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


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: http://mavanetwork.org/volunteercenters  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

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

Adventures in (Almost) Volunteering

December 19, 2011

It has been about a month and a half since my last post, and I am very nearly volunteering somewhere!  Sort of.

Following the near success that turned into an unreturned email, I again spent a fair amount of time on a volunteer application for a nature center near my home.  The application called for three references, something I had not expected but something we do at my organization, and made sense for volunteers interacting with the public and specifically with children.  It also indicated a potentially well-organized system, which was sort of refreshing.  However, after seeing the number of references needed, I felt momentary panic – what was I getting myself into?!  Something that required THREE references and SEVERAL short answers to even apply must be a HUGE commitment!  But I forged ahead, determined this time to actually communicate with someone at the very least.

I filled out the application, stating that I’d be interested in agricultural opportunities and potentially acting as a naturalist, and submitted it.  I received a response the very next day!  The response email asked to clarify some of my experience and informed me of possible special events volunteer opportunities.  If you recall, I did not apply for special events opportunities.  And while I realize of course that it was practically winter, I thought there may be greenhouse or winter naturalist positions available for the season, and was hoping to at least hear about some opportunities.  I responded to the email restating my interests and giving more detail on my experiences, hoping that more information and a clear interest on my end would be to my benefit.  After sending this email, I received no response!

For five days that is, until I emailed again to check in about possible opportunities.  After sending my check-in email I received a response just a few hours later asking if I would be able to come in to have an informal interview, talk about my interests and experiences, and learn about the opportunities available.  After this meeting my information would be distributed to the appropriate staff members and I would hopefully have some sort of position.

The meeting went quite well – I felt as though the woman I met with was interested in using my skills and experiences as well as finding a place the organization could use me effectively.  She even confessed her not-always-prompt email correspondence!  It was very refreshing to speak with an actual human instead of a listserv, and I forgave the few miscommunications we had previously.

During the meeting we discussed how opportunities would pick up after the first of the year, which was fine with me given how busy I was feeling at the time.  I was anticipating checking in early January and was pleasantly surprised to receive an email update at the beginning of this month detailing how my information had been passed along and staff from two departments would be contacting me.  Then later that day one of them actually did!  I was quite pleased with how things were going, and wasn’t even phased when I sent off a quick reminder email to the other staff member to check in (which I got a response to within hours).

All things considered, this attempt was a success, and my more forgiving attitude towards communication definitely helped.  However, when it came to naturalist training, all of the opportunities were during the work week.  As someone who works on the weekend to be available to volunteers, I was a little disappointed that training wasn’t on a Saturday morning, for example.  Different from my program however, there were individual trainings for each naturalist class, which were scheduled before or after actual classes so new naturalists could observe the classes.  After explaining that I couldn’t attend any of the trainings save for one in late winter, the lead educator offered to look at the schedule with me to see which classes I could observe on days I was available so I would be able to begin teaching as early as possible.

My experience with this non-profit has been infinitely better than those I’ve had with the others I’ve mentioned, and that seems to be due to several factors.  I was definitely more persistent about my skills and experiences and how I’d like to use them, which proved successful, and had a more personal interest in the organization.  After making a strong connection, the individuals at the organization were really what drove the rest of the process.  Their genuine interest and continued contact made me feel as though they actually wanted me to volunteer, something I certainly didn’t feel from the other organizations.  The previous organizations had information for potential volunteers, but didn’t seem to actively court them.  I’d like to believe they were interested in cultivating volunteers, but the manner in which our interactions were handled made it seem as though they felt they didn’t need to put forth effort to garner new volunteers, but that volunteers would naturally be drawn to them and would be happy with wherever they were placed.

The more personal approach of this most recent organization seems to be less prevalent in the broader world of volunteer management.  Even large organizations can cultivate this kind of relationship if they focus their energy on utilizing the skills and interests of their volunteers.  Of course, this is only possible if those skills and interests can be used at the organization.  The balance of organization need and volunteer interest is essential – I would not have been completely happy had I accepted the offer of special events volunteer, and so I continued to investigate the opportunities.  It’s logical for organizations to offer what they have available, but consideration of the volunteers abilities should obviously be taken into account.  Having skilled AND satisfied volunteers will result in a more productive, successful organization.

Kelsea Dombrovski

Neighborhood Resource Coordinator

Minnesota Children’s Museum