Michele Wiesner is the Director of Capacity Building at Hire Heroes USA, a national nonprofit empowering U.S. military members, veterans and spouses to succeed in the civilian workforce. Her work focuses on supporting service delivery through partners and stakeholders to increase organizational reach, effectiveness and efficiency.
How have you remained resilient during the pandemic as a leader? Do you have advice for others in a similar role?
First, I need to acknowledge how fortunate I am to work with Hire Heroes USA, an organization that continued assisting veterans and military spouses non-stop throughout the pandemic. Because our service delivery model is virtual, we continued operations without interruption. Many organizations were not in such a fortunate position. Another advantage I have is my vast experience as a remote worker. I didn’t have any kind of withdrawal period by not going into the office or seeing my colleagues regularly. Making meaningful contributions and having conversations via video chat and phone have been a consistent part of my work environment for years.
Second, I started to focus more on short and mid-range plans, rather than long-range. As a leader, I enjoy strategizing about the future and the possibilities of what’s to come. With the pandemic, so much has been up in the air for so long, I needed to refocus on what’s in the immediate and mid-range future. Plus, when you focus on what you can control, as opposed to the unknowns, you tend to have a greater sense of purpose and clear aim. This really helps on days when you feel overwhelmed or insecure.
Finally, my advice for others would be to figure out what your own needs are. We all handle stress differently and find different activities comforting. Experiment with energizing activities, and be sure to recognize the difference between numbing and energizing. There are times when we need to unplug and zone out, but doing that too frequently can be detrimental. The biggest motivator for me, pandemic or no pandemic, is that people still need our help. So, the question is not if we will continue to help but how we will evolve given the changing environment.
What are the limitations or challenges you have experienced in operating a virtual volunteer program?
Before the pandemic, our biggest challenge was creating lasting relationships with people that we would never meet face-to-face. This is absolutely possible, but it takes intention and effort to ensure a volunteer’s virtual experience with you is on par with an in-person experience.
Since the pandemic, our biggest challenge and privilege has been incorporating more volunteers than ever into our program. When so many workers and organizations were forced into the virtual space, more people started looking for opportunities to give back virtually. Thankfully, our infrastructure and systems were set up to accommodate this increase; however, it did add a challenge of making sure a larger number of volunteers were engaged at the same rates. Without a subsequent opportunity increase, it meant each existing volunteer was asked to give time less frequently. While not a show-stopper, it’s a significant change and needed to be addressed to ensure a positive volunteer experience.
The key to any successful relationship, virtual or in person, is communication and trust. Here are a few keys that I find essential to addressing any challenge in volunteer engagement.
Key #1: Attitude of Gratitude
You’ve probably heard this phrase before, perhaps even in situations where you felt less than grateful. When it comes to working with volunteers, express gratitude in every interaction. Sign off emails and texts with a, “Thank you!”. Call or write just to express appreciation, rather than make an additional request. Send a handwritten thank you note to acknowledge a significant milestone in their work. This makes such a difference to a volunteer’s experience with your organization.
Key #2: Build a Relationship from the Beginning
Your onboarding for volunteers probably looks quite a bit different from ours. Some of us are waiting to relaunch our standard orientation and training from pre-pandemic times. Bringing your orientation and training program into a digital space can be a huge time saver and efficiency gain, but you also need to balance that with screening and vetting volunteers. As much as you can, try to establish relationships with your volunteers and get to know them individually during onboarding. It might be a quick call to introduce yourself, asking them to submit a bio, or a video call with a group of new volunteers to make introductions and welcome them to the team. Getting to know your volunteers also serves a greater purpose when it comes to opportunity placement.
Key #3: Process with Purpose
A volunteer can do many other things with their time aside from spending it with your organization. As part of respecting the gift of their time, leaders of volunteers at every level should design processes and infrastructure that make the experience as smooth and reliable as possible. It can be frustrating for a volunteer when they are ready for a task and their supervisor is still gathering materials or trying to figure out what exactly they will do during their shift. Even if it means delaying an opportunity, having a purposeful process will instill trust that you and your organization respect the volunteer’s time.
