Monday, November 30, 2009

Facial Recognition Software and What Every Volunteer Manager Should Know About It

Computing power has reached the point where it can recognize faces in photographs. This means that you can now quickly and easily catalog the hundreds or thousands of pictures you have of your volunteers in action. It also means that you need to ensure you are taking the right steps to protect the privacy of your volunteers.

Last week I began organizing the hundreds of pictures my wife and I took on a recent vacation and I used the opportunities to try out some new digital photo album software. In the process I discovered a facial recognition feature that saved me hours of work and also got me wondering about privacy issues online. I tagged my wife in one photo (associated her name to it) and the software tagged her to other photos she is in. Although it did not recognize her face 100% of the time, I was thoroughly impressed. I love it when software saves me time and/or makes something new possible. When I added the group picture above from the IAVE conference last week, Picasa automatically scanned the faces in it and based on the another picture of me, it recognized that I was in the picture and tagged my name to it. (Everyone in the photograph was aware this picture would get posted publicly.)

With a quick bit of research online, I found that a number of software products such as iPhoto (for Macs) and Picasa along with photo album websites such as Flickr ( have added the ability to recognize facial similarities in photos.

As with many new technologies, I couldn’t help but recognize that this one could have a potential negative impact on society as well. It is not going to be long before anyone will be able to upload a picture of someone into a facial recognition search engine and then wait to see if there are any photos of that person posted publicly anywhere on the internet. There are already two programs that can accomplish this within the publicly viewable pages of Facebook (Polar Rose and

There can be many reasons for someone to prefer to keep their whereabouts private or their involvement with your organization private. A picture of someone involved in volunteering for your organization that is posted online can threaten either of those privacies. In addition to thinking about how you use photos of volunteers, many organizations are going to need to revisit their volunteer forms. A quick scan in Google suggests that thousands of organizations combine their mandatory waiver of liability with a statement allowing the use of the volunteer’s image in a photo. So in other words, to volunteer with these organizations, you must allow the public use of your image. While this has not been much of a deterrent for volunteers in the past, I wonder if the ability to Google a person’s face as easily as we do something like “volunteer management conference”, will change how volunteers feel about it.

Check out how this great technology can help you organize your photos of volunteers and be sure to review your current policies regarding the use photos of volunteers. This technology is here now and my guess is that it’s going to surface in ways that have not yet even been imagined.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Your Peers Are Looking For Your Help

Over the past week has had specific requests from managers of volunteers for the items listed below. Can you help and add any of these (or anything else of course)?

  • Resources specific to volunteer led programs in hospitals
  • Orientation manuals or even outlines of the things covered in orientation
  • Guidelines for staff working with volunteers
  • Recognition Event ideas/themes etc
  • Friendly visiting position descriptions, training material and guidelines
  • Volunteer supervisor manual

This site generated a lot of buzz at the Institute for Advanced Volunteer Management in England this week and given that it was an advanced learning opportunity I was not surprised that one person pointed out the following. Templates are great to use because they save the valuable resource of your time. They do not however replace thinking. This was not the first time this important point has surfaced. Susan Ellis was emphatic about it when she and I brainstormed about the site. When I work with leaders of volunteers and are reviewing their current application form, we frequently get into a conversation about why a certain field exists on the form. When I query about why it is there, a far too frequent answer is “It was on the application form when I started here.” Just like the old application or policy manual etc. that you inherited when you accepted your position, templates created by others are resources that you can use to create what you need faster and give you ideas that you might not have thought of. They are NOT, however, a substitute for your own thought on what you need in your particular situation.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Entertainment Industry Foundation Strikes Out But Deserve Another Chance at Bat

In Susan Ellis’s Hot Topic for July “Media Blitz vs. Media Noise: What Are We Trying to Accomplish?”, she took a look at the recent attempt by the Entertain Industry Foundation to promote volunteering. I see more value in general awareness advertising that Susan but her article speaks to more than that and her views are worth a read.

Below are a few of my thoughts on the matter having read Susan’article.

Was this whole campaign a swing and a miss? It certainly appears so. But I want to commend the entertainment industry for getting up to bat in the first place.

Having not had the opportunity to watch television over the past week I cannot comment on the usefulness of the messaging but the implementation of the technology was clearly a contributor to the lack of results. Greg Balwin (president of Volunteer Match) was openly and honestly apologetic to the members of Volunteer Match but I think he was shouldering more than his share of the blame. The various lists of volunteer opportunities from which draws, such as Volunteer Match, had many more opportunities than were to be found on the iparticipate site.

