The Well-Educated Volunteer

April 4, 2012

It’s April and the volunteer program leader’s mind turns to volunteer recognition.  “How can WE give back to THEM?” some of us sob, ringing our hands with tear-stained cheeks and flipping through the latest catalogue of tchotchkes.  My answer – “educate them!”  Instead of relying on the old standby of a trinket or bauble, provide volunteers with something that lasts – and that’s education.

We conduct a survey of volunteers who attended our annual recognition luncheon (I know luncheons are no longer in vogue, but there’s been a 35-year tradition here, attendance continues to be fab, so we still do this.)  I’ll never forget one survey comment – “You can skip the leaf of lettuce and rubber chicken.  Just give me an hour of education and a cup of coffee and I’m happy!”  While this surprised me on many levels (our volunteers have to get 12 hours of education annually to remain certified) it totally made sense –older adults, including those pesky “Boomers,” indicate life long learning as a priority.  A 2000 AARP study of over 1000 older adults (that’s 50+) showed that 9 of 10 recipients said “they want to learn.”  So why not educate them?

I admit I have it easy.  There are so many aspects of horticulture that the educational topics seem limitless and we struggle to just limit ourselves to 10 sessions annually.  However, I doubt we’re alone in this.  Most non-profits, congregations and other entities that utilize volunteers have a story, as do their clients, so why not educate others about those stories?  Food shelves can educate about the issues that lead their clientele to use their services; health care organizations can educate about the latest health trends or even diseases affecting their area; schools can educate about the latest trends affecting their students, or the latest trends in education.  If you stop to think about it, you could have endless ideas too.  And then take it a step further – why not offer a certificate?  Attend 5 sessions and get a certificate stating you’ve received so many hours of education and now have a “specialty.”  And then just think what those specialty volunteers could do!

Education can also be a motivator.  Tom McKee of Volunteer Power suggests sending volunteers to conferences as a way to motivate (  He even suggests that organizations budget to send their volunteers to over-night conferences.  I’d be motivated too for a paid over-night trip out of town, even if it was just toSt. Cloud. Kidding aside, I think Tom’s message is clear — invest in your volunteers and they’ll invest in you.  Studies also tell us that sharing how a volunteer’s work impacts your organization or organization’s clients, not only can motivate people to do more, but sharing a volunteer’s impact can also lead to longer retention.

So now’s your time to be creative!  What can you educate your volunteers about?  Here are some suggestions to help you get started:

  • Make it meaningful:  people give to your organization for a reason – and hopefully that’s because they’re engaged in your mission.  How can you educate your volunteers more about your mission and the people you serve?
  • Make it timely:  what’s new and different in your organization’s world?  The world is in a constant state of change – what’s new and different that you could share with your volunteers?
  • Make it easy:  we all have lots of interesting things to share, but no one is going to come and listen, not matter how interesting, if we offer education at times that aren’t’ convenient to our volunteers.  Provide sessions in the evening or on the weekend.  Also – remember that “less is more.”  More people will come to a shorter session than a half or full-day session.
  • Make it fun:  while talking heads can be fact-filled with interesting data and concepts, adult learner’s attention spans change about every 11 minutes or so.  Thus, things need to be lively.  Engage people in games, quizzes or conversation.  Make the room come alive!
  • Make it delicious:  finally, if you’re going to educate people near an hour normally reserved for a meal, be sure to have something for folks to nibble on.  It doesn’t have to be much – but at the least offer water and coffee.  Even popcorn is cheap, delicious and a little can feed a lot of folks!

So put away that catalogue of tchotchkes and put on your thinking cap.  Recognize your volunteers with an educational forum to show your appreciation for their hard work.

Terry Straub, Program Coordinator; University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener Program in 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

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

Job Seekers + Nonprofits = Win-Win Situation

September 21, 2011

The focus of this blog post is not how to engage volunteers, but how they are able to positively affect nonprofits. MAVA has an excellent toolkit about how to recruit and support job-seeking volunteers. Now that we got that out of the way, let us continue on.

Nonprofits have had to find new and inventive ways to meet the obligations of their surrounding community with the budget deficit hanging like a black cloud over people’s heads. Financial support may be part of a successful nonprofit, but people physically helping at nonprofit is the other half of the puzzle. With all industries laying off workers and non-profits looking for ways to maximize their budgets, this situation creates a collaborative environment that can benefit each other and all people involved. Professionals who have been laid off are turning into one of the most helpful assets to nonprofits during this turbulent time.

Close to half of nonprofits ran a deficit in the 2009 operating year, 48% of Minnesotan nonprofits, according to Minnesota Nonprofit Economy Report from the Minnesota Council on Nonprofits. Yet, they were employing one out of every nine working professionals that same year. Concurrently, some ofMinnesota’s largest companies like Delta, BAE systems and Snyder Stores have laid off over 2,500 employees just in the 2010 fiscal year. With the nonprofit sector’s increasing need for assistance and the economy’s downsizing, these two variables can work together in ensuring that out of work professionals keep up their skills and expand their knowledge into a new field.

