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OUR Volunteer Program: The Management TEAM Approach to Enhancing Volunteer Programs

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Why a Team Approach

For years I have been encouraging managers of volunteer programs to function as in-house consultants; building commitment, capacity and competency of all staff that interface with volunteers in their organization. For too many years, I have seen leaders of volunteer programs laboring diligently, trying single-handedly to manage volunteer programs in organizations where there was little buy-in, support or appreciation for their efforts. This has taken its toll on them and on the programs they have led.

Training tools/modules have been developed to help managers of volunteer programs train all staff in skills needed to effectively work with volunteers. But, staff training alone does not solve the problem. Although upper management is increasingly endorsing staff training in supervision of volunteers, they themselves are not always modeling good volunteer management at the top levels of the organization nor are they understanding and performing the roles necessary for them to contribute to a strong volunteer-friendly organization.

At the end of nearly every workshop with managers of volunteer programs I hear the similar lament, “I sure do wish my Executive Director (or other staff such as the Development Director, Personnel Director, Program Director or Board President) had participated in this workshop today.” It has become increasingly obvious that, unless upper management perceives the critical roles they need to play to support and sustain an outstanding volunteer program, we will continue to see high burnout among volunteer managers and witness volunteer programs that never reach their potential.

If you agree that the role of the manager of volunteer programs is to empower the organization to have a strong and effective volunteer engagement, it becomes obvious that it can only be achieved with the involvement of a supportive management team. Managers of volunteer programs generally has no authority over any staff who must be influenced to work effectively with volunteers. Likewise they have no control/authority over upper management who establish agency vision and priorities. There is a need, therefore, for those with the authority and power in the organization to be strong advocates and supporters of volunteer engagement within the organization.

If the organization is to be truly volunteer-friendly, the management team must ensure:

  • a common vision, philosophy, and policies of volunteer engagement;
  • the highest standards and benefits for volunteers contributions; and
  • clear expectations, support, accountability, and recognition for staff competency in utilizing volunteers.

Without a synergistic exchange among the management team (including a manager of volunteer programs or those who provide shared leadership for the volunteer program), the organization will never achieve an optimal volunteer program.

But too often the manager of volunteer programs does not have a seat (or even a voice) at the management table at his/her organization, despite the impact that volunteers can have through their contribution of time, resources, and money towards the mission of the organization. It saddens me after 30 years of working with nonprofit organizations that the phenomenal benefits of a great volunteer program are so little understood, appreciated or integrated into overall organization planning.

And so I strongly believe that the Management TEAM approach is essential to the successful engagement of volunteers. Easy to say, a bit more complex to achieve. Read on!

Organizational Team Culture

It is tempting to jump right in and continue to share the value and the how-tos of developing a management team to support your volunteer program, but realistically you are probably starting from one or a combination of several very different scenarios:

  • There is no culture of team management within your organization.
  • The functions of managing a volunteer program are shared among a small staff and the voice for effective engagement of volunteers is not a priority for your agency.
  • There is a general Agency Management Team but the Manager of Volunteer Programs is not a member.
  • There is a Management Team of which the manager of volunteer programs is a member but issues of volunteer management are not dealt with sufficiently.
  • You are a member of an existing Management Team. It deals with numerous management issues including key issues of support for the volunteer program, but you feel as if you are in competition for support among other “programs” rather than being seen as in integral/essential part of the operation of the organization.
  • You are a member of an existing Management Team and simply want to be better equipped to show leadership how to promote full engagement and support of the volunteer program.

Here are a few tips (the Cliff Notes edition!) on how you might initiate or enhance a management team effort to support volunteer engagement in your organization, whichever of the above scenarios match your situation.

When There Is Not a Team Management Culture at Your Organization

No doubt the lack of team culture is a great challenge for you but, simultaneously, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the value of a team approach by initiating one with your volunteer program. Hopefully the success of an effective team effort to enhance the volunteer program for all staff and volunteers will stimulate your senior management to begin using the team approach for other key issues and program initiatives.

Your primary challenge will be to gain the support and trust of the highest level manager you can involve in this effort to improve volunteer engagement within your organization. You can anticipate some resistance when initiating any new approach, so it will be important to have your case developed as to why having a team effort will more effectively advance the mission of your organization. (Remember, when influencing others, you must meet their needs, not yours!)

Another tip is to make sure that what you are proposing is a trial method that can be reversed if ineffective. Folks who resist your plan want to know that they can return to the “old way” if necessary. You might initially suggest a Volunteer Management Team “Task Force” which will only meet three to four times, with a very well-thought-out purpose, agenda, etc.

Remember, your success will be tied closely to how effectively you develop and present your case to agency decision-makers. It must focus on helping them solve their problems.

Explain specifically how volunteer engagement might look different if there was a management team approach to planning and resolving issues, and ultimately, how this approach will benefit staff and the mission of the organization.

When the Volunteer Program Is Shared by a Number of Staff and Is Not a Priority Focus for the Organization

The first step in this scenario is to pull together all staff with current involvement in the development or oversight of the volunteer program. They must work as a team to avoid misunderstandings, confusion for staff or volunteers, and inefficient use of time. Once the group develops their own coordinated effort, it is time to ask the questions: “Who else in the organization must be strong advocates and supporters of the volunteer program and what do they need to be doing to enhance the program?” “Do we need to engage top level staff on our team and, if so, how can we encourage their participation?”