I was very happy to see that some of the responses to Greg Balwin’s article focused on the future and trying again. From one respondent, “…we all have learned from this and the next effort will be better,” and from another“…hopefully this turns into a yearly event. I’m betting in the long-term picture”.

Let’s look toward next year and work toward a strategy in the messaging that is consistent with the needs of the sector and best practices in building a movement along with better testing in advance from the technology partners. The discussions of where things broke down in this year’s attempt can help the next time (and I hope there’s a next time) the IEF steps up to bat.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A new online resource to help Volunteer Managers avoid reinventing the wheel, a new resource clearinghouse for the volunteer sector was unveiled at the Administrators of Volunteer Resources – British Columbia conference today. This free-to-use website is one where those who work in the field of volunteer management will be able to add useful resources and others in the field will be able to access them. Resources could be;
  • Downloadable, real-world examples of forms, manual or position descriptions
  • Templates & tools for creating resources
  • Tips, ideas and how-to articles
Most managers of volunteers are happy to help their peers. Many of the resources needed by volunteer managers are very similar, even when each organization‟s volunteer program is unique. Rather than starting from scratch, managers will be able to search for resources similar to what they need, download an example or a template for it and then just modify it to meet their specific needs. Tips and how-to articles will also be available for reference in using the downloadable resources and to further the education of volunteer managers on a variety of topics. Although there are websites out there that contain advice for those who manage volunteers, this is the first site to be built around the concept of peer-contributed content and the first to include downloadable examples in its focus. The founders and managers of the volunteer sector‟s online VPM groups see the potential of Andy Fryar, the Director & Founder of OzVPM states “I am constantly being asked whether I can refer attendees to a particular application form or template of one kind or another. Having all of these documents in one 'clearing house' is a wonderful idea, and one I am certain will prove a beneficial tool to VPMs the world over." Rob Jackson, the Founder of UKVPM supports that notion."Anything that helps people navigate their way through the vast ocean of volunteer management resources and find those islands of relevant information that will help them in their work is a welcome addition to the field." All resources added to the clearinghouse will cite the contributor‟s name. Anyone will be able to access these resources and download the files that their peers have added for the purpose of sharing them. With a free registration, those that make use of the resources will be able to comment back into the site how it helped them. Meghan Kaskoun, the Manager of Cyber-VPM and Co-Founder of AVPPA sees additional benefits beyond helping locate resources to use. “Not only will it provide resources, but it sounds like it will provide individuals the professional development opportunity of gaining credibility and credence within the field as they write about the industry from their unique perspective.” For those that would like to contribute to the clearinghouse, the process is very simple. Go to and register as a contributor. You will have immediate access to be able to start adding anything that you feel could help others in the field. Your content will begin to appear on the site as soon as the site administrators confirm it to be a legitimate contribution. According to a recent survey of managers of volunteers across the USA, Australia and Canada, the examples from others that are most in demand are position descriptions, volunteer manuals and consent forms. The how-to article topics that were sought most often in the survey included; training and orientation, strategic recruitment and volunteer recognition. Susan Ellis of Energize Inc. sees this as a real call to action for leaders of volunteer efforts.“Everyone always wants to see examples of real-life materials that colleagues have worked hard to develop and already proven useful. Sites like offer important information but haven't collected those sought-after templates and other tools. If our colleagues rise to the occasion and share what they have, over time will be a treasure trove of idea starters!" There are a few factors that coalesced together as the genesis for this project. As a member of CyberVPM, OzVMP and UKVPM I could see the number of times that people were looking for resources they could adopt and for information on a variety of topics. By the responses to those requests it was obvious people in the sector are willing to share. Books such as Wikinomics (Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams) and Crowdsourcing (Jeff Howe) brought it all together as they described the variety of new ways that people are collaborating together. The site‟s group collaboration approach is not the element that makes it a unique offering to the volunteer sector. In addition to being able to access individual resources, collections of resources can be linked together to form an online manual of sorts. Organizations with many locations or municipalities with various departments can assemble the resources and articles that relate to how it sees volunteer management and then give access to their online volunteer manager's manual to all of those who work with volunteers within the organization. If there is information that needs to be included that would not be relevant to other organizations, it can be added to the online manual but left out of the general resource search. The site carries a "Beta" stamp in the header banner to indicate that there will be tweaks made to the site based on user feedback. True to the ideal of this being a site for professionals in the volunteer sector by professionals in the sector, the slogan on the banner reads “What slogan can we put here?”. Site users will get to vote for the one that works best for them the winning slogan's contributor will be awarded a $100 gift certificate to buy books from the Energize Inc website ( Once the early stage tweaks are done and the site is not considered to be in Beta mode any longer, consideration will be given to launch similar sites in other languages. These will be independent sites and there won‟t be any automatic translation involved. Content for those sites will be originally written in the other language or manually translated by the original contributor or someone on their behalf. This resource was programmed and funded by Volunteer2, ( creators of the volunteer management software, Volunteer Impact. is not tied into the software in any way and is free to use by any organization.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How to get more out of your volunteers and make them happier at the same time

