Reliving the 2011 Nonprofit Management Institute Through a “Volunteering” Lens

Looking through the "Volunteering" LensOn September 27-28, 2011, more than 300 nonprofit leaders from 16 different countries gathered at sunny Stanford University for the Nonprofit Management Institute, hosted by the Stanford Social Innovation Review and Association of Fundraising Professionals. These leaders came to learn from each other, to learn from the expert speakers and, of course, to network.

This year the theme of the conference was “Partnering for Impact,” and this was applied both to management within nonprofits as well as strategies for working with other groups, organizations and sectors. While there wasn’t necessarily a strong “volunteering” focus, I found that all of the excellent sessions provided material that can easily be applied to volunteer programs.

So below I’ll relive the two-day event, taking you with me to learn from each speaker and applying their knowledge and advice to the areas of volunteer recruitment and management.

Morning, Day 1: Don’t Be a Hippo

This session could have been named “How to Get People to Do What You Want Without Them Realizing It.” Professor Francis Flynn of Stanford University spoke about a number of important strategies for communicating in order to convince. For example, he asked us if we’d had experience with the “Hippo Syndrome” – managers with big mouths and little ears. Don't Be a HippoListening, Professor Flynn explained, is a powerful and under-utilized communication and persuasion tool. You may have experienced the Hippo Syndrome when advocating senior management for your volunteer program. But remember that you are a manager, too – so don’t be a Hippo. Make sure to listen sincerely to your volunteers when they talk about their concerns, their interests and how you can help them.

Later Morning, Day 1: Sharing is Not Just a Kindergarten Skill

My biggest take away from this session, presented by Katie Smith Milway of The Bridgespan Group, was: Organizational learning is very, very important. I couldn’t help but think about all the ways that we could be doing a better job of it here at VolunteerMatch.

In truth, every organization grapples with knowledge-sharing. Even successful, well-known organizations have challenges, and we heard from leaders of Summer Search and KIPP about their successes and failures in this area. The ability and tendency to share knowledge can be something you as a volunteer manager look for in your potential volunteers – thus creating a program that encourages open communication and a team mentality. Additionally, developing this sort of environment could enable you to discover hidden skills and talents among your current volunteers. What? You didn’t know that the accountant who helps with your bookkeeping also does beautiful calligraphy? Well what a coincidence, you have a donor thank you card that would look great with some calligraphy!

After Lunch, Day 1: You CAN Be Friends with Other Volunteer Programs

It was fascinating and heartening to learn about real nonprofits finding ways to work together to increase social impact in their fields. The nonprofit research and consulting firm FSG has studied the phenomenon of shared measurement, and they presented to us the ingredients they’ve identified for success.

The idea behind shared measurement is that if groups of nonprofits pool their knowledge and data together, if they settle on a collective set of metrics for measuring their social impact, then they can help each other improve, and the sector as a whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. If you were working collaboratively with volunteer programs at other organizations you could share best practices, measure volunteer impact together, and collectively figure out how best to make use of the volunteer talent at your disposal.

Late Afternoon, Day 1: It’s Years After Your Project – Do You Know Where Your Volunteers Are?

Professor Doug McAdam of Stanford University was hilarious, and his personal stories of interviewing Freedom Summer participants and surreptitiously digging through historical archives had the wonky crowd at the conference constantly chuckling. How does your program impact your volunteers?He reminded us that many of our country’s most prominent programs and organizations, such as service-learning, City Year, and Teach for America, are based on the idea that civic engagement at a young age will make better citizens. He decided to see if this was true, so he compared volunteer participants of Freedom Summer and Teach for America to see who came out as more engaged in the long run.

It’s an important and often overlooked question among volunteer coordinators: What impact is our work having on our volunteers? Are they becoming better people for working with us? Ask yourself how you can enhance your program so that not only your clients, but your volunteers are seeing the biggest benefit possible.

Morning, Day 2: You Have the Power to Make Volunteering a Key Strategy

One thing everyone in the nonprofit sector can agree on is that nonprofit funding is a very complicated subject. The Bridgespan Group has developed a system for identifying and implementing the funding model that best fits your organization’s needs and goals.

My question while listening to this presentation was: “What about volunteering?” Meaning, where should volunteers fit into the funding model? And how should a volunteer program integrate into the strategy of deciding which model is best? The main point, really, is that volunteering should be a part of your funding strategy, period. Volunteers impact the financial position of a nonprofit in various ways, from providing pro bono services to doing fundraising themselves. And understanding your organization’s funding model will help ensure that your senior management recognizes the volunteer program as a key strategic area.

Before Lunch, Day 2: Is Your Volunteer Program Upper-Right Quadrant Material?

Jan Masaoka of Blue Avocado had us all in the palm of her hands, despite how hungry we were. She presented a fun and innovative exercise for identifying which programs and activities are both impactful and cost-effective for your nonprofit… and which are neither.Where would your volunteer program fall? If you were mapping out your organization’s activities on the axes of impact vs. profitability, where would your volunteer program fall?

Jan reminded us that the most scarce resource of any organization is the attention of the senior managers (especially the Hippos!), and she encouraged us to invest this resource in the programs that are most impactful and cost-effective. So it’s your job to make sure your volunteer program falls into that category!

This session was my favorite, mainly because it was the one that made me think “I could totally apply this to my everyday job! I want to go try it out right now!” I urge you to go try it out, too. What would your activity map look like?

Food Coma, Day 2: Going Back to School

Professor Barton H. Thompson, Jr. from Stanford described the inspiring collaborative partnerships that make up the Woods Institute for the Environment. What stuck with me from his talk was the mostly untapped opportunity to leverage universities in cause partnerships.

Higher education institutions can be a great resource for building strong, dynamic volunteer programs, too. Having a relationship with your local college could help you tremendously with recruitment of enthusiastic volunteers. You could also utilize the school’s resources for training and even management of your volunteers.

Pre-Happy Hour, Day 2: Bigger is Not Always Better

As Melissa Bradley of Tides told us in her extremely fast and energetic New York style, when you scale a program you want to focus on impact, not size. And by impact, she means influence and effect. In other words, if you’re thinking of developing partnerships to scale your volunteer efforts, focus on partners that can help you be more efficient and have greater impact. More volunteers and a bigger program should not necessarily be your goal, so it’s important to think strategically as you develop partnerships for scale.

What do you think about the ideas presented here? How do you think they can be applied to the volunteering sector? Leave your comments below!