Adventures in (Not) Volunteering

November 2, 2011

As an AmeriCorps VISTA service member, my next year of employment is one extended volunteer experience.  Despite the fact that 40 hours of my week is spent serving, I went looking for an opportunity to use my undergraduate degree, Environmental Studies, to flex my green(ish) muscles.  Little did I know, finding a volunteer opportunity would be more difficult than I had imagined!

The first organization with which I made contact worked with youth and environmental issues, and mentioned a possible “virtual mentorship” that involved online, environmental advising of youth.  While in-person contact with youth was more what I was searching for, I thought I’d contact the organization anyway to try to learn more about their opportunities.  There was no contact information for a volunteer manager, so I completed the online contact form with my information and explained my interest in the program.  Because I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with commitments, I contacted only this organization.  Days and then a week and a half passed, and I had heard nothing.  Because I wasn’t overly excited about the actual position, I wasn’t persistent about making contact with someone from the organization, but was still surprised I was (seemingly) ignored.

Annoyed but not undeterred, I made another attempt, hoping this time for success!  Referred by a friend to an organization that works with youth, food, and agriculture, I was optimistic that this time things would work out.  My focus within my major was food and agriculture, so that plus the hands-on aspect of this possible position was much more attractive to me than any sort of virtual service, anyway.  I downloaded the volunteer application and spent a fair amount of time working on it and describing my previous experience and interests.  After it was completed I was a bit guiltily proud of myself; working in volunteer management has really made me appreciate complete, thorough applications!  I emailed the form to the designated party and waited for a response.  Miraculously, I had a response within 24 hours!  I was told I would be added to a list of volunteers and would soon receive an email listing all of the fall volunteer opportunities.  I was unsure what “soon” meant, so after four days I sent an email thanking them for getting back to me and reiterating my interest.  Then, when everything seemed to be aligning – I had found an opportunity that fit perfectly with my interests, a human was responding to me – the contact stopped!  I received neither a list of the fall volunteer opportunities nor a follow-up email.  As I was writing this I was struck with anxiety that the email had ended up in my spam folder and I had completely missed it.  But, unfortunately, nothing.  It’s been a month since I sent my check-in email, and in the interim I was too frustrated to contact them again, although I probably should have.

Or maybe I shouldn’t have contacted them?  It’s unclear how much responsibility prospective volunteers and host organizations each have when developing a service relationship, and this has proven to be quite an issue for me.  After taking the time to complete an application, much more time than many volunteers take when filling out applications for the organization I work with, I felt quite slighted when I didn’t receive any contact.  And while my interests aligned almost exactly with the programming, the thought of applying again makes me feel silly and almost ashamed despite my passion for the topic.  I understand that many organizations have limited capacity to manage volunteers, but if volunteers are needed and valued, and interested, dedicated volunteers are available, the organization should create structural support for recruitment and management.

My successive blog posts will chronicle my attempts to volunteer, successful or not, and will reflect my experiences along the way.  I will also act as an (undercover!) potential volunteer at organizations to test the management at a range of organizations and report back.  It should be an espionage- and service-filledVISTAyear!

Kelsea Dombrovski

Neighborhood Resource Coordinator

Minnesota Children’s Museum


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


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

The Road To A Youth Volunteer Program

June 1, 2011

I was hired last year as an AmeirCorps VISTA and was tasked with engaging more youth as volunteers in the Science Museum of Minnesota – no easy task. It’s been a long process of walking the exhibits, figuring out where we could even have youth and what would appeal to younger volunteers. A successful program takes into consideration its audience developmental needs and we understood that young volunteers are still in the process of developing, therefore our program, recruitment and intake process all had to reflect youth’s developmental stage.

We wanted to design a program that allowed volunteers to have fun and engage with visitors, but also had opportunities for them to learn and develop as leaders. After discarding half a dozen ideas, we settled on a summer opportunity where our youth volunteers facilitate science activities with pre-schoolers. This was definitely the best fit for the Volunteer Department and the Museum. Youth have the chance to learn many hands-on activities, work with children, develop leadership activities and meet new friends. Youth have real responsibility in executing the Museum’s mission of turning on the science and the opportunity to learn both science and life skills.