Research is clear that there are many benefits to cross-training employees and volunteers are no different. Benefits include:
  • a better understanding of the broader processes.
  • a better understanding the efforts and restrictions of their fellow volunteers
  • an ability to fill in temporarily for other volunteers more easily.
  • greater satisfaction as a volunteer.
Consider the following:

1. Imagine that you, as a manager of volunteers for a social service agency are hiring an administrative assistant. The list has been narrowed down to two. They are really equal candidates except for a couple of things. Both have fifteen years of work experience. One has fifteen years of experience as an administrative assistant. The other has ten years as an administrative assistant, another two as direct mail manager for a nonprofit’s fundraising department and three as a full time cook in a soup kitchen. Which would you choose?

2. Imagine for a moment that you’re a manager of volunteers at a hospital and you need to fill a single position for a volunteer to help families deal with the grief of losing a loved one. Two new volunteers have applied for the position. They are basically equal except for a couple of things. One has 10 years experience as a volunteer in a hospital gift shop. The other has 5 years in a hospital gift shop, 3 years at a hospital information booth and 2 years in an affiliated children’s hospital. Which would you choose?

3. In some organizations volunteers are un-severable from the position. “Sue is an E.R. volunteer and Jackie is a gift shop volunteer.” If Jackie the Gift Shop volunteer had prior work experience or training in the Intensive Care Unit , would she be able to better fulfill her role of helping family members choose a gift for a loved one in intensive care?

4. In some businesses jobs are clearly defined. You are the manger of volunteers and perhaps someone else is the manger of fundraising (or any other department) and each of you has your own isolated jobs to do. Do you ever feel that others on staff don’t know what you do for the organization? Do you feel that it would be beneficial for you and your organization if your boss or other senior managers had experience in your job?

So what patterns do you seen in your answers above? Did you pick the administrative assistant with experience in three areas in question 1 and the volunteer with the varied experience in question 2? It’s hard not to recognize how a gift shop volunteer with experience in other areas of the hospital can offer better guidance. At almost every conference I go to I hear at least one person lament about how their job is not understood by the people with whom they work.

There are two points here. One is that sometimes there is little difference between the management of paid people and volunteers. There is plenty of evidence that cross training benefits employees and companies. I think for cross training purposes we can learn from the experiences of the employment side of people management.

The second and far more important point to this article is that volunteers who are cross-trained in other positions can work in their primary position much better if they are trained in other positions in your organization. The difference is not between nonprofits and for-profits. It is one difference between a good volunteer program and a great one.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Where will micro-volunteering take us?

There is quite a bit of online and conference chatter about micro-volunteering these days. Like many news ideas, there are those that support it and those that loathe it. Supporters see it as a means of utilizing a theoretically large pool of potential volunteers that are not currently involved, albeit for brief periods of time. Detractors recognize that not all volunteering can be done remotely and some point out a need for volunteer training and some form of volunteer commitment.

People also seem divided on the issue of whether the concept is one that will take hold or fade away into oblivion. Some that see the concept as a passing fad look at it from the technological angle where many tech ideas sound hot at first but don’t last. If there isn’t a positive effect generated, people will lose interest. Social media blogger, Allison Fine, writes this about microvolunteering: "It is quite possible that we will become frantically busy doing a lot of change stuff that does make the doers feel great — which is important — but doesn't add up to the systemic social change needed in communities. Does busy mean the same thing as impact?" Support from those that see it as the next big thing recognize the fact that with each passing month, more and more people are connected. The UN reports that 60% of the world’s population now has a cell phone. According to the Wireless Association, more than 87% of American’s have cell phones. Not every cell phone currently has access to the internet but given the revenues that being connected generate for phone companies, they soon will.

So where might all of this take us? I think to a very exciting place. Supporters are pushing the envelope and coming up with innovative solutions sometimes faster than we can recognize that we had a deficiency. Naysayers are pointing out the areas that might have been missed in the concept and need to be addressed. I think it is important to recognize that micro-volunteering is in its infancy as and as such, will change as it matures. How it changes will come from the inputs (hopefully more collaboratively the chest pounding) from all stakeholders.

