Volunteers

Unleash the Potential

I recently had the opportunity witness the graduation and swearing in of nearly 100 new Veterans Mentors at the 3rd Annual Justice for Vets National Boot Camp. 

Justice for Vets is an organization that was founded in 2010 and is dedicated to creating a nationwide network of Veterans Treatment Courts. There are currently more than 220 Veterans Treatment Courts in the country with hundreds more in the planning stages. 

One of the keys to the success of Veterans Treatment Courts is their ability to link troubled veterans with volunteer veteran mentors. The graduation ceremony not only capped two full days of education and training for the new mentors, but it also celebrated their commitment in the closing session of the annual national conference attended by more than 4,500 court and social professionals already involved in planning or running a Veterans Treatment Court or other specialized treatment court.

How does an organization build a cadre of volunteers who will advocate and work so tirelessly to implement its mission?

In a powerful ceremony that took less than an hour, this organization:

  • reinforced the need for and value of the contributions these volunteers were going to provide
  • recognized how uniquely qualified these particular individuals were to complete the task at hand, both because of their prior military service and their successful transition to civilian life 
  • provided the training and materials needed to help the volunteer mentors understand their assignment more fully and be able to complete it more effectively
  • created a forum for public acknowledgment and appreciation of the mentors' willingness to give of their time, energy and skills in the service of other veterans
  • and as a part of that forum, also pledged broader, continued support as the volunteers returned to their individual communities to put into practice what they had just learned. 

Powerful stuff. Talk about reinforcing and reinvigorating a commitment. And becoming a volunteer mentor is no minor commitment!

(Full disclosure: Justice for Vets is also a professional services division of the National Association for Drug Court Professionals, an organization in which my wife has been involved since its inception 20-some years ago. I have a bias toward treatment courts as well as a bias toward helping veterans, so my favorable reaction to this event may come as no surprise.) 

But, that notwithstanding…

Does it make your wonder if your volunteers are as committed to you? Or, if they could be?

Ask yourself:

How well does our organization accomplish the above five points?

Need to Delegate? Don't 'Just Do It!'

"Then I'll do it myself," said the little Red Hen.

While we all know this approach is not sustainable, how often - simply by default - do we fall back on it?

I recently had to consider this as I caught myself stepping back in to pick up a project I previously tried to hand off. All the while, telling myself I needed to do a better job of delegating. (This was a volunteer assignment, by the way, so I couldn't simply fall back on line management authority. Not that line authority is effective in its own right anyway!)

So, how do you delegate successfully? It seems to me the following steps are helpful.

1. Identify what's on your plate. Management consultant Rob Lederer first introduced me to this concept several years ago. He advocates writing down the tasks that take your time in as much detail as possible to help clarify your understanding of how you spend your time. This also allows you to consider each task specifically in terms of what you should do and what others could do. (Jim McGraw, the former Chief Operating Officer at Marion Laboratories and Chairman of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation would emphasize also identifying what you should not do, but that's another post entirely!)

2. Identify a prospective owner of the task(s) that could be transferred. In line management, you may be able to assign a task; in volunteer management, you have to find an owner. This really means you have to sell someone, convince them that this warrants their time and attention. Obviously, you want to pick someone who has the skills and abilities needed to successfully complete the assignment, as well as the capacity (time) and propensity (willingness) to take on this task.

3. Share your vision. How can you hope to get the results you expect unless you clearly communicate those expectations? But there's an inherent conflict between giving ownership ("I believe you can do this and I hope you will.") and giving direction ("Here's what I want you to do and how.") Each approach may be right in certain situations; your key to success is deciding which is most appropriate for this immediate assignment.)

4. Let go. This is the tough one! Allowing ownership means accepting someone else's ideas, style and sometimes, even schedule. (Now do you see the importance of taking care of Step 3 first?) Resist the urge to jump back in and do things your way. I often have to admit it's my own ego that's being threatened, not the end goal of the project. What's more, I also often find that by being open to approaches I hadn't yet considered, we actually produce even better results than I originally expected.

5. Stay informed. It's a delicate dance: how do you turn something over, yet continue to be responsible for the results? Again, this reinforces the importance of the first three steps. The more carefully you plan - and communicate - your continued involvement, the more smoothly (or, less awkwardly) that will happen. The goal is to stay informed and involved, without micromanaging or undermining the authority or abilities of the task's new owner.

6. Give credit where/when credit's due. Recognize willingness ... effort ... accomplishments - whatever you can - to reinforce and enable the new owner's success. Keep your own ego in check. In the words of Harry S. Truman, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

Even - no, especially - if you don't try to do it all yourself!

Love Thy Volunteers (Respect the Title)

That's right. I'm proposing to you the radical idea that for the people who give of their time, their physical labor, their emotional work and gas money, "Volunteer" is a title. And one they (should) wear with pride.

I've been in a couple situations lately where the word has been bandied around in a casual way, or given to groups, who, while very generous and caring, are by no stretch of the imagination "volunteering."

Namely, I was at a presentation at a fundraising conference and the speaker talked about young people wanting to "volunteer" in "fun ways that fit their lifestyle" and showed a group of 20-somethings bowling while dressed like band members of Devo.

*sound of car brakes screeching to a halt and a giant explosion here*

That isn't volunteering.

I'm not saying volunteering can't be fun. But referring to people who attend an event or gather a group of friends to go bar hopping for a cause as volunteers cheapens the word and disrespects the folks who really are volunteers. Is it just me?

Volunteers are people connected to the core work of your organization. In most nonprofits, they're the ones who actually do said core work. They show up, they sacrifice. They have some skin in the game.

I'm all about going to the bingo game that benefits the organization (beers at Hamburger Mary's? Heeeeyyyy!!). I'll walk a charity 5K on a Saturday with a friend. But I won't call myself a volunteer for those groups.

Here's to the Volunteers who have earned the title.