Thinking About How Volunteer Managers Think (Among Other Things)

Guest post by Elisa Kosarin. This post originally appeared on Twenty Hats.

Don’t have the resources to get the job done right? Try a different POV

thinking-about-volunteer-managers-twenty-hatsWhen I managed volunteers, one of the biggest eye-openers came from a poverty simulation that the county held for my program. You may know this simulation: the participants are assigned roles in various families, and they must try to get to jobs, pay for medications, send their children to school, etc. with no car, no savings – hardly any resources at all.

Everyone loved the role playing – especially the staff. One of our supervisors took the role of ”criminal” and caused all kinds of mayhem.  But mostly, we were humbled and horrified by how difficult it was to do the simplest things without access to resources.

As one volunteer put it, “living in poverty is a full-time job.”

Here’s the thing about that experience.

Sobering as it was, the simulation felt kind of familiar – because it resembled nonprofit life. Oftentimes, (and big caveat here – this is a generalization), working in a nonprofit is like spending time in poverty. The constant worry over funding and other resources creates a scarcity mindset, where we focus on trying to preserve the little we have rather than investing in actions that will bring us more: more money, more volunteers, more qualified employees – you name it.

Notice that I said we. It’s easy to point our fingers at the decision makers when scarcity thinking arises (“no raises this year – again!”).  But I’m more interested in what happens when managers in the middle – such as leaders of volunteers – fall into that same limited mindset.

That’s because scarcity thinking affects the decisions we make, and those decisions have consequences when we want to run a thriving volunteer program.

Here are some signs that scarcity has found a home in your thinking:

  • There’s not enough/I’m not enough

You worry about all of the competition for volunteers, and you fear you won’t ever have enough to fill your own program. Or you don’t have tough conversations with volunteers who drop the ball for fear they will leave. Or, you don’t think you’ll ever get a better job because you don’t have an advanced degree.

Making decisions from a place of lack will keep you stuck in the status quo. Instead, reframe your concerns from a place of abundance. How would your management change if you knew there were plenty of volunteers to go around? And how would your career decisions look if you believed that the opportunities must be out there some someone with your talents?

  • I can always give time

Your office won’t spring for printing services so you spend your weekend copying and collating all the volunteer manuals yourself. Or you’re ready to leave the office at 5:00 but everyone else is still working so you start to worry about getting judged and stick around. Or you rarely take PTO because there’s just so much to do.

The best way to problem-solve is to start by valuing your time and your well-being. Is your workplace better served by you copying all those manuals and getting burned out and resentful? I bet your abilities are better used in other ways, like connecting with your volunteers or refining your recruitment methods.

  • There’s no budget for that

You just started supervising and have no idea how to do that, so you take a free webinar that gives you a tip or two when what you really need is a course.  Or you need a new computer and settle for a “gently used” donation from a board member. Or you keep downloading 30-day trials of scheduling software to save you workplace money.

Even the most under-funded organizations spend money – it’s a matter of establishing the need. I have seen clients from small, deficit-ridden nonprofits get the ok to register for my retreats and leadership circles. Some clients thought the funding would never get approved, and yet it was – because they decided to ask and communicated the problems that coaching might solve.

In the end, it all comes down to value. When we value our time, our well-being, and our judgment, we do a better job of making the case to spend or invest in anything important to our work. Climbing out of scarcity has more to do with our outlook than it does with our program’s wallet.

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My Six Principles of Buy-In will help you make the case for the resources you need! Email me to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.

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