As micro-volunteering matures, new ways of making use of it will evolve. In some cases such as tagging photos for a museum or cataloging playground sites ( it has the potential to create ways of volunteering that have not previously existed. Who knows what new creative ways to contribute that the volunteer sector might think of as it we explore the possibilities further. Other cases that I believe are worth our consideration are ones where the micro-volunteering concept can open up more effective and efficient ways that volunteers could engage in activities they are already doing.

The concept of micro-volunteering is tied heavily to the concept of crowdsourcing, a term coined by Jeff Howe ( in his book by the same title which inspired the work of micro-volunteer pioneers, the Extroidinaries. (Jeff’s book is our book of the month this month and I highly recommend it.) As a new concept, its precise definition is in flux but according to Wikipedia, it is generally considered to be “taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor (to which I add ‘or volunteer’) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community…”. The concept of mico-volunteering however will reach a great potential if it is considered both in the context of crowdsourcing and as well in the context of flexible scheduling.

When we phone in an order to Pizza-Pizza, a large pizza chain, our call is most often routed not to a call centre, but to an operator working from home. What if, distress centers could adopt similar technology so that the number of volunteers helping others at any one time was more a function of how many calls were coming in rather than how many volunteers were filling a shift at the distress centre. Once trained, the system could route calls to volunteers at home or even on their cell. Volunteers could let the system know when they were or were not available to answer the call. In time of low demand, volunteers time would not be wasted waiting for the next call. In periods of higher demand, volunteers could help for very short periods of time. What forms of volunteering could you offer to trained and committed volunteers on a short burst basis from home or possibly mobile? The very basics include proof reading, audio transcription, research and updating social networking content. Given the creativity and energy of the volunteer sector though, I believe that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Many of you are likely already aware of volunteering that could be including under a broad adaptation of micro-volunteering. Although not used as frequently given current communications capabilities, a telephone tree is one example of this. Volunteers, if they happen to be available when the calls need go out, call their list of people who, in turn call their list of people. It might be a little as 10 minutes of volunteering.

For those of us old enough to remember the world without the internet, we can recall how it was first used in the volunteer sector. In many cases it was a simple website that was rarely updated and a single info@ email address. Over the course of the past dozen or so years, some things have been tried and abandoned. Some have stuck with us right away and others became reworked and reworked in a maturing process. Who knows what micro-volunteering might come to mean as we explore it further? Who knows what doors technology might open related to how people can volunteer in short bursts? Who knows what the beneficial impact of utilizing this otherwise untapped resource? I don't have the answers but I am convinced this is a concept that deserves our collective trial-error-and-learn exploration.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Risk Management Made Simple

Last week I heard a story from a event that went something like this. There was a gated entrance where a volunteer was assigned to ensure no one but event volunteers came through. A number of late-teens approached the gate to get through and when told they could not, asked if they could watch the fireworks from there. “No problem.” Shortly after that a couple of beers came out. The teens looked at the volunteer and asked, “Is this a problem?”. “I’m not your mother,” replied the volunteer. Shortly thereafter a joint came out. “Is this a problem?” “I’m not your mother.” When the teens left after the fireworks one was heard saying, “This event rocks. We’ve got tell everybody about it.” Somehow I could not help thinking of the risk management issues involved and with that, I couldn’t help but to think of Linda Graff. Here is a link to a worthwhile article if you have not yet begun to think about risk management in earnest. Thanks Linda.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twitter for Managers of Volunteers

I am not one for fridge magnets. There are only two that made it to our fridge. One was given to me by a friend when my two children were in their teens and as most teens, experiencing their set of adolescent struggles. Not only did I think the message on the magnet was a simple yet meaningful one for my children, I liked it for its everyday benefit for anyone. “If you want different results, try something new.”

Twitter is something new.

As with most things that are new to us, there is risk, a learning curve, a possible sense of inability and most importantly, the possibility to generate different, and better, results.

Not only is Twitter relatively new, its potential uses are growing regularly. More interestingly is that most of these new uses are generated by users rather than by the Twitter company itself. Even some of the syntax commonly used on Twitter was created by Twitter users. The Twitter website describes Twitter as follows: “Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” It has evolved well beyond that and some Twitter users would prefer that the “What are you doing” question get dropped from the site.

While many users communicate the personal side of their lives through Twitter, this article focuses on organizational uses. If you are totally new to Twitter though, the following video is a great description of how it can be used as a digital connection to friends and family:

Who cares what I am doing throughout the day? This was my first reaction to Twitter. Well, aside from how the average person might use it to keep in touch with friends and family, the companies and organization they deal with turn out to be very interested. There are tools that make it very easy to see if your organization name has been included in someone’s comment or tweet. At you can do it manually and www, is one of a variety of ways you can automate this. You don't need to sit at your computer all day looking for comments.