Key #4: Be Responsive
This seems obvious, but the virtual environment creates opportunities for missed connections. We don’t always have time to respond to every inquiry or offer to help. To keep trust with your volunteers, clear and regular communication is essential. If you don’t have time to respond to a question in depth, send a quick reply stating that you will reply at a later date, and then hold yourself to that. It may sound trite, but demonstrating integrity in your words and actions is invaluable.
Key #5: Demonstrate Difference Making
The motivations of volunteers vary widely, and there are many great articles on that topic. Most volunteers have some tie to or affinity for your mission. For those reasons, it’s important to communicate impact at every step. Volunteers also process impact in different ways. Some prefer storytelling and testimonials, while others like to see numerical results and outcomes. As much as you can, communicate impact in a variety of ways to show volunteers why their time and talents matter.
Following these keys can be a great way to address limitations and challenges that fall outside of our control, and they reinforce principles of relationship-building and leadership.
What is your advice to volunteer coordinators who began their work during the pandemic?
First, thank you for joining a needed, but often overlooked, aspect of nonprofit management. You are already a resilient professional having 2+ years of experience working through a pandemic. You probably don’t even realize how the perseverance and flexibility you have developed these last two years will serve you in your future career.
My advice, as stated at the top, is to invest in yourself and understand what activities replenish you. Then, do them regularly. No one is going to invest in your well-being and development more than you. The same goes for professional development. Most nonprofits are small and constrained financially. You will likely need to drive your own professional development and growth, and remember that informal growth through reading, networking, writing, etc. can be as important as formal training and credentials. Lastly, find a tribe of supportive colleagues who you trust, you can go to for advice and who broaden your perspective. These aren’t always colleagues in your same organization. Either way, having authentic, meaningful friendships is a key aspect of staying buoyed during hard times and being able to focus and refocus on the importance of our work.
Has anything changed with Hire Heroes USA since you did the podcast? Is there anything on the horizon in 2022 you want people to know?
Since recording the podcast, we have closed out 2021 by officially helping 12,594 veterans and military spouses find new employment! We also engaged 1,305 unique volunteers in nearly 7,500 hours of service. In 2022, we are excited about helping more veterans and spouses throughout our services and programs. We already have several events coming up for employers and job seekers, which you can view here. If you would like to follow our announcements and progress throughout the year, you can follow our page on LinkedIn.
Who do you follow in the nonprofit world? Do you have any helpful resources, book ideas, or websites?
Learning from others is a key aspect of my professional development plan. There are so many excellent resources, many of them free, that nonprofit professionals can take advantage of.
For leaders of volunteers, I follow several individuals and organizations. VolunteerMatch.org is a great resource, of course, with all the free webinars and content produced, and I highly recommend the Time & Talent podcast. I’m a member of the VolunteerPro community with Tobi Johnson, an incredible resource of both community-driven questions and custom content from Tobi. The national association for leaders of volunteers, Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement (AL!VE), does a lot of great member-driven content, and it’s also a great place to network with others in the field. Finally, I’m the President of my state AVA, the Georgia Association for Volunteer Administration and a member of the Council of Volunteer Administrators of metropolitan Atlanta. These groups have been invaluable to me as I’ve worked my way up in the field. Your local AVAs, COVAs and DOVIAs are great places to meet other leaders of volunteers, especially if you are new to the field. The Engage Journal is a great place to read thought-provoking articles, and the Advancing the Profession podcast from Rob Jackson is a great listen, too. Finally, for anyone who is passionate about leading volunteers, I would encourage you to pursue your Certified in Volunteer Administration (CVA) through the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration (CCVA). The CCVA is another great avenue for networking internationally, and the CVA is the standard bearing credential for volunteer engagement.
I also enjoy several nonprofit-specific or general growth and development resources. I subscribe to regular newsletters:
- Selfish Giving from Joe Waters on corporate giving and partnerships
- Successful Nonprofits from Dolph Goldenburg on nonprofit strategy and leadership
- Inclusion is Leadership from Ruchika Tulshyan
The Harvard Business Review also has a ton of resources, and you can scan a limited number of articles for free every month. Brene Brown and Adam Grant are two of my favorite authors and influencers on leadership and personal growