Monday, October 27, 2008

The Consequences of Thinking that the Management of Volunteers is Nothing Like Managing Paid Staff

Part two of a series. Also see part one The Difference between Managing Paid Staff and Volunteers

  1. You could end up doing a less effective job in contributing to your organizations’ mission than you otherwise could
  2. You could be contributing the challenges that are holding back the sector as a whole
  3. You could be limiting your own career growth

You could be doing a less effective job in contributing to your organization’s mission than you otherwise could. The goal of a manager of volunteer resources (or anyone who is charged with the management of a volunteer program) can be expressed as to create an environment where the organization’s volunteers contribute the maximum amount that they are willing and happy to toward the attainment of the organization’s goals. This compares very closely to how a well managed staff is led. Would you not agree that the job of a manager (of paid staff) can most basically be stated as to create an environment where the business’s staff contribute the maximum amount that they are willing and happy to toward the attainment of the business’s goals. Just like unsatisfied staff might be profitable in the short term but not in the long term, unsatisfied volunteers won’t stay around, won’t work as hard and won’t put as much care into their work as satisfied volunteers. Whether it is related to volunteers or paid staff, a manager’s job is to get the most out of the people they are responsible for managing. Leaders of volunteers who lose sight of this core purpose can end up creating volunteer programs that are more focused on the needs of the volunteers than on the needs of the organization. In some cases this manifests itself in a volunteer program that is more of a social circle than an effective input of human energy. Leaders of volunteers who lose sight of this core purpose can end up keeping volunteers around even though their presence detracts from the accomplishment of the organization goals. This could be in obvious ways such as poorly representing the organization or faulty work. It could be more subtle ways such as wasting some of a manager’s time which could have been applied to mission attainment tasks. Leaders of volunteers who lose sight of this core purpose can end up holding volunteers back from contributing at their highest level. Too often the line that is drawn between what a volunteer can and cannot do is not drawn in the best interest of the organization. When it comes to the management of paid staff there is an obvious benefit to creating an environment that does not limit the significance of contribution an employee makes. That the volunteer is deprived of having a more meaningful experience is only part of the problem here. The organization also loses potential volunteer contributions. You could be contributing the challenges that are holding back the sector. Unfortunately we have all heard an expression along the lines of “they’re just volunteers”. The more that this phase mirrors the way Managers of Volunteer resources lead their volunteers, the more the job becomes Manger of “just volunteers”. As long as that is the case, there will be challenges in becoming included strategically in management circles, there will be challenges in attracting the brightest new talent and there will be challenges getting the resources to best to the job. You could be limiting your own career growth. The accomplishments of your volunteers are your accomplishments when it comes to your annual review or next job. One look at the resume of anyone whose has had a successful record of managing people makes this very obvious. It is filled with phases such as “led a team that …”. The team’s successes become the team manager’s successes. The more your team accomplishes toward the organization’s mission, the better you have done your job and the better you look on paper when it comes time to ask for a raise or look for new job.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Difference between Managing Paid Staff and Volunteers