Tablet Hotels uses its Twitter account to keep an eye on what customers are tweeting about them. Michael Davis, co-founder of the chain, said one guest was upset with how she was being treated at the front desk and tweeted her frustration on her mobile phone right then and there. Someone from the hotel customer service department was alerted and read the complaint within 30 seconds of her posting it, then telephoned the front desk and the issue was resolved. If you think this might just be an isolated incident, Google +twitter +customer +complaint. When I did it this morning, Google found about 1.2 million results!

When C.C. Chapman noticed a blemish in his high-definition television's reception during the NBA playoffs recently, he blasted a quick and negative tweet about
Comcast. Within minutes, a Twitter user named ComcastCares responded, and within 24 hours, a technician was at Chapman's house in Milford to fix the problem. "I was so floored," said Chapman, who runs a digital marketing agency and advises companies to do what he experienced with Comcast - listen to what customers are saying about them online and respond. "When it actually happened to me, it blew me away," he said.

If you think that this sort of thing only applies to companies, consider the following tweet that was posted yesterday that I found through “So I give up some of my evening to volunteer at _______ and the group never turned up, what a waste of my time! Grrr”.

A significant upside to social networking resources such as Twitter is the concept of “she told two friends and they told two friends” etc. This can work against you as well, though, but because the complaint happens in the open, you have access to it. If you make the effort to pay attention to it, you can deal with it.

The organizational use of Twitter is not only for handling complaints. Tourism and Visitors’ associations have begun to use Twitter to inform people about local events, exhibits, closures and so on. If you are traveling to a another city, you can follow the Twitter account for the visitors’ association up until your trip is over and get current information about what is going on while you are there.

War Child uses Twitter to tell personal stories of people in war torn parts of the world. A nonprofit organization aimed at providing clean water to developing nations started Twestivals which organize fundraising efforts and brings people together to make a global impact. These are just a few examples of how nonprofits are branching out of mailing lists, newspaper ads and newsletters.

Does your organization get thank you cards from the people it serves? How about taking a small quote from the thank you note and passing it on the volunteers and other people that are interested in your organization? In many cases, this is a project that the volunteer program and the fund development program can work on together.

How do we use Twitter at Volunteer2?

We follow a variety of people to learn more about volunteerism, management practices and technology. I personally have picked up on three different stories of significant relevance to me this week alone. Every weekday I post a tip or new item for leaders of volunteers. Some days it is of my own authoring and many days I pass on something that someone else has posted (a re-tweet in the Twitter syntax). You can sign up to follow me (to receive these daily tips) through

So how do you get started?
Click the link above to follow me or go to For those of you who are brand new to Twitter, go the New York Time Gadgetwise article Twitter for Beginners by Paul Boutin. Once you become used to Twitter a bit go to Paul’s article All You Need to Know to Twitter. This article is a little old by Twitter standards though (May 6, 2009). It is missing any mention that Tweetdeck (free software that I use in conjunction with Twitter) is now available for the iPhone. How did I learn about that? Someone I follow on Twitter tweeted it three days ago within hours of its release and I had it on my phone minutes later.

For the growing number of people using Twitter, nothing gets the word out faster.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why your organization’s mission and core objectives are crucial to your volunteer program

Stephen Covey, in his book The 8th Habit, describes a poll of 23,000 employees drawn from a number of companies and industries. If you don’t have an affection for stats, the three points below might seem a little dry but Covey has an entertaining, although somewhat frightening, metaphor for it all further below. Some of the poll's findings were as follows:
  • Only 37% said they have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve and why
  • Only 20% was enthusiastic about their department's and their organization's goal
  • Only 20% said they had a clear "line of sight" between their tasks and their team's and organization's goals.
Here is Covey’s way of describing it."If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they play and know exactly what they are supposed to do.” I wonder what results a poll of volunteers would yield.

As we grow to see volunteers as people who work for the benefit of an organization but do not get paid for it, we can look to the management practices of leaders of people who work for the benefit of an organization and do get paid for it. Although there certainly are differences, there are also many similarities. One area in which there are similarities relates to the importance of embracing your organization’s mission and core objectives.

Hopefully, your mission statement describes what the organization does at the core level. Objectives (or goals) also answer the question of what the organization does but they are smaller than a mission. Although, an objective might represent an important achievement, it is not the final achievement. There can be a number of objectives and goals to be achieved in order to achieve a mission, but there is usually only one mission. Your volunteer program can have its own objectives but they should always contribute to the organization mission.

