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Lately I’ve noticed the importance of timing when it comes to recruiting volunteers. Of course volunteers give time when it’s available but with our busy and changing lives that is often an elusive commodity.

Consistency

If you can get a commitment of a specific time slot, volunteering becomes part of the routine, something that both parties expect. But the looser the terms, the more difficult it is to engage a volunteer. The cost or overhead of finding the right opportunities and the energy it takes to get calendars aligned might outweigh the benefit.

Get them early

The other aspect I’ve noticed is that when someone is just getting into volunteering it’s relatively easy to get them involved. They are open and actively looking to get engaged. Some may spend more time in the discovery phase than others, but time for volunteering has been set aside and they are looking to fill it.

The ramp up takes a while and so there is a defined period of time where the volunteer has to find any opportunity and then the right kind of engagement. But as soon as they start saying “yes” and the wave of options starts to flow in, it’s harder to get their commitment as you are now competing for a share of that precious allotment of time.

Change is good

Another window of opportunity to engage volunteers is when they’ve decided to switch their focus. This could be marked by an end of term among many other reasons. The window is usually short especially for exceptional volunteers as they have a reputation and are sought out, but if you watch for this availability you might get a great team member.

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Things come in threes. Good things and bad things. This week I was hit with 3 things that reinforced that work needs to be done to change perceptions. It’s not reality that runs the world, it’s our perception of how things are and how they should be.

1st thing

A newly retired person was referred to me for suggestions on what to do in volunteer capacity. Again, I heard that the volunteering had to have value, to be meaningful. This person would rather be working but an accident triggered a begrudged retirement and from there a series of disappointments in her efforts to volunteer.

Hoops to jump through, time consuming training programs of little value, certifications that would have cost a bundle and a general approach that said “we don’t really want you.” I referred her onto a community non profit in her neighbourhood that I had heard good things about and asked that she share her findings.

2nd thing

I was approached to join a board for a volunteer organization. This organization is in trouble and yet it had a mandate of great value. A badly administered board lead to a bumbling recruitment process, a rushed timeline and concurrent but uncoordinated recruiting.

On top of that, the time crunched board balancing the demands of young families and hard driving careers, seemed more like an exclusive club than a fully functional team. I haven’t heard from them since the interview.

3rd thing

I was idly listening to a CBC radio interview with Chris Hadfield, the retired Canadian astronaut. A good portion of the interview focused on questions of what a retired astronaut does. I can’t remember his answer other than a chuckle that this was his second retirement. He retired from the Royal Canadian Air Force and joined the Canadian Space Agency. But I do remember his definition of retirement.

Retired
‘You used to be useful and now you aren’t.”
Chris Hadfield, the astronaut, reflecting on society’s definition of retired.

So far Mr. Hadfield (a Boomer having been born in 1959) is in “Post-retirement” according to Wikipedia. An author, a professor at the University of Waterloo, and undoubtedly a list of other activities.

So maybe the terminology I should use is “I am in post retirement.” I came through a period where I was not useful (retired) and now I have regained my “useful” status.

I’ve been involved in a lot of events for student organizations lately. They all want the same topics presentation skills, entrepreneurship coaching, networking skills, and there’s biz case coaching or judging in there too.

While it is rewarding to give back and delightful when you can truly help someone, the experience is often a little lacking. But with a slight change in headset, I should think that all stakeholders would get a lot more out of these events and those involved will be even better prepared for the working world ahead of them.

Dump chaos for project management

Of course there is the chaotic approach to event management as it seems, like homework, the execution is usually a last minute blast of effort. How you clarify the event then arrange for speakers, facilities and do enough marketing all in 2-3 days is miraculous but seldom effective. Many of these events are conceptualized weeks or months ahead so a little classic timeline and project management would render far better results with much less uncertainty and stress, and leave a good framework for the team that will be responsible for the event next year.

