receiving gifts, huh, seems strange to me!  There are more love languages, five to be exact, that are identified by Chapman in his book.

As a volunteer coordinator I think that it is important to know a few things; first, not all people are like me, second all people are different from each other and third, it sometimes takes a long time and a lot of discussion to really know what the love language of a person is.

What, you may ask, is the point of talking about love languages and Volunteer Appreciation Week all in the same blog?  Well, I think that they go hand in hand, and teach us a very important lesson.  While Volunteer Appreciation week is one week out of our very busy volunteer year, it is just one week.  How are we to make every volunteer know how much they are appreciated in one week?  Is it possible?

Knowing about the five love languages and what makes people feel loved/appreciated helps me to know that no, as a volunteer coordinator I am not going to be able to make each volunteer know how much we appreciate them during Volunteer Appreciation week.  I will still plan events and work to let as many people know how much we appreciate the work that they do at Lyngblomsten, but the work of appreciating volunteers is something that needs to happen every month, each week and even every day.

Because I know that there is a large population of people that feel loved/appreciated through words of affirmation and through acts of service, this year for volunteer appreciation we had “thank you” cards printed with our theme (Celebrating the Magic) and an open space for each supervisor to write a personal thank you.  With the help of a great intern and Volgistics, we identified each volunteer and their supervisor(s).  I hosted two “card writing” sessions, furnishing bagels and coffee, for the supervisors and had them come and write on their volunteers cards.  The benefits of getting the supervisors together in this way were somewhat of a surprise to me.  They shared stories about volunteers with each other, they asked me questions about how to “deal” with different volunteer situations and they were able to get tips about how to show appreciation to their volunteers.

Shelli Beck, Lead Volunteer Coordinator, Lyngblomsten