You can’t always be over your volunteers’ shoulders when they need to make a decision about what to do or what not to do. If they are knowledgeable about the organization’s mission and core objectives however, the chance of them making the best decision increases. If you educate them on the mission and empower them to make some decisions about their work, they will become higher level volunteers, happier volunteers and tend to make the decisions that contribute to achieving the organization’s mission rather than detracting from it.

Southwest Airlines is by many definitions, a successful airline. While others have struggled to the point of bankruptcy, Southwest has been profitable for the past three decades. Herb Kelleher, the longest-serving CEO of Southwest, once told someone, “I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: We are THE low-cost airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.“Here’s an example,” he said. “Tracy from marketing comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entree on the Houston to Las Vegas flight. All we offer is peanuts, and she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular. What do you say?” The person stammered for a moment, so Kelleher responded: “You say, ‘Tracy, will adding that chicken Caesar salad make us THE low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.’”

The core objective of being THE low-fare airline is very simply stated but it is powerful enough that it has guided the actions of Southwest’s employees for more than thirty years. Do your volunteers have such a statement that can guide them?

Although not as obvious as the things a manager does that contribute to the organization’s mission, good managers also pay close attention to avoid engaging in activities that do nothing to contribute to the organization’s mission. And there is good reason for this. Everything that gets done that does not contribute directly to the organizations’ mission or indirectly through core objectives is like a silent thief, stealing resources from the organization. Consider the following comments from volunteer sector consultant Martin Cowling in his article, Messing It Up: How Organisations Sabotage Their Volunteer Programs.

“For example, each year I conduct an annual survey of volunteer organisations, randomly selected from across Australia. I phone the agency and tell them I am interested in becoming a volunteer and then await (and record) their response. Consistently I find that less than one third of all organisations actually respond to my offers of assistance. Before a volunteer has even reached their door, it is effectively slammed shut!”

Now I imagine that those responsible for the management of volunteers in each of those organizations from the 2/3’s that did not respond are very busy people. I suspect that their day is filled with many tasks. The important question to address is whether or not each of those tasks are contributing in some way to the mission of the organization. If not, then the time and the other resources consumed in the pursuit of non-mission driven activities has stolen the time and other resources required to deal with a potential new volunteer in a timely fashion.

There are many ways in which a manager can feel busy without the effort contributing to the organization’s mission in a meaningful way. One that I have come to recognize as all too common is that of reporting. In some cases it is self-inflicted and in many cases it is imposed by bosses or funders. The next time you go to produce a report, ask yourself why you are generating that report. If ‘nice to know’ is any part of your answer then it is likely not making any real contribution to your organization’s mission. If you are required to produce a report, ask yourself how it addresses the mission or any of the core objectives. If you can’t come up with an answer ask whoever is requesting the report to explain it to you. If he or she can’t, send them a copy of this article.

I speak passionately about this because I have seen first-hand the difference it can make. A few years ago I looked at a series of reports for the Volunteer2 business on a weekly basis. One of the reports included how many people visited our website. We used this data in a meaningful way each time we updated the website but watching these numbers grow with each weekly report was an enjoyable experience for me. I looked forward to doing it, typically just after lunch on Fridays. I forget which book woke me up to the frivolity of this but it did not take much for the author to help me identify this as activity that did not foster any growth in the number of volunteers, volunteer management efficiencies, or professional management practices (our core objectives) nor contribute to overhead or profit. My routine of producing those reports ended that week. Now I put that time to use on tasks that make a contribution to our mission.

I have also seen first-hand how the complete adoption of mission and objectives and can help fulfill the vision of the organization. My mother lived her final days in Ian Anderson House, a hospice in a community that neighbored our own. As much as losing a loved one is difficult, it was what I would describe as a good death experience. Those that have experienced hospice care for someone close to them know what I mean. All of this motivated me to get a hospice established in my city of Burlington and as the founding chair, I had some of the greatest experiences of my life.

The mission of the hospice is a follows. “The hospice provides individuals who are dying and their families with high quality palliative care in a home-like setting meeting their physical, emotional and spiritual needs and making the last days of their lives together peaceful, comfortable and meaningful.”

Prior to hiring a staff and converting to a policy oriented board, the board was quite operational in nature and made many decisions as we sculpted what would eventually become the Carpenter Hospice. One core objective of the hospice board was that the hospice be as homelike as possible and from it many of the decisions that we made became easier. We simply asked ourselves, “Would we do it in our own homes?” When we considered adopting a practice that other hospices had of naming the bedrooms after significant donors, we did not. In each of our own homes the rooms are referred to with the name of the person whose room it belongs to; Paul’s room, Ingrid’s room etc. So that is what we did in the hospice. We also publicized our core objectives and when a decorator came forward with an idea of getting a number of decorators to volunteer their time to decorate each of the ten bedroom differently, we happily went forward with the idea since we decorate the bedrooms in our own home differently. Of course we had to make decisions to accept certain things that could pass this test such as doors wide enough to roll a bed through. In cases such that though, it was simply one core objective having a priority over another. Embracing our mission and our core objectives guided us as to what we should and should not do.