As this is only our first year, there is still much we want to accomplish in the coming years! We will take the feedback of our participants and continue implementing activities and opportunities that are appropriate for youth. Eventually we want to build a program that incorporates service and learning as a model for healthy youth development for our youth! The road is long and there are always improvements, but all programs start somewhere.

Beatriz Carrillo, Youth Engagement Coordinator

Science Museum of Minnesota

Volunteer Experience on Resumes

April 7, 2011

Placing volunteer experience on your resume is a way to demonstrate your full range of skills and capabilities, show productivity in employment gaps and to set yourself apart as an involved citizen, willing to take on new experiences and make things happen.  Now the tough question is where to place this experience on your resume.  Keep in mind that volunteer work should be presented with the same value, importance and level of achievement as paid work.

There are a few different placement options that numerous people have taken note of:

1. Add a section to your resume called “Community Service”, or    something of the like

  • Shows interest outside of work experience

2. Present volunteer experience along with paid work

  • Gives ongoing volunteer service same weight and importance as a paying job
  • Most recommended placement of volunteer experience

As with posting your paid work experience, try to include as many similarities between the prospective position and the applicant’s experience.  For instance, if you are applying for a management or lead position you could focus on your volunteer experience leading other volunteers or taking charge of a project.

To emphasis that volunteer work should be presented with the same value, importance and level of achievement as paid work, consider these resume-writing suggestions:

    • Prepare a service statement. This summary includes volunteer position title, a description of duties and responsibilities, skills required, dates of service, number of hours contributed and training received. Also include evaluation of performance and contribution to the organization; in-service training; workshops and conferences attended.
  • Numbers stop the eye and reinforce the value of the volunteer experience. Employers want to know quantifiable results as well as skills. Explain the outcome of your work with some data: amount of money raised, number of clients helped, percentage of successful interventions, etc. You can also assign a dollar value to volunteer hours in each assignment, so that volunteers can point to the equivalent monetary worth of their contributions.

It is recommended that you NOT use “volunteer” as a job title.  It’s an adjective and alone does not convey the work that you have accomplished.  If you volunteered teaching children you could use the title “Tutor”, or if you volunteered in an office setting, “Office Assistant.”

The following guidelines can be helpful for volunteers (and others) when writing resumes: (

  • Use an easy-to-follow format. Use bullets and phrases that are clearly written and can be read quickly.
  • Use the same format throughout. For example, use all CAPS for the job title and Caps and Lower Case for the name of the organization. Or vice-versa, highlighting whichever is the more important.
  • The specific address of the organization is not necessary; city and state are sufficient.
  • Make sure there are no gaps in the time sequence. If there are, explain them in the cover letter.
  • Use “Professional Experience,” not “Employment History” as a heading. This broader phrase very nicely includes volunteer work.
  • If the volunteer position was full-time or ongoing, clearly note that on the resume. Most employers will assume that volunteer work is very part-time, short-lived, and/or sporadic.
  • Continuing education and on-the-job training should be placed after high school and college information. The volunteer manager’s records should help volunteers recall various training sessions. This information serves to verify that skills presented elsewhere in the resume were learned in a formal setting.
  • A Summary of Skills and Experience is the area of the resume for volunteers to emphasize special skills, whether formally or informally learned. List three to five bulleted points at either the beginning or end of the resume. For example: “Proven motivational skills” or “Easily adapt teaching style to reach all age groups” or “Excellent organizational and project coordination skills.”

Watch for future research being done by MAVA dealing with job seeking volunteers.

Nicole Burg

Member Outreach Coordinator, Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration

Understanding Your Volunteers

March 31, 2011

Whether your organization has a large or small volunteer core, it is important to understand your volunteers as a collective group. Conducting focus groups is a great way to learn what your volunteers are thinking and feeling regarding various general or specific topics because they provide both a formal space to share opinions and an intimate setting between participants.

There are many sources out there discussing conducting focus groups for research purposes. ( However, you can conduct focus groups even if you are not going to write a 10-page report on your findings. It is a great way to gather what your volunteers think of your new policies or what enrichment opportunities you should provide for them. They are also inexpensive.

I conducted focus groups with youth at the Science Museum of Minnesota in November and December of last year to gain a better understanding of what our youth wanted from our youth program. I conducted 6 focus groups with 5-8 youth in each group. All groups received the same 7 questions during a 45 minute session. Adults can handle a longer session, but typically should not run over 2 hours.