I believe that the management of people-based resources is at its core, the same regardless of whether the people involved are paid or unpaid. I know that many will disagree adamantly with me on this point but please read on to consider the experience I just had that supported this view. Later this month I’ll delve into the negative results of not recognizing this important aspect of the management of volunteers. I was at the AMVR conference in Binghamton N.Y. last week and in one of the sessions, participants were asked what attributes they associated with an effective manager of volunteer resources. The following is the compilation of the responses. · Able to assess the needs of the organization (what needs to get done) · Time management skills · Matching skills (person to task) · Good listener · Good communicator · Multitasker · Educator · Diplomatic · Technical skills (ability to make use of current software) · Trainer and delegator · Able to meet organizational goals · Able to pull together a variety of resource · Work in concert with the organizations mission · Motivator · Team player · Open minded · Flexible · Positive · Approachable · Confident in the organization’s mission · Confident in one’s self · Creative · Relationship builder · Recognize trends · Empathetic · Inclusive · Critical thinker · Able to keep volunteers satisfied Nobody can be great at all of the attributes listed above but does the list describe what you think would make an effective manager volunteer resources? In considering the list while we began to discuss it I couldn’t help but wonder, “If a group of people walked into the seminar room right now and looked at the list without knowing what conference was going on, would they be able to figure out that we were discussing volunteer management? Or, would they conclude that we are discussing people management in general? Or to put it another way, would they conclude that we are discussing the management of paid staff?” With the exception of the specific mention of volunteers in the last bullet I doubt anyone would conclude that the list pertained exclusively to managers of volunteer recourses, or unpaid staff. Think of the position of your boss, not your boss specifically but your boss’s position. Would the list above not just as easily have been developed if the exercise was to list the attributes of an effective nonprofit CEO or executive director, or the attributes you would like to see in your next boss? Every organization and every sector has its own culture, from which stems various styles of people management. When you think of sector here, think entertainment vs. health care for example rather than volunteer vs. corporate. How would you group the following together into two pairs if you are trying to group those that are most similar in workplace culture? 1. A hospice where volunteers visit people in their homes 2. A not-for-profit group of volunteers that builds websites for other not-for-profits for free 3. A software company that builds video games. 4. The nursing department (paid) in a hospital It is not volunteer vs. corporate that should define differences in management style. It is the mission. The culture of working in technology is not the same culture as working in health care. These different cultures generally attract different volunteers for different reasons and the maximum effectiveness in each area will be derived with different management approaches. The bigger differences are not based on not-for-profit vs. corporate but rather they are based on the types of products and services provided by the organization. Many of you might be thinking that the management of volunteers is far different than the management of paid staff because paid staff have to show up. “It is their job and if they don’t show up, they won’t get paid. MVRs don’t have the luxury of money to motivate people.” Ask the manager of any restaurant, a school principal, a retail store manager or a call center manager etc. if payday is the only tool a manager needs to keep things running smooth. At the conference last week , Martin Cowling told the story of while crossing the border into the United States, the border guard had trouble believing his explanation that he was on his way to speak at a conference for managers of volunteer resources. The guard’s comments went something like “They have conference for volunteer management? Why do they need that? You call the volunteers and they show up.” It’s not like that for volunteers and it’s not that easy in a paid staff environment either. Do you know of someone who used a sick day when they felt fine? Apparently not even paid staff just “show up” every time. I own a small company and manage a small salaried staff. Like everyone else I am not strong in every attribute listed above but I can assure you they are all very import elements that contribute to whether or not I am an effective manager. Motivating my staff helps them bring out the best in themselves. I have to be open minded to their ideas. I can make similar comments about each item in the list. The only change required from the list above compiled by MVRs about MVR is the substitution of ‘paid staff’ for ‘volunteer’ in the last bullet. The similarities of management styles related to paid and unpaid people are becoming even more important as our volunteers, like our staff, are coming (or are hopefully coming but that’s another topic all together) from a younger generation. Younger generations want a greater sense of community and self fulfillment out of their work, paid and unpaid. I think that when MVRs don’t recognize their role as staff managers in general, the MVR him/herself, the volunteer sector, the organization and the volunteers themselves all suffer. Check back in the middle of the month and we’ll look at the consequences of thinking that the management of volunteers is nothing like managing paid staff.

Monday, September 01, 2008

What Do City Websites and City Volunteer Programs Have in Common?