Should you have volunteer appreciation nights, fire volunteers, get criminal background checks, generate racial demographic reports on your volunteers, chat about personal things with your volunteers etc.? I don’t know. But if you run each of these questions through the filter of your organization’s mission and core objectives you should find yourself much closer to the answer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Calculating the ROI (Return on Investment) of your volunteer program

I was a participant at the Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management in Australia last month. As the name suggests, the topics covered were not the type covered in workshops for those just beginning their career in volunteer management. A number of goals of the entire group were determined at the end of the retreat and I volunteered to work on one of them, developing a tool for measuring the success of a volunteer program.

Given that this resource was developed with those with extensive experience in mind, the implementation of the ideas presented in this month’s article might not be not for every leader of volunteers. However, even if you feel you would not have the time to address this sort of reporting, the article is still worth a read just to get a different perspective on valuing the contributions of volunteers and on determining relative levels of success from one year to another.

This is especially of value in economically tough times. With an economic downturn there is always the risk of program cuts. Good executive management looks at what can be cut with a minimum of impact. Crucial to dealing with the economic downturn related to your volunteer program then is that your executive management understands the real impact of your volunteer program. While reports of the number of volunteers,volunteer hours and in some cases, the wage replacement value of their hours may have sufficed in the past, it is too easy for a cutback in your department to be viewed as 'only' affecting volunteers and not the impact of the work that volunteers do.

Some insightful, new thoughts have emerged more recently that focus on the value of the results of the efforts of volunteers. Linda Graff describes this concept well in A Note on Assessing Value, To that discussion I would like to add a mechanism with which you can make some solid comparisons of the performance of your volunteer program from year to year. If you would like to measure your year to year successes as a volunteer program manager:

  • for your own use in making improvements to your program, or
  • to make a case for your professional position and your program’s budget within your organization, or
  • to advance your career,

click Calculating the ROI (Return on Investment) of your volunteer program for a pfd copy of this month's article. (The tables in the article required the use of pdf separate from this blog page.)

Monday, March 09, 2009

Yes You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

When I talk about online software that enables volunteers to be part of the process, without a doubt, the concern that comes up most often is something along these lines: “My volunteers are too old and couldn’t / wouldn’t do this”. I hear this so often that I fear that these same leaders of volunteers who are overly concerned that their senior volunteers cannot use a website might also be restricting seniors from filling certain volunteer opportunities because it is ‘beyond them’. To me it looks like a lose-lose scenario that is based on three points.
  1. It is a myth that seniors are incapable of using a website to help you coordinate their volunteer effort.
  2. By encouraging seniors who are unfamiliar the internet to give it a try, you not only strengthen your volunteer pool, but you also help them to discover something that will enrich their lives. It’s a great way to thank them for their volunteer efforts.
  3. The belief that seniors are incapable of using a website, may also be an indicator that seniors are steered away from performing some of the more responsible volunteer roles.
So firstly, let’s debunk the myth that seniors who volunteer are not capable of, and/or are unwilling to use a website. This is important to understand because it will allow volunteer coordinators, who use web-based volunteer management software, to streamline their volunteer program and tap into a large percentage of the population. Seniors appear to be embracing the internet: governments in Canada (, the USA ( and Australia ( for example, have portions of their websites dedicated to seniors. Seniors are dating online through sites such as, and Seniors are publishing their thoughts online as evidenced by sites such as and They are, of course, also blogging through sites that cater to everyone rather than seniors only. Seniors are banking online, investigating worrisome medical symptoms, investigating travel destinations (and looking for last minute deals to save money), shopping online (particularly great when reduced mobility becomes a factor), finding long lost friends, and even keeping up with their grandchildren through Facebook.