Your audience is first, you are second

Perhaps it’s this rush on execution but I find that the focus is on getting the event done not on value to the audience. This is an issue of customer or member centric thinking. I would challenge student organizations to really understand and commit to their mandate and their audience. And it doesn’t hurt to understand their guest and sponsor needs as well. Understanding motivations and delivering a matching value will go a long way to securing success and an ongoing relationship.

An “ah ha” moment

I was advising a student group which was struggling with its reporting structure. It had the classic roles: prez, VPs, treasurer and so on. So I offered a little tweaking then asked “Do you really want to think outside the box?” They said “yes.”

I sketched a new organizational structure around the roles required for an events organization. After all, that what they were, organizers of student events, some social and others serious. Now they have alignment between their roles and the work they do.

Helping the next guy

And then there’s the issue of continuity. I acknowledge that It is a big challenge that student group executive teams change yearly. No sooner is someone up to speed then they are off, and often graduating so focused on with their career and not on campus.

Some groups have instituted a succession plan that cultivates executives. This way, learnings can be passed on and experience is built over a few years. Some groups are also better at choosing executives that are right for the roles they fill – logistics (events), sales (getting sponsors), marketing (promoting to their audience), etc. I realize that joining a student group in an executive role is viewed as an opportunity to learn and it’s good for the resume, but this should be balanced against the needs of the group and the audience it serves.

Another successful gathering of folks, this time to discuss volunteers in the context of non-profit organizations. Questions included: where to find volunteers, how to attract and retain them, holding volunteers accountable, and providing value and getting value.

Ideas generated discussion on:

• Volunteers as partners

• Providing role descriptions with expectations, just like employees

• Recognizing what volunteers want and need such as learning opportunities / experience, and metrics on their impact

• Volunteers do what they do partly because of their passions

“… organizational structures/supports that exist for paid work, also need to apply to non-paid work, and just as paid work organizations don’t always meet the needs of all staff (and therefore they become disengaged or leave), the same holds true for volunteer organizations – which was all reinforced for me last night.” – Salon participant

It’s a huge topic and one that is worthwhile revisiting, perhaps with a deep dive on a facet of the issue.

But for now having covered boards and volunteers, the last Salon in this series will be focused on donors. This will include individuals and corporations, sponsors and funders. We will examine the donor management process from acquisition through to retention, and dive into the challenges of balancing the needs of the non profit and the demands of donors. Timing probably in April 2013.

I have the chance to interact with some student leaders recently and I’ve been amazed by the skill they use to move their organizations and initiatives forward. Sometimes these leaders are founders or presidents of their organizations and other times they happy to take make their contributions without the explicit title.

These leaders seem to have common traits. They are inclusive, solicit opinions, seek out experts, have a guiding vision and move forward continually and quickly. They are intuitive and not afraid to follow that intuition; they are curious and engage with questions. They’ll follow up opportunities whether those are events or introductions. They do all this with a grace that I wish I had more of.

I don’t know why I should be so fortunate to meet so many of these leaders. I just wish more leaders were like them. But then you can’t teach this, or can you?

Now I understand why someone would start their own non-profit or focus on major gifts (aka give BIG money). Some would say it’s about control and there’s an element of truth in that. It’s also about focusing on what you think is important. As a person who has made a career of operational excellence, I’d say it’s about getting the job done.

Trying to add strategic value as a volunteer is very difficult. There is tremendous resistance. So if you want to do strategic volunteering you’re going to need to buy your way in.

There’s no belief that you’ll stick around so there’s this pervasive feeling that if they just wait, you’ll give up and be gone.

Yes, many volunteers have conflicting priorities that often put other commitments ahead of their volunteer work. Or they may consider volunteering a lighter commitment than family or work. For the most part, no one holds volunteers accountable so there is no pressure to keep promises. I would also say that not all volunteers are the same. Some are more committed than staff.

There’s a hard line between volunteer and staff roles. Staff are happy to pass along routine activities needing just time and hands, as this frees them to focus on higher value work. But they are not inclined to partner or share higher value work.