Ten years ago I was involved with a project to create a unified web presence for the City of Burlington. In the two years prior, various departments had proactively taken on the initiative to launch a departmental website themselves. Some departments had contracted professional firms, some were done by department staff who like to tinker with computers and some had a friend/nephew/sister who was just getting into the business and offered their service for free for exposure. Needless to say, with such a diverse group of suppliers and each with their own approach, the websites were completely different from each other. They were different in look, strategic objectives, navigation, content policy, etc. Site visitors from one department’s website needed to completely reacclimatize themselves when they went to a different department’s website. Things have changed a great deal since then, at least in terms of websites. Almost all city websites today have a uniform approach to the use of the internet. There is a common theme that permeates through the website but each department has their own content space and unique components to make the site beneficial for the staff and citizen clients of that department. Ten years ago, the shift from complete departmental autonomy into a partially centralized website was challenged by a perceived need that without complete autonomy, a department’s needs in a website would not be met. “Our department is different.” Today the benefits of a shared infrastructure, greater technical flexibility and higher standards of acceptability have eased the concerns of almost everyone. I doubt any city today would launch a new website strategy that abandoned the notion of centralization completely. So what does all of this have to do with city volunteer programs? I cannot help but to see the parallel courses of city websites and city volunteer programs. Volunteer programs are currently run in most cities without cross departmental planning and/or without any cross departmental infrastructure. There are, however, leading municipalities that have begun to raise the bar. A staff person who is responsible for volunteer management across the entire municipality can provide tremendous support to those who coordinate volunteer efforts in their own department. This is especially the case where some departments do not have someone managing volunteers in a full time capacity. The nature and scope of this support will depend on local factors but could include any of the following:
  • Creation of standards for volunteer applications
  • Creation of city-wide policies related to the management of volunteers from recruitment through recognition
  • Better use of data through the standardization of data collection
  • Greater knowledge among the existing and potential volunteers related to the volunteer opportunities within the city.
  • Better alignment between volunteers and the positions they fill
  • Sharing of best practices in volunteer management and coaching departmental volunteer coordinators who only work with volunteers a small portion of the time or are volunteers for the city themselves
  • Sharing of infrastructure to provide a higher level of service at a lower cost
As others see how this approach can minimize liabilities, maximize the impact of volunteers and make the volunteer experience a consistently good one, more and more municipalities are certain to get on board. A few departments will still likely cling to the adage of “but our department is different”, but the overall the benefits are too large to ignore. It’s a decade behind city websites, but thankfully, city volunteerism is making the same strides forward.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

How Important Are The Volunteers At Your Organization? …No … Really

There is no question that the proper use of technology can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of how assets (such as money or people) are managed an organization. At times it can even make those involved with the organization more loyal and happier to be involved with them. Consider how much banks save by reducing the number of branches they open because their clients bank online (efficiency). Consider how the banks’ online service improve the communication flow from themselves and their customers and their customers back to them (effectiveness). Ask anyone who banks online if they would ever consider switching to a bank that does not allow them to bank online (loyalty). Nonprofits trying to integrate the use of technology are faced with burdens that they need to overcome. Barriers include cost, training and time. Professional grade software programs are often considered a luxury that the volunteers and the volunteer program don’t need. Despite the decrees made by most organizations that “our volunteers are our most important asset”, new investments in technology go first to the fundraisers and often run out before volunteer management is supported. I am not so naive to not comprehend the importance of fundraising. The staff salaries, rent, phone lines and the means in which services are delivered are in most cases funded by the work of the fundraiser(s). If we are going to tell volunteers that they are important to the organization however, then the organization ought to actually treat them as important and reduce the amount of lip-service given. Organizations need to ensure that they have a qualified Manager of Volunteers running their volunteer program and that manager needs access to the right resources to do her job effectively and efficiently. This includes funds for training, books, recognition and technology and the time to engage all of these. If the volunteers are one of your organizations most important assets, treat them that way. This doesn’t mean just being nice to them. It means that you take the management of the volunteers’ contributions of their time as seriously as you manage the financial contributions to the organization. Because of my involvement in the local community, I happen to attend a number of events where the CEO or ED speaks and almost every speach contains that poetic phrase about "our volunteers are our most important asset". I have got myself in hot water more than once by later asking the CEO or ED why it is that they make that claim when their managerial actions related to their volunteer program suggest the opposite.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Non-profits Need to Think More Like For-profits