The information gathered from the discussions helped me learn what our program does well and what more we can be doing to support them. Here is a list of things to keep in mind as you work to better understand your volunteers.

Organizing a focus group:

  • Do not choose participants based on how comfortable you are with them. Remember, you want to learn! Participants should represent an array of opinions.
  • Choose a location where everyone can hear and see each other. Avoid a ‘classroom style’ seating arrangement.

Questions and topics:

  • Questions should be open-ended and focused. Don’t ask yes or no questions, but your questions should not be so vague that participants are unsure of what you’re asking.
  • Begin with an ‘easy’ question to break the ice. Everyone may be nervous so start off with a question that won’t make anyone uncomfortable.

Facilitating a discussion:

  • Don’t agree or disagree with their opinions. You’re there to observe not to reproach, if something is said and you are in disagreement you must hold it in.
  • You’re a facilitator not a participant! Let volunteers have a conversation amongst each other, if they are not answering your question, gently sway them back b rephrasing your question.

Making sense of your data:

  • After each focus group, write down your first impressions, general feelings, perceptions, and any patterns you see. The longer you wait, the more you will forget.
  • Share what you found with your volunteers! You don’t want your volunteers to feel like what they shared was ignored; let them know you understand.

Beatriz Carrillo

Youth Engagement Coordinator, Science Museum of Minnesota

Volunteer Loss

March 7, 2011

Having worked in Senior Services prior to my current role at the Science Museum, I’ve had repeated experiences helping volunteers through the passing of an elderly client. It was never easy to bring the news to the volunteer for so many reasons; some more obvious and some not.

HIPAA restricts the sharing of information regarding clients’ health, which sometimes made the death seem sudden to the volunteer since they didn’t know there was anything wrong. And even after death there were defined boundaries I worked to enforce to protect the client’s loved ones’ time and privacy. Permission was always asked from those grieving before memorial or contact information was shared with a volunteer who wanted to pay their respects.

Whenever I needed to contact a volunteer about a death, I tried to learn as much as I could about their ongoing interaction so I could try to predict how distraught the volunteer would be. I kept notes about how long they had been interacting, how often, and to what degree so I could use it in just this type of situation to prepare myself for sharing the difficult news. I made calendar reminders and database notes to myself to check in with them 3 months down the road. Many think technology gets in the way of conveying personal information but with the number of people we interact with on a daily basis, I believe it only helps to ‘keep it all straight.’

As I became accustomed with this type of conversation, I made sure to take the time to truly empathize with the volunteer if they needed support. Although the conversations were done over the phone many times, they were done when I had no other distractions. Not knowing the volunteers views on death, religion, their previous experience or sensitivity, I tried to support each of them without including any of my own views into the conversation. Sometimes volunteers wanted to share theirs and sometimes they wanted to leave the conversation to deal with the news on their own and I followed their lead as to where they wanted the conversation to go.

Even with these lessons learned and this experience as a guide, I still feel unprepared when we have to help our program move through the death of a current or emeritus volunteer; it is so different. With clients there is a degree of separation that allows you to look in on the grief and function through it so much easier than when you must function to support those around you while grieving as well. I feel fortunate to have this experience to draw on though as I work through this more difficult maze.

We see a snippet of a volunteer’s life when they come in to work, without knowing about health issues or how aging is affecting them personally. And even when we are ‘in the know,’ the news of a volunteer passing is still difficult. It ends up being our job to communicate the news to volunteers, staff, to respond to the family with our condolences, to share pictures and memories; tasks far from what most of us have on our job descriptions. A graduated step from the single conversations I once had with volunteers about their loss of a client, it is an event that has become worthy of an internal communication plan. A cold way to think about such an emotional subject, yes. But to me, nothing feels better when you are faced with an emotional loss and a time when your support of others is key, then a Word Document that tells you exactly what to do.



Having a Plan:

Advice (book listed on

Dush, D.M., “Balance and Boundaries in Grief Counseling: An Intervention Framework for Volunteer Training,” American Journal of Hospice Care, 1988 (4)


Molly Kennedy Lageson

Volunteer Resources Specialist, Science Museum of Minnesota