One method to initiate a management team effort would be to request a retreat or a minimum of a two- to three-hour time period with designated staff/board/volunteers to discuss the potential of improved volunteer engagement and issues/barriers preventing enhancement. An outcome of that retreat could be the development of an official Management Team Task Force to review the volunteer program. The task force’s goal could be to generate improvements in the program through assessment, subsequent planning, and clarification of roles needed to be shared by staff in a successfully integrated program.

When You Are Not Currently on the Management Team at Your Organization

If you have an executive who is a volunteer program champion, you have probably already been invited to sit on the agency management team or, minimally, have someone who carries your voice to the table. But, most often and for many reasons, executives do not see the potential or significance of the volunteer program and thus do not see it as a priority voice at the management level of the organization. Too often volunteer managers spend a great deal of complaining to other managers of volunteer programs in the same situation. What a waste of time! Complaining to folks who have no power to change your situation only leads to personal catharsis, but no action. What you need to be doing is to strategize how you can be included in the top management group. Consider:

  • Are you functioning as a manager and working through other staff to accomplish your goals? If the organization (or you) see your role as empowering others to be successful in partnering with volunteers, then you indeed are a manager or should function as a manager. If you are doing everything only to make certain volunteers are happy and successful, your role may not be seen as management.
  • If you believe that your voice should be at the management level of the organization, put together a presentation which highlights the value of effective volunteer management and some suggestions for improving the program that involves key staff in your organization. Make certain that your presentation improves staff understanding and appreciation of the value of your input as it impacts their work. Assuming that you get a positive response from your presentation, ask how you can engage a team effort to continue to enhance the program, either through an existing management team structure or one particularly selected as pertinent to the success of the volunteer program.
  • You must be proactive to gain top management attention if the program has not previously been considered a priority or if you have not been considered a manager. In many cases, there are acts of benign neglect stemming from the executive’s lack of experiencing the potential of an effective volunteer program. It becomes your job to influence and educate up in the organization.
  • As was previously mentioned, always remember your goal is to become a member of the agency management team, but your case to them is why their attention to the issues of volunteer management (of which you are the organization’s expert) is critical to their success in carrying out their roles in supporting the organization’s mission.

Once you have achieved your goal of being invited to participate regularly on the management team, give yourself a pat on the back! Now you will need to decide whether this forum is where you will receive the needed management team support for the volunteer program or whether you will need to initiate a subset of these folks (or perhaps some of these management team members and a board member or a key volunteer who has significant influence in the volunteer program of the organization) to focus specifically on your needs.

When There Is a Management Team and You Are a Member, but Key Issues of Volunteer Support Are Not a Priority

As with all these situations, it is critical for you to begin to share the significance of volunteer issues in a or enhance a management team effort to support volunteer engagement in your organization all departments or programs throughout the organization. Here are some examples:

  • When issues of fund development are discussed, remind the group that an appropriate involvement of volunteers may be calling first time donors within 48 hours of the receipt of their gift to personally thank them.
  • When issues of personnel expansion come up, be certain to introduce the potential of also designing some new, interesting volunteer assignments to support the organization.
  • When concerns about individual donors are expressed, remind the group that volunteers give at a considerably higher rate than non-volunteers. Discuss ways to appropriately develop a campaign for volunteers to be offered opportunities to become donors.
  • When issues of specific programs come up, jump into the discussion regarding ways that volunteers might be appropriately involved in solving some of the issues identified.
  • When organizational planning occurs, be the person that always interjects the question of how volunteers might be appropriately engaged in a new initiative.

Simply stated, be a constant source of helpful information about volunteer potential. And ask for time to discuss an issue involving volunteer engagement that will be of great interest/benefit to the management team.

When You Are on the Management Team, but it Feels Like a Competition for Limited Resources

Fortunately you are on the team. Now you need to change the perception of volunteer engagement from something that is just a “program” to something that is an essential, integrated aspect of carrying out the mission of the organization. Once you have achieved that, your funding and position – and thus volunteers – have a more secure place in the organization. If you are positioned as one small program completing for limited resources, your strategy must be to get the executive to see volunteer engagement as part of the personnel resources to support the mission, just as the development department is thought of as accessing the financial resources to support the mission.

You will need to decide whether having a separate budget or one integrated into the basic management of the organization serves your goal of support for volunteer engagement. There are arguments and models for each approach. You must be savvy about how decisions and priorities are determined at your organization and prepare your strategy with that information in mind.

When You Are on the Management Team, but Want to Be More Effective Enhancing Your Role as an Advocate for Excellence in Volunteer Engagement .

Many of my suggestions here appear in the previous categories but, to summarize:

  • Be proactive; don’t wait to be asked. Continually provide valuable insights into the management team discussion.
  • Ask for an agenda in advance of management meetings so that you can determine how you want to contribute to the discussion.
  • If this management team is not the combination of folks that you need for a specific team approach for volunteer engagement, propose a group – including the highest executive you can attract – to be on a task force or team. This leader’s purpose would be to bring organizational vision and input to the program, as well as discuss roles that key staff must contribute for it to be successful.
  • Prepare stories, data, and statistics for the management team or the group you assemble to focus exclusively on volunteer issues. It will constantly remind them of the impact that the volunteer program has on the mission of the organization.

Obviously I am unable able to deal in depth with all of the levels of team management culture in which you may find yourself. Appreciating that you are starting from the various scenarios shared above, let me share some how-to’s for specifically developing and enhancing the team approach to your volunteer program.