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


The Multi-Talented, Multi-Tasked Volunteer Manager

March 28, 2012

So I’m going to write a blog, I’ve never written for a blog before, but this sounds kind of fun.  I get to pick my topic, the only real requirement is that the topic should be something that volunteer managers are interested in.  This shouldn’t be hard, I’m a volunteer manager!  So, what am I interested in?

I suppose that really depends upon when I ask myself this question.  If I ask myself this question in the morning, I might want to talk a little bit about how to organize my e-mail and how to learn to say no to some of the people that ask me to meet with them.  You see, the first thing that I do when I get to my desk in the morning is look at my e-mail and check my calendar.  Often times there are multiple meetings and multiple requests from staff asking for a volunteer.  Occasionally an e-mail from a volunteer with a time stamp of 5:55 the previous evening saying that he/she has a bad cold and can’t make it for their 6:00 activity, sorry for the late notice!!

It’s about this time of the day that my interest will change, volunteers start arriving.  The majority of volunteers that come into the volunteer lounge at Lyngblomsten like to chat, and my desk is strategically placed so that they can make a bee line right to me and chat with me.  I might hear how the weather is from one, a funny quip fromanother and how many different kinds of cookies the grandkids ate last time they were over to visit all in the course of 15 minutes.  But I’m still working on getting through the e-mails and, I forgot, there are a few voice mails that need to be listened to.  Just how do I get through all of this and remember from week to week about the wonderful volunteers?

Again, my interests change, time for a meeting!  Thankfully I prepared yesterday for the meetings today, so I grab the appropriate folder and head down the hall. I need to read a blog about how to organize my folders so I can find what I’m looking for!  What is the key for keeping a meeting on task and on the proper topic?  Agendas of course!  Being a very organized person, I like agendas.  If only all meetings had agendas. . .

Back to the office to take the notes from the meeting I was just in, entering  the next meeting date and time on my calendar.  If I left the meeting with action items, get them on my task list.  I guess now my interest is in recruitment.  The beauty shop needs a few volunteer subs for transport next week, one of the apartment buildings is looking for a popcorn delivery person on the last Thursday of every month and the one of the volunteer 500 dealers is still out with a broken wrist.  Thank goodness we have Volgistics and I can check my sets of volunteers that like to play cards, transport residents and deliver popcorn.   Wait, we don’t have a set for popcorn delivery, who can I call for that?!  Oh, one of the volunteers in the lounge tells me that there is no Diet Pepsi in the refrigerator; I’ll get right on that!!

A few phone calls and an  e-mail blast later I’m switching interests and talking with a staff person about a few new internship positions she’s wondering if we can fill.  Well, OF COURSE we can get those filled!  Let s schedule a time to sit down and outline what it is the intern will do, who will supervise, the amount of time we want the intern to spend with us, etc.  Since this department has never had an intern, I offer to write up a preliminary position description and send it prior to our meeting.  If the supervisor can look it over before we meet, we can make revisions to it during the meeting and get it posted as quickly as possible.

Whew, I made it to lunch time!  I think that in an average morning there are a few things that interest me, and probably many of my fellow volunteer managers.  Hopefully through this blog we can have a little fun, learn a little and be a little inspired.  Each month I’ll pick an “interest item” from my brainstorm blog and blog about it.  If you’d like to throw a topic into my flurry of ideas, let me know and I’ll be sure to add it to the “interests.”  If you have any advice for me, and other volunteer managers, please comment, we are all in this together!

Shelli Beck

Volunteer Coordinator


Healthcare, housing and community services for older adults


How MAVA helped the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness start a volunteer program!

February 8, 2012

I had heard of MAVA a few years ago when I was working for a nature center and their volunteer coordinator was part of this group.  Then I went to work for the Friends, where working with volunteers was not a high priority for the organization. Even at that time we were getting calls and emails about people wanting to help.  We are a small shop, just five people, so the thought of someone having to take on and coordinate projects for multiple people seemed really daunting.  But as my role as Membership Director has evolved here at the Friends, I realized that volunteers are a huge part of a member base and  it is one of the best ways to bring people into the organization and hopefully turn them into either donors or lifelong advocates for our mission.

This led me to doing some more research on MAVA and figuring out what they were all about.  I became a member and started receiving their monthly e-newsletters which in turn led me to the Volunteer Resources Leadership series.  I took the course, got my certification, but then still did not know where to go from there.  It seemed like a really huge task and I did not know if I had the time to take this on.  Then at a couple of staff meetings we started making a wish list of all the things we would love to get done if we had more people in the office.  During this same time, I was introduced to a MAVA board member who was willing to take the time to have one on one planning sessions.  We layed-out a timeline with tasks to get a program off our to do list and turn it into a well oiled machine that now has ten volunteers doing everything from database entry to calling local organizations promoting our film on sulfide mining.  If it was not for MAVA and a board member willing to take a few hours here and there to coach me on what a volunteer program looks, which really is not as scary and big as I originally thought, the Friends would not be able to do all the work that we are now being able to accomplish before this program began.