I was at a fundraising gala recently where someone commented that, “non-profits need to think more like for-profits”. It created significant discomfort with a few people in the group who worked in the non-profit sector. Their comments centered on the premise that thinking like a for-profit meant putting their own needs (profit) ahead of the greater good and therefore thinking like a for-profit is the last thing they should do. I found myself at odds with their comments for two reasons. Firstly, the self-above-the-greater-good position they were attributing to businesses exists in many non-profits, subconsciously in some and quite consciously in others. Secondly, while it is understood that non-profits most certainly need a vision and set of goals that are different than those of a for-profit, the strategies and techniques used to reach those goals should, in many cases, be similar. There are a variety of areas where this is the case, but this posting will focus on the art of collaboration. While some non-profits like to think they are good collaborators, many hold back from the full possibilities. Quoting from Community Visions, Community Solutions by Joseph Connor and Stephanie Jadel-Taras, “While they (non-profits) may embrace the message ‘You should collaborate’ they also hear another message, ‘You are in competition with each other for a piece of a small pie'. Being told to collaborate and compete simultaneously is, to say the least, confusing for non-profit leaders.” Because participants of a collaboration carry a concern about protecting their own turf, their collaborative efforts do not lead to solutions that are greater than the sum of their parts. For-profit organizations don’t seem to have the same difficulties comprehending the value of collaboration among competitors. Businesses strive to generate a profit. If collaboration with other businesses will generate more profit, then they collaborate, even if the others around the table are their competitors. Trade associations are made of businesses that all provide similar goods or services and compete with each other, but still work together for purposes of education, advocacy, strategic planning, etc. Car dealerships form auto-malls together because in making it easier for consumers to shop at competitive dealers, more consumers go to auto-malls to shop. I have shared a conference presentation stage with competitors in a mutually advantageous effort to educate the audience on the benefits of automating some of their processes and sharing other processes with their volunteers. Yes, as a result of this, some chose to buy our software and some our competitors', but by collaborating together we were able get on the conference program to educate volunteer managers about the benefits of implementing such systems and we were all better off because of it. As non-profits strive to accomplish their particular mission, many choose to stop short of this pursuit if the result would reduce their revenue stream. How would you suppose a non-profit whose mandate was to deliver prepared meals to shut-ins would approach a community collaborative effort that in the end would reduce the number of shut-ins requiring the delivery of prepared meals, and in doing so, reduce the number of clients that they serve? What if the number of clients served has always been part of the non-profit’s grant applications as a measure of effectiveness? And to add another dimension, imagine the same scenario except that the organization’s funding is tied directly and proportionately to the client numbers. How committed to collaborating do you think this organization would be? How committed do you think it should be? As a second example to consider, what if the collaborative process led to a second agency in the community offering the same services as yours? Assume that the group as a whole has determined that in such a scenario there would be an overall increase in service delivery quantity, quality and/or cost effectiveness. How would your organization approach a collaborative effort where the community would benefit but your organization, as an organization, would somehow suffer? In my experience, collaboration seems even more difficult for a non-profit when the others around the table are a mixture of non-profits and for-profits. A general and misguided distrust in the non-profit sector of the motives of business is one of the reasons for this. Perhaps a greater obstacle to good collaboration though, is the feeling of some people in non-profit organizations that the delivery of the services that they provide could only be done appropriately by a non-profit. In some cases, this is of course true, but certainly not all. There are many types of organizations that exist in both the for-profit and non-profit arena such as festival organizers, recreation facilities/services, education and physical or mental health care. In most cases, particularly where non-profits charge a user fee, consumers of the services offered by these organizations don’t see the difference between for-profit and non-profit. They see the service delivery and how satisfied they are with it. Branching out beyond an organization’s core competencies is another obstacle to productive collaboration. Non-profits and for-profits alike struggle with finding the right balance between outsourcing and doing everything themselves. Too often the soft costs such as salaries, the longer term commitment of reinvestment, and the costs of diversion of attention from core competencies are not properly factored in when considering the use of outsourced solutions. Non-profits need to look at the big picture and weigh in all of the effects of the collaborative process and their anticipated results. In collaborating one may have to make compromises. The important consideration though, is a question of whether these are compromises to the shared goal or compromises to your organization and how it has operated in the past. I think the difficulty some organizations have separating these two is the biggest barrier to collaboration. One lesson that non-profits can learn from for-profits is that having identified the mission driven goals of the organization, one should go boldly into collaborations if they will bring about the attainment of the goal. Be as focused on that as businesses are on profit.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Business of Volunteer Resources Management: A Conversation

The article below is reprinted from Charity Channel. I have chosen as a topic here for a variety of reasons;

A. Far too often I hear intelligent people assume that when I speak of nonprofits adopting a business-like approach, they assume that I mean that bottom line is the only important consideration. Martin's views help explain how a business-like approach can help a nonprofit.

