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


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

Communication with Teen Volunteers

October 26, 2011

Communication can be a major challenge for Volunteer Administrators. In my role, I coordinate the Junior Volunteer program for students age 14-18. I have found that communicating information to these volunteers in a timely manner can be difficult. While bulletin boards are great and newsletters are invaluable, I often need to send notice of last minute issues and updates to this group of volunteers.

Traditionally, I’ve relied on phone calls and emails to reach our Junior Volunteers. However, it’s tough to catch them on their cell phones during the school day, and according to ComScore’s 2010 Digital Year in Review, email use among 12-17 year olds dropped 59% in 2010 (http://www.comscore.com/Press_Events/Presentations_Whitepapers/2011/2010_US_Digital_Year_in_Review).  So, I set out to figure out a way to text the JVs.

Prior to starting my research, I knew that I didn’t want to use my own cell phone. I also knew that I wanted the students to “opt in” to receive texts. I searched online and found a few suggestions on how to send text messages to large groups of people. Each method had positive and negative features. The most popular suggestion I found, was to set up a Google Voice number and text from that number. The downside to this option is that you must constantly update an excel spreadsheet with volunteer phone numbers and cell carriers. Also, through Google Voice, you can only send a text to 5 recipients at a time and there is a limit to the total number of texts you can send out. This could prove to be an issue if I were trying to reach the large group of JVs we have in the summer months.

The simplest suggestion, and the one I went with in the end, was to set up a Twitter account and text through Twitter. Twitter accounts are free, and the tweets that I send out appear in the JV’s text in-box as regular text messages. Once my Twitter account was set up, I advertised to the Junior Volunteers that they could sign up to receive text messages. To receive text messages, they simply text the words “follow USERNAME” to 40404. The downside to this method is that I have no way of knowing who has decided to receive texts and who has declined. However, I know that it is working because just last weekend I sent out a text saying, “we need subs for Saturday morning,” and two JVs picked up shifts!


For more information see the twitter blog at http://blog.twitter.com/2010/08/introducing-fast-follow-and-other-sms.html.


Amy Lobitz

Volunteer Coordinator

Fairview Southdale Hospital

Placing Highly Skilled Volunteers in Highly Rewarding and Beneficial Roles

August 4, 2011

‘Betty’ indicated her interest in volunteering at the Science Museum just like everyone else, through an online application. But with Betty’s, in the notes section there was a cover letter and a day after we received her application we received her resume by email. No, she had not mistaken us for the HR department but was one of those young, highly skilled volunteer prospects we had heard about. She has an undergrad degree, a masters degree, years of experience in a science field, communication skills and a desire to stay busy and serve her community as she transitioned from raising kids back into the workforce. What on earth were we to do? Placing her as we usually do would not satisfy her but we have not had much experience with placing individuals who have such high expectations and abilities to give (not to mention, big repercussions if they don’t work out) before. We have many highly skilled volunteers with PHDs even, but many of them are from an older generation where interacting with the public, the social part that includes teaching, is why they like their role here. This new breed of volunteer seems to want to make an impact on the big picture, make a difference in our content, and interact with the movers and shakers, not just in our visitors’ experiences.

Our museum has a pretty innovative take on volunteer management but we have focused our time on many other projects and had not officially tackled the question of what to do with the skilled volunteer sector yet. We even have a grant volunteers are able to apply for that helps them influence our programming but, it happens on an annual schedule and is limited to working with one staff person and a budget of $1,000. Here was our chance to figure out how to integrate this type of volunteer into a project in progress instead of adding it outside of pre-planned programming.

Over the course of the last 6 months, from the day the volunteer started in one of our regular roles with the promise of more, two things had to be figured out: is this person reliable and everything her resume says she is and where can we put her where she will be well supported and satisfied? Luckily this particular volunteer was patient and we had a project in the works that was her specialty – a lead! A couple emails and phone calls later, I found a person who was on the project and wanted to support a volunteer who had this person’s background, what luck! A meeting was set to discuss support, project details and logistics that I sat in on to make sure the match was solidified. What luck, it went well!

This match, having given us insight into this very fruitful match has promoted us to act even more proactively to be able to implement more highly skilled matches but in as an efficient way as possible. How you ask? This month we will be hosting an hour-long workshop with staff to talk to them about how they can utilize volunteers behind the scenes and how we can support those efforts. This is our first step in figuring out who our internal partners will be so we can start to look for volunteers with specific skill and knowledge sets. Then it is a matter of promoting volunteers internally who match the requirements who have proven their reliability or recruiting externally using a HR/Volunteer Department hybrid interview and intake process. Sounds like a lot of work, but man am I excited!

Molly Kennedy Lageson

Volunteer Resources Specialist

Science Museum of Minnesota