The One Thing That Intuitive Volunteer Managers Do Oh-So-Well

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

If you seek the cooperation of others, start with your own trustworthiness

Last week, I had lunch with a colleague. We had one of those wide-ranging conversations that cover nonprofit life from just about every angle. Eventually, the discussion turned to a personal favorite subject, my Leadership Circle. The Circle is a group of very committed leaders of volunteers who meet every other month to polish their skills and solve their trickiest problems in the company of peers.

This group dives right in at their meetings – discussing current challenges, brainstorming solutions, commiserating, and all-around receiving the support that they need to work at their highest level.

My colleague had attended the CEO-level version of a leadership circle one time and came away with a very different impression. She found that it was really hard to open up in that circle to a group of people that she didn’t know – and she never returned.

This leader is absolutely right. It’s a setup for failure to put a group of strangers together and expect them to disclose their fears and doubts. Our discussion helped me realize that one reason the Leadership Circle succeeds is because the members all know each other – each and every one of them is involved in our local volunteer managers group. They have collaborated for years and feel comfortable with one another.

That need for a safe, trusting environment seems so essential when we are addressing our relationships with peers. And it begs another question:How do we foster that same kind of environment with the people we see every day at work for hours on end – our co-workers?

How do we foster that same kind of environment with the people we see every day at work for hours on end – our co-workers?

Arielle Baker (second from left), with some of the clients served by her volunteers

Arielle Baker has some answers. She is the Senior Manager, Community Engagement at Calvary Women’s Services in Washington, DC. At Calvary, about 500 volunteers a year assist in programs that provide housing, health, education and employment to homeless women in the District of Columbia.

Arielle is proud of the volunteer program at Calvary, and for good reason. In the two years that she’s been there, Arielle has:

  • Increased the number of corporate volunteers
  • Created new volunteer opportunities in critical areas, such as job placement and permanent supportive housing, and;
  • Expanded Calvary’s educational services program, where clients receive the training they need in life skills, education, and the arts

How did Arielle achieve such impressive growth in such a short period of time?

By making it her priority to establish trust with her fellow staff members.

Here’s what Arielle did, and what she continues to do:

  • She demonstrates that she is there to support the staff. “Our educational coordinator wanted to offer new opportunities to the clients that would have once been considered out of our wheelhouse, such as math practice,” Arielle noted, “I validated her ideas and became her collaborator. We worked together to create the new volunteer roles and make them happen.”
  • She solves problems for her co-workers. “For example,“ says Arielle, “We used to have a lack of diversity in the educational services program – the volunteers were a pretty homogeneous group. I changed that by re-writing the position announcement. We used to have a very generic writeup with just a volunteer options mentioned – it was hard for prospective volunteers to picture themselves in the role.”

“Now, we specify an array of options so that volunteers can identify a position that suits them. We seek geography experts, Zumba instructors, nutritionists, and knitters. By getting specific about the diversity of skills needed, we have been able to attract volunteers of all ages, races, and professions.

  • She is organized and responsive. “I make sure to always follow up. I get my paperwork done on time and enter all the important info into our database. I make sure to communicate all the details that my co-workers need. I make working with volunteers easy for them.”

Arielle knows how to build trust with new volunteers, too – and that ability helps pave the way for stronger volunteer/staff relationships.

“I spend one full hour with every new volunteer. We review the program and the volunteer opportunities. Then, I give them a tour of the facility. The final step is to introduce them personally to the staff person who will supervise them.”

Leaders of volunteers must possess a very unusual skill set. We need to be organized and excel at creating systems – and we need strong interpersonal skills to forge lasting relationships. It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of question to figure out which kind of skills come first. If you share Arielle’s approach, you start with your own trustworthiness, and back up your actions with your systems.

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