B. I am concerned by the number of times I hear, "But that's not how we do things here," as though the organization must feel it has no room for organizational improvement.

C. The world is changing at an ever-quickening pace and the nonprofit sector is no absolved from this pace. In the absence of the ability to change nimbly, organizations become outdated. This caused poorer service deliver than desirable and even complete closure.

(Also see Nonprofits need to think more like for profits for some of my own thought on the topic.)

The Business of Volunteer Resources Management: A Conversation by Celeste Sauls-Marks

Recently, Volunteer Management Review talked with Martin Cowling, the CEO of People First-Total Solutions in Melbourne, Australia, about his views on the application of business techniques and entrepreneurialism in the field of volunteer resources management. His responses to our questions follow.

1. You have said that volunteer resources managers should use a business-like approach to their programs. Why do you feel this is becoming more important?

On one level I am not sure it is becoming more important as this has always been my view…the mission of the VRM is to ensure the organisation’s mission is met whilst providing volunteers with the best possible experience.

To do this within the limited resources and budgets we have requires us to employ a business like approach. Having said that the following changes are impacting on our field: In many places the resources available in the non-profit sector for volunteer development are being frozen or reduced…we need to do more with the same budgets we had …or less. Funders are demanding that we demonstrate we are targeted, efficient and responsible. They are looking for “returns” that match the funds they are investing.

“Baby boomers and Generation X” are looking for programs that meet their needs to give in particular ways within their specific time fames.

We need take a business like approach to how and whom we target in recruitment. The “scattergun” advertising approach if it ever worked is not an efficient way to harness the community in our work.

My only caveat is we must not let the “business” of doing the work squeeze out the human element of volunteering. Business techniques should be about enhancing the human element not minimizing it.

2. What role does entrepreneurialism play in volunteer resources management?

I believe it is imperative for Managers of Volunteers whether paid or unpaid need to see themselves as “social entrepreneurs” marrying innovative approaches and standard business skills to impact on social issues. This is a very different role to the traditional volunteer manager who in some organizations is seen as a babysitter or entertainer.

3. How can volunteer resources managers be more entrepreneurial?

We need to be clear about what our own personal vision is for the volunteer program. This requires us to take the time to articulate it…planning time is something volunteer managers neglect in their haste to be maintaining programs. We need to measure the effectiveness of what we do: e.g.… How does this program impact on the mission of our organisation?

We need to tell the organisation what the impact of our work and approach is. Organisational and government resources will only be available to us if we can demonstrate the return we make.

VRMS could recruit volunteers from the community who are entrepreneurial in their views and work to work with us in a “senior volunteer administration or management” role. This means exposure to entrepreneurial ideas and influences, the ability to multiply personal workload through deploying innovative thinkers and openness to developing or expanding entrepreneurial programs.

We also need to communicate what the impact of our work is on the organisation in terms people understand.

4. The work that volunteers engage in is changing. For instance, we are seeing an increase in episodic volunteering and youth engagement. How does this impact volunteer resources managers?

The not for profit sector is facing one of our biggest challenges. The people who founded many of our institutions and have kept them going in the west are aging, and retiring form volunteer work. The attitudes being brought in by younger people who are living in a 7 day a week work environment, with more entertainment and study options than at any other time in history and the most incredible communication technologies ever seen have a completely different attitude to how they want to volunteer. How non-profits will delver services in this new environment needs to be considered urgently as it will not be the same in the 21 st Century.

The key thing is we need to understand that our community is as passionate about the world as any other generation has ever been but they want to engage in a very different way. For example, kids under 25 in Australia are passionately concerned about the environment yet membership of conservation organizations in that country is at low ebb. We have to find a way to bridge this disconnect. For example in the wake of Katrina in the US and the Tsunami in Asia, millions of people sought to find ways to engage with helping people in need. How do we harness this passion?

We have been talking about episodic volunteering and corporate volunteering since Nancy Macduff coined the phrase in the early 1990s but we are acting as if it’s a new trend now.