I recommend to anyone who is trying or wants to start a volunteer program at their organization, to check out MAVA and reach out to someone in their office.  They have the resources, connections and the ability to help in a way no other organization can.  Again, thank you MAVA. You are a valuable resource that can not be replaced.

Submitted by Sacha Casillas, Membership Director, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

High Skilled Volunteers: Transition into Retirement

October 14, 2011

Many individuals who have been with a company for a long time are being encouraged to find volunteer work as part of a transition between their paid work with the company and retirement. Some companies are able to pay their employee while they are in transition. Many of these individuals are looking for high-skilled volunteer positions, where they can put their knowledge and skills to work. If your organization is ready to work with individuals with a high degree of skills, and you are lucky enough to have one of these knowledgeable individuals to work at your organization, it becomes a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Michael Shay was one of these individuals. Michael was employed with General Mills for 18 year as a Senior Research Chemist and was responsible for the information systems. He interfaced with the IT staff to develop solutions that analyzed data. In January 2008, Michael was looking for an organization that he could put his skills to use.  Michael found Hammer, an organization that supports adults and children with developmental disabilities.  Why Hammer? Michael replied, “Everyone was so friendly and full of passion. It wasn’t just a job; it was about people’s lives.” Michael started working with Hammer’s IT department and developed training manuals, started building some applications for Hammer’s intranet, and start learning more about database management and virtualization. During that time, Michael also assisted MAVA’s Marketing & Technology Committee with their move to a new website and database management system. Michael volunteered with Hammer for 5 months and in June 2008, he was hired as a full-time staff in the IT dept. While hiring Michael was not anticipated when he started working with Hammer, hiring him was a natural choice when an opening became available.  Michael has since taken over the database management and also troubleshoots. He enjoys working at Hammer and states, “I have learned so much. There is a lot of looking towards the future, which is impressive in a non-profit organization.”

Many volunteers are looking for high-skilled positions. Some are no longer interested in the office work and want to offer more to organizations that are willing to put their skills to good use. Organizations can look at what is needed in their organization but more importantly, can look to the volunteer and find out about their passions, skills, and interests – and see how you can make it work within your organizations.  Non-profits organizations that put high-skilled volunteers to work doing what they are passionate about can make it a win-win situation for both parties.


Katie Bottiger

Director of Volunteer Resources


Volunteerism – It’s International!

May 12, 2011

2001 was overshadowed by the tragic events of 9/11 – how many of us remember that 2001 was also the International Year of the Volunteer?  2011 is the 10th Anniversary of this historic event.  The International Year of the Volunteer was created by the United Nations General Assembly – and a resolution was passed to commemorate the 10 year anniversary.  What does this actually meant?  The project aims to promote the values of volunteering, recognize the value of volunteering, build and reinforce volunteering networks both nationally and globally, and help people tap their potential to make a real difference.

We had a lesson on International volunteerism closer to home.  I was honored to be one of 6 lucky MAVA presenters (Katie Bull, Heather Cox, Lee George, Mary Quirk and Barb Tiggemann) who spent a day teaching representatives from Afghanistan, Canada, Egypt, Finland, Ghana, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Latvia, Liberia, Republic of Montenegro, Nigeria, Palestinian Territories, People’s Republic of China, Slovak Republic and Zambia about our American form of volunteerism.  Participants received MAVA’s wonderful Volunteer Leadership Training series (VRL), normally spread over two days, in about 8 hours.  Not only do the above countries have systems similar to ours in place, but THEY could have been teaching the sessions we were conducting! Many have national offices of volunteerism. The Republic of Montenegro (do you even know where that is?) has a national office of volunteerism that recognizes volunteer work throughout the country and teaches leaders of volunteers on topics similar to our own VRL.

Group photo of International colleagues and MAVA representatives

My topic was volunteer recognition.  The opening exercise encourages participants to think about the types of recognition they have received in their life for outstanding work, whether it be volunteer or professional.  I expected there to be a wide range of the types of recognition people received, being international and all, but the reality was that participants all mentioned the same thing – recognition needed to be personal and shared with others, no matter where you were from.

The lesson for me in all of this is that the world, even our world of volunteerism, has gotten flat!  As always, there’s so much to learn, not only from our local colleagues, but our International colleagues too.  To learn more about the International Year of the volunteer visit http://www.worldvolunteerweb.org/.  Susan Ellis, a pioneer in so many areas, also has some great International resources.  Visit EnergizeInc.com for her outstanding list:  http://www.energizeinc.com/art/subj/intl.html

Terry Straub, Program Coordinator

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners in Hennepin County

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