Guest post by Elisa Kosarin. This post originally appeared on Twenty Hats.
We don’t all belong to departments of one. Here’s how a large team of volunteer managers makes it work.
An email appeared in my mailbox a few weeks back. It’s the kind of message that I love to see.
The email came from Emily Thomas, who works for Volunteer Solutions, a program within the Fairfax County Virginia Area Agency on Aging.
Volunteer Solutions is a huge program that engages over 3,500 volunteers for a diverse range of volunteer roles – think everything from Zumba instructors to medical transportation. The program is a partnership of the Fairfax County Department of Family Services, Neighborhood and Community Services, and Health Department. They recruit, train, and manage, volunteers for Adult and Aging clients, Senior Centers, and Adult Day Health Cares.
I featured Volunteer Solutions a couple of years ago because the program succeeds at something that’s challenging for large volunteer programs: it is both structured and flexible.
Emily reached out because she’s so proud of the teamwork within Volunteer Solutions. She wanted me to observe it first-hand.
And that’s exactly what I did. I attended a Volunteer Solutions’ staff meeting to learn just what allows this team of volunteer managers to function so well.
The Volunteer Solutions team is large, especially in a field where most practitioners are a department of one. This group includes ten members – it’s almost big enough to field a football team. Within the group, each member performs a very specific role that ensures every client’s needs are met, and that every volunteer receives the support and the opportunity to serve in the way that’s most meaningful for them.
Here’s what the roles look like:
Theresa Brown, the Director, leads the team, maintains the data for multiple annual reports, and is responsible for continuing to improve service delivery and innovate ways to meet the needs of the volunteers.
Emily Thomas, Partnership Manager, reaches out to engage companies, faith-based groups, and other community partners in the Volunteer Solutions mission.
Carol Wright, the Process and Partnership Developer, is in charge of fielding inquiries from volunteers and clients, and for managing all of the data associated with a large volunteer program.
Jodi Smith, Carolyn Thomas, Jeannine Purdy, Christie Elliot are the Regional Volunteer Managers who train, onboard, match and supervise the volunteers in their roles.
Fatmata Mustapha, Administrative Assistant, assists the Process and Partnership Manager in her duties and provides overall administrative support to the team.
So what happens exactly when the volunteer program is so large that it requires multiple specialists to sustain the program? What’s the best way to ensure that the entire team works harmoniously, without duplicating efforts or reinventing the wheel?
According to Theresa and her team, success boils down to two fundamental principles:
A philosophy that they will do everything within their power to meet the needs of the volunteers and the population they serve.
A commitment to close communication and strong systems.
“We try very hard not to deny a request for a volunteer and also to place the volunteer in an opportunity that is fulfilling to them,” says Theresa. “We are here to support the Adult and Aging case managers and their clients. If an Adult and Aging client needs extra assistance, the team pulls together to find the volunteer who is able to meet that need.”
For example, a case manager for a developmentally disabled couple requested a social visitor volunteer to help ease the couple’s isolation. Regional Volunteer Manager Jodi Smith matched the couple with a young mother looking for a flexible volunteer opportunity that she would enjoy. At the couple’s request, the social visits turned into cooking lessons, and the “Cooking Companions” are going on two years together.
Alongside these individualized volunteer roles are others who assist in more traditional ways, such as transporting clients to doctor’s appointments or bringing them meals via the Meals on Wheels program.
Communication remains a priority. Since the team is organized around four regions, much of the communication is via phone or email. However, they have monthly in-person team meetings. The meetings give everyone an opportunity to reconnect face to face, report out on what’s been happening in their respective regions, discuss as a team plans for upcoming events, and come up with best practices and policies.
As for systems, “We have what we call at Smart Book. It’s a snapshot of the unit that ensures our work continues, even if there are staffing changes,” says Process and Partnership Manager Carol Wright.
The book, which resides on the shared drive and is updated continually, contains every piece of relevant information needed to ensure the smooth functioning of the department. That information includes:
Contact information for every team member.
Descriptions for each of our roles.
Instructions for maintaining volunteer data at each stage of the volunteer management process – from onboarding to training to record keeping.
Step by step instructions on how to process a new referral, create a report, and best practices for all things relevant to the program.
In addition to the Smart Book, there are practices that make it easier for individuals to volunteer.
For one thing, volunteers don’t have to wait long to be cleared from their background checks – fingerprint results are processed extremely fast these days. New volunteers may speak with a team member about where they are in the screening process – or they can log onto the County-Wide volunteer management system and see when their status changes from “pending” to “approved.”
What’s most impressive about Volunteer Solutions is how seamlessly the team is integrated into the work of the agency. A large part of their role is ensuring that clients receive all of the volunteer services that they need while ensuring that the volunteers enjoy their roles.
Says Regional Manager Carolyn Thomas, “Our work is about much more than volunteering. It’s about connecting everyone who cares about our older adults to care for them.”
Want to read more about large volunteer engagement teams? Check out this post, too!
Elisa Kosarin, CVA coaches, trains, and consults on volunteer management. She believes volunteers are a powerful force for change in our communities — if they are managed by volunteer engagement pros with the skills to cultivate this resource.