I am a research and numbers kind of girl: quantifiable results, reasonable calculations and measurable information from reputable sources put a smile on my face and a spring in my step, especially positive figures. Kat Southard mentioned before on this blog the statistics from the Volunteering inAmericawebsite, and I would like to expand upon this topic. Minnesotan volunteers have contributed $3.7 billion dollars of volunteer time from 2008 to 2010. To put this number into perspective, Twitter was worth $3.7 billion at the end of 2010, so the volunteering population ofMinnesotacontributed the amount of money to run a worldwide social networking service. On a small-scale, the average amount of money each volunteer hour is worth in Minnesota is $21.36 per hour (Independent Sector), and the annual amount of time a person volunteers in the Twin Cities is 40.8 hours or one week’s worth of work (Volunteering in America). Hypothetically:

$21.36 per hour x 40.8 hours per year = $871.488 per year

While the Volunteering inAmericasurvey is comprehensive, it does not have statistics particular to any type of volunteer. I would like to note that ANY nonprofit would be happy to have $871.49 put back into their organization.

Besides the cost factor, volunteering in local communities keeps talent in Minnesota. The government shut down this past summer was a wakeup call for the public sector and forced people to reevaluate their occupation. Some of the 22,000 people affected have spoken of moving to other areas outside of Minnesota for a more secure environment in order to avoid another government shut down(Click here to read the article). Minnesota has been proud of its numerous accomplishments in technology, business, environment and living standards, but this trend may discontinue if its valuable workforce flees to other states for jobs. A brain drain, an exodus of highly skilled workers, would not only hurt Minnesota’s economy but a lost investment in talent. By offering highly skilled volunteering positions, nonprofits challenge and engage this key group of individuals that strengthen their ties to the local community. Therefore, this action ensures that there is a greater possibility that these people will stay in the area. Volunteering, with or without a job, keeps an individual involved with social activities, local concerns and their fellow neighborhood members.

The most important aspect of this entire situation is that volunteering gives nonprofits the means to demonstrate their work to people who may not understand our love of community service. The best way to have a person outside the sector see the culture of nonprofits is to work alongside the nonprofit people. However, retaining talent inMinnesota, utilizing an idle workforce and supporting the community are nice bonuses too.

Alyssa Surges

AmeriCorps VISTA

Community Initiatives Coordinator

United Way of Olmsted County

Recognizing Different Models of Volunteerism

May 5, 2011

Traditionally the definition of volunteerism has included phrases like ongoing long-term,  planned-action, organizational context,  charitable in nature, and lacking expectation of compensation. And though these still can apply to volunteerism they seem to no longer define it. As volunteerism continually takes on new forms and attracts an increased variety of people, the science of finding, correctly placing and keeping each volunteer a satisfied member of a program has morphed from a game of checkers to a game of chess. Not only are there more types of pieces to manage, the strategies used for each piece changes over time. Although each volunteer program cannot be expected to be a perfect fit for every volunteer, by understanding your current ‘program personality,’ learning about each volunteers’ needs and how these needs will change over time, you can optimize your program’s success even in this new volunteerism environment.

Despite the frustration that might come with this ‘game change’ for volunteer management professionals, it is important to recognize these changes and find a way to adapt our programs so we can appeal to and manage this new conglomerate of volunteers efficiently. The consequences if we don’t could include decreased volunteer numbers, lack of diversity in the program, higher rates of turnover, or a decreased ability to support our non-profit through volunteer service.

Program Personality vs. Volunteer Types

In “The Multi-Paradigm Model of Volunteering,” the authors divide programs and volunteers into four categories, based on their being either objective or subjective, and being either radical or stable. These categories are: traditional, serendipitous, social-change, and entrepreneurial. Below I’ve focused on using these four types to describe volunteer programs, giving us the opportunity to compare who we are as a program to individual volunteer types we interact with regularly. (individual types are explained fully at Hopefully making this comparison will help us figure out who naturally fits well in our model and how we can increase satisfaction in those volunteers that do not naturally do so.

Traditional (Objective/Stable) – You provide consistent ongoing volunteer roles that are predictable. Changes are made to your program infrequently and current policies and procedures are based off of those from the past. You expect volunteers to stick to the volunteer role they were originally given and thrive when everyone does what they say they are going to do. When you do undergo change you allow your volunteers, who have a lot of experience and knowledge help steer the direction. You are having a hard time finding a way to fit highly-skilled, episodic and mandated volunteers into your program. Your program reacts to organization needs. Recognition takes the form of public thanks and traditional banquet and award ceremonies.