A research project conducted in Canada between 2004 and 2007 found that 51 per cent of Canadians above the age of 60 are using the Internet. Given that this data is at least 2 years old and that the 60+ crowd is the fastest growing internet-using demographic, there are likely more of your senior volunteers online than you realize. As stated by the Pew Internet & American Life Project: on a typical day, 69 percent of wired seniors use the Internet, compared with 56 percent of all users. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, seniors use e-mail as much as any other age group. The Media Metrix Report shows that older adults (55+ years) now comprise 13 percent of total online users - outpacing 13 to 17 year olds who trail at 7.6 percent. The report also shows that the older online audience surf the Internet more frequently, stay there longer, and check out more Internet pages than even their teenage counterparts, thereby contradicting the widely held belief that seniors are technology laggards (according to a recent Media Metrix report).I don’t want to make the mistake of suggesting the every senior will now go online. And I certainly would not want a senior volunteer who has been helping your organization for years (perhaps even long before you got there) to feel forced into it. However, I do believe that for just about everyone, there are benefits to be found on the internet; but of course, that does not mean everyone must go online. I also believe that there are benefits to a physical fitness routine, but that does not mean that everyone (including me unfortunately) chooses to have one. Those that do, will reap the benefits, and those that don’t, will not.

Okay, so enough of point number 1. What about the senior volunteers who do not access the internet?

If you think old age means that you can't learn new things, then think again. Research shows that older people can, and do, learn new things. According to Microsoft, seniors recognize the benefits of computers and the internet in the areas of employability (paid and unpaid) and socialization. Non-users, however, cite high levels of intimidation and a general lack of understanding about how a computer and the Internet may benefit them. Seniors who are unfamiliar with using the internet may claim they have no need for it; in many cases this ‘claim’ has more to do with a feeling that they would not be good at using the internet. Take a moment to think of two or three items of equal importance on your to-do list. Now ask yourself, which one of the three tasks would you do first? Most people would choose the ‘most enjoyable’ or ‘easiest’ task first. It is human nature to gravitate toward the tasks that we do well, and avoid tasks that we have difficulty with. Many seniors don’t avoid using the internet because they truly feel they have no use for it. According to Microsoft’s research, many avoid it because they don’t think they could accomplish using it.

So, although the cupcakes at the volunteer reception are truly appreciated, why not embrace the opportunity to offer your senior volunteers a comfortable introduction to the internet? Not only are you giving back to your volunteers in a real and tangible way, you are also providing training, which makes your volunteers more valuable. The UK government's science and technology think tank (Foresight) identified five activities, in their Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing, that play an important role in reducing the natural effect of aging. Among these five activities was to ‘keep learning’. Researchers at Stanford University in the USA, have found that memory loss can be improved by 30 to 50 percent simply by using and stretching our metal capacities. One of the hallmarks of aging well, is maintaining cognitive function. Use it or lose it! As Gandhi put it, "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."

There is one organization in particular that I work with, that has a large senior population. In this organization the number of volunteers who access and edit their volunteer information on the internet has grown from 65% to 100%. For many of these volunteers the catalyst was just a matter of seeing their friends use the internet to log their volunteer hours. It sent shivers down my spine when I was told that these senior volunteers were introduced to the internet through our, and now are using the internet for a variety of things well beyond accessing their volunteer information.

There is a wide range of benefits for seniors if they learn how to navigate the internet. Volunteer organizations can take the initiative to facilitate an introduction to using the internet, while supporting the goals of their volunteer program. Facilitating this kind of training is a great way to give back to your senior volunteers. For many seniors it’s simply a matter of having the opportunity to learn. If you create an ‘internet tutor’ volunteer position, it would allow your senior volunteers to learn how to use the internet; and in turn your volunteer program would benefit from a more highly trained volunteer pool. Your senior volunteers would benefit from all the ways the internet can make life easier and more enjoyable. It’s a win-win situation.

On to point three…If leaders of volunteers wrongfully assume that seniors are incapable of using a website, what other volunteer opportunities are they consciously or unconsciously keeping senior volunteers from filling?

I don’t have to look very far around me to see examples of seniors doing extraordinary, highly involved volunteer work. Jerry, who retired well over a decade ago, was the bookkeeper for a hospice I‘ve worked with. The financials were completed monthly within days of month end, and donors had thank you cards mailed to them within two days of receiving their donation. He did a stellar job.Joseph, a fellow Rotarian in a club that runs one of the largest ribfests in North America, was organizing the volunteers for the event, largely through email, into his late seventies and now well into his eighties he still organizes the volunteers for part of the major event.Senior volunteers are very capable of learning new skills and when it comes to volunteering they are eager to take on challenging roles.

So what’s with the surfing picture? This is me, at 47 and my first time surfing. No, I could not do as many things as the younger surfers could. They also had a language all of their own, and I had to learn a few new words. Yes it was frustrating when I couldn’t get the board to go where I wanted it to, and yes I fell sometimes. But I was given the opportunity to give it a try, and I discovered that it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I imagined. And now that I have learned how to surf a little, it’s something I can do whenever I get the chance. Not only can you teach old dog new tricks, but more importantly, he’ll be a happier dog for it.