In this rushed world it may be considered easier (faster) to do it themselves. And faced with a professional from the corporate world, there is a bias that these folks couldn’t possibly add value as they just don’t get it (besides business practices are unpalatable to most non-profits).

There’s a surprising lack of creativity in this sector that is continually burdened with limited resources. You’d think that creativity would rule as non profits are constantly challenged to do more with less but the general solution seems to be to ask for more money.

Given the choice of getting $50k or getting $100k in guaranteed services, I bet they’d go for the $50k and hire more staff. They are keen for partnerships but these are either sponsorship partners (generally providing money, venues, food, press or the like) or non-profit partners (bound together for an aligned purpose). Offer operational help and they don’t know what to do with it and don’t seem to want to think about it.

And yet non-profits will jump through hoops to provide services to meet funding models, sacrificing core objectives or creating operational nightmares.

So my conclusion at this moment in time is to pay for a program that needs to be done and tie the funding to an operational model with metrics that will drive targeted results. Use these programs to prove value and encourage operational excellence. And the program I have in mind….operationalize a model to make best use of professional level Boomer volunteers.

I volunteered this weekend along with many others to assemble and wrap gift baskets.

Day One: Students know when it’s right

The first day I found a station and wrapped…for 5 1/2 hours. I was surrounded by high school students who were there to fulfill their community hours. Many of these kids were a little lost, so I soon found roles for them.

I turned one into my decorator delegating the big decisions of what colour ribbon and bow. There was great pride in this task. Other helpers were turned into runners bringing supplies and expediting baskets. The kids brought other kids with the request “Miss, can you find a job for my friend?”

As we worked there were great discussions of school/university, phones/technology and eventually the inefficiency of the basket operation. Many of our baskets didn’t look too appealing. Overstuffed or imbalanced, the kids thought they looked bad. After returning a few they brought the issue up to event management and were told the baskets were fine.

So I get these big brown eyes starring up at me saying “this isn’t right.” And I had to agree and say that life isn’t always great, so do what you can and fight for what you think is right. So we fixed the baskets and no one noticed. End of shift, many beautiful baskets later, hugs all around, Facebook pics and a hope to see each other the next day.

Day Two: Cheer-leading for volunteers

Now knowing the operation a bit better and getting no direction other than “there’s lots to do, go find something” from the event staff, I decided to do a little quality assurance and expediting. I added a second layer of quality control (responding to the issues of day one) and ensured there was a consistent supply of baskets to wrap (another problem we had faced). The kids from day one were glad to see me focused on these things and I got big smiles from across the room.

I encouraged the shy boys to be runners and was a creative cheerleader with “that’s beautiful,” “great basket,” and “can you add a little more love to that one.” When some of the kids lost their focus I reminded them of the cause, “imagine that woman in a shelter with not much but the cheer that this basket would bring.” They popped back up and gave it their all. Even the adult volunteers rose to the occasion and I got a high five from one as she left her shift.

What I witnessed

  • Volunteers streaming in and no greeter; no one to give them an orientation and a task
  • Youth volunteers doing it for the community hours credit but not really understanding the cause and their impact (on the good side many parents worked along with their kids, on the bad side some parents wanted their kids working an 8 hr shift each day just to get through the requirement quickly)
  • A disorganized production floor leading to inefficient use of people and donated product
  • Lack of matching skill to task; so folks that shouldn’t wrap but could easily expedite, lots of junior volunteers with nothing to do and event staff doing tasks rather than supporting volunteers
  • Lack of encouragement for efforts or a reminder of what we were doing – what was the goal? Where were the shelters?
  • A lot of good folks, good donations and a good facility

Maybe it’s okay to “stuff envelopes.” Occasionally instead of doing all this strategy work, I should get tactical and be that process champion that gets the most out of a volunteer crew and makes that crew feel like they made the world a better place that day.

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