Serendipitious (Subjective/Stable) – You have some regular volunteer roles but volunteers can easily come and go as they please and regular volunteer hours are not a requirement to participate in your program. You have a variety of one-time or episodic opportunities to accommodate volunteers who want to apply a specific skill or work on a specific project. There is a good balance between making sure both the non-profit and each volunteer is comfortable and allowed to move at its own pace. You sometimes have an issue with ongoing volunteers getting upset by other volunteers who come and go. Your program focuses on making sure your volunteers are enjoying the process of volunteering and making sure they feel like they are making a difference.

Social-change (Objective/Radical) – Your program isn’t afraid to move things around on a regular basis to test if you can improve your current state. You aren’t afraid of change although you are determined to make changes that are for the betterment of the volunteer community versus for individual needs. There is a plan and structure behind each change and although you change things often, the changes are measured and success from each change is looked at objectively. You expect volunteers to trust your motives as a change agent and support change without necessarily knowing the full context behind them and run into issues when volunteers’ problem solving efforts do not match your program’s direction. Volunteer roles typically expect much and look for highly motivated people to fill them.

Entrepeneurial (Subjective/Radical) – Your goal above all else is to do good and your focus is on seeing a problem and fixing it, without necessarily doing so in a structured way or using a proven model of success. Independent from other non-profits and possibly other departments in your non-profit, you still can work with other organized groups to accomplish your goals. You are open to volunteers having major input on how you serve the community and actually rely on their creativity and ability to adapt at a moments notice to drive your program forward.

Maintaining Volunteer Satisfaction For Each Type Over Time

In “The Three-Stage Model of Volunteers’ Duration of Service,” it states that volunteers find satisfaction and their decision to stay in that role from different things depending on how long they have been in their volunteer position. By looking at volunteer types, and what will increase their satisfaction in three stages, a program can optimize volunteer service duration and program success.

Stage 1: In the initial stages of volunteering, a person’s service duration can be predicted by how much they think their needs will be met. They focus on the positive outcomes of their new volunteer role whether it be helping their community or the tangible benefits they will receive for joining the role. Traditional volunteers are motivated by promises of recognition events and a smooth volunteer intake process. Serendipitious volunteers will be made happy when given the opportunity to own their own process as they start a project. Social change volunteers will start in a role when they see a strategic plan for the program or organization. And Entrepreneurial volunteers will enjoy getting to a lot of space to make decisions.

Stage 2: While volunteering in their first year, volunteers notice the negative outcomes of volunteering and their service duration is dependent on if they believe the positive outcomes outweighs these newly realized negative ones; if so they will continue to volunteer.

In the 2nd stage Traditional volunteers will have cause to leave if a stable and very regular role cannot be obtained. Serendipitous volunteers will struggle if they are not given flexible schedules or too many policies. Social Change volunteers will have issues here if they are made to do something in a way they see as inefficient. Entrepreneurial volunteers will stop working well if they are placed in a generic role that doesn’t allow them to have a real effect on the organization or the mission.

Stage 3: Beyond a year, volunteers have a stronger chance of remaining in their role if they begin to identify their volunteering as a fundamental part of who they are, regardless of the initial positive or negative outcomes they previously identified or relied on for decision-making. Here although a volunteer might identify negative aspects to their volunteer role, their personal link to the role keeps them in it. If a volunteer doesn’t naturally match your program type it is difficult to have them reach this point with you unless they have found a supervisor that understand their individual needs or they intensely identify with the mission of the organization.

Knowing what affects a volunteer’s longevity changes over time, as well as what type of volunteer each person is can help you navigate through the ever-growing number or supervision or recognition tactics you may have to utilize in any given day. Although the variety of volunteers is growing, the amount of time and effort you use to manage them can remain the same if you just know what you are dealing with.

Further Understanding Your Program

To further determine what kind of program you are and how you can address a more diverse group of volunteers, ask yourself these questions. Based on your answers think about how your program personality is affecting who is joining and staying with your program. Who might it be pushing away and how can you adapt?

  • How open to change are you?
  • How structured is your program?
  • How able/willing are you to accommodate individual volunteer wants and needs?
  • How many different types of opportunities do you have (ongoing, episodic, one-time, informal, group, residential)?
  • What types of people seem to be attracted to your program?
  • What types of volunteers thrive in your program?
  • What level of interpersonal interaction do you supply to volunteers?
  • How controversial does the public perceive your non-profit to be?
  • How dependent on volunteers is your non-profit?
  • How well does your program recognize volunteers equally regardless of their time commitment or level of involvement?
  • How important does the general public view your non-profit’s goals when compared to other non-profits?
  • How well do you measure prospective volunteers’ organizational commitment during your intake process?
  • How often do you gauge your volunteers’ satisfaction and measure it against how long they have been with the organization?


Molly Kennedy Lageson

Volunteer Resources Specialist, Science Museum of Minnesota