5. If volunteer resources managers change their approach to their programs, what results do you anticipate they will see?

  • They will be seen as the lead part of their agency and a powerhouse.
  • They will have a more rewarding job.
  • They will not have a shortage of volunteers

"Copyright © 2005 Celeste Sauls. All rights reserved. This article is reprinted with permission from and the author of this article. The author holds the copyright to the article. To receive the entire issue by email each week, visit and use the subscription form. To seek permission for reprints, visit For more information, contact CharityChannel at"


Monday, May 05, 2008

What Defines an Organization's Mission

What ultimately defines the mission of an organization? Is it the carefully crafted set of words that are printed on the annual report and displayed with pride on the website? Or is the culmination of the actions and inactions of the organization?

When there is disparity between the intended and the actual, the leaders of the organization , whether they be staff, volunteers or directors, need to work with all concerned to ensure that efforts are tweaked to get back in line with the intended mission of the organization. It is not a failing of an organization to discover a drift of focus has occurred. The environment in which we work introduces new elements to our situation frequently and with these new elements come opportunities to refocus with greater precision and effectiveness on the core mission, or to lose some focus through the addition of an ever growing set of parameters to deal with.

That a sailboat drifts off its intended course is not necessarily in trouble if the course is corrected in time. Real trouble comes when the captain fails to recognize the drift either by not paying attention or by being so set in his beliefs that he ignores the signals around him.

A very simple test can help add clarity to the decision making process. Ask yourself, “Will this action (or inaction) contribute to the success of our mission as it is stated?” If the answer is yes, it is worth further exploration. If the answer is no, the process of consideration should come to a halt. If the answer is yes, a second question to be considered is "Are we the most efficient and effective providers of this action?"

If not, outsourcing to a dedicated provider is the likely the best way to achieve the organization's mission. Take a good look at your mission statement. It likely speaks to the destination, not the mechanics of getting there.

Every undertaking of your organization must have a positive effect toward the success of its mission, as all others are most certainly detracting from it in their consumption of resources that could and should be applied elsewhere.

Does your organization follow its mission? Never forget what your mother told you. Your actions speak louder than words.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Social Service Organizations – And The Closing of Their Doors

For the sake of this article I will pose the following fictitious scenario. Any description of what appears to a particular company, person or non-profit is purely coincidental. It just makes it easier to spin the yarn and perhaps make my point.

Let’s suppose that the sole owner of a major real estate development company did particularly well for herself over the years and having more money than she could ever use herself, decided it was time to do something with it for the benefit of others. Further, let’s suppose that having lived her entire life in one community, that she wanted to make a difference in her home town. Further yet, while she is slowing her pace at work a little, she is excited about the prospect of making a difference and decides that she would rather engage in her own project rather than donate the money somewhere. Having commissioned some brilliant researchers, she discovers that if she takes the vast pool of money she has set aside in her enlightened philanthropic state and invests it in low-cost and supportive housing, that she will eliminate all cases of homelessness in her community. (I know this is simplistic to a fault but just go along with me for now.)

Now suppose you are on the local board of an organization whose sole purpose is to build housing for the homeless. Would you (a) throw your arms up in glee because you can now shut down or (b) throw your arms up in the air in frustration over someone coming in to do the job that your organization has invested itself into?

When I bring up this story up at speaking engagements or group meetings there is typically about a 50-50 split on the answer and some interesting dialog between people on opposite sides. As hypothetical in the extreme as this scenario is though, I hope you picked throwing your arms up in glee. If you did, your organization (or at least your approach to it) exists to satisfy the mission and written or not, the mission includes solving a problem… completely. Even in the most desperate of environments, I believe that social service organizations need to include a conscious effort to toward a goal of eventually closing their doors. If the goal is not set you will certainly never get there.

Consider the real-life organizations, programs and departments that will close once polio is eradicated from the planet, which will likely happen within a couple of years. When the current campaign against polio started, it was a local project with a focus on stemming the tide of local cases. Thankfully, it grew to encompass a mission that included fixing the problem completely and hopefully very soon, we will all get to celebrate the fact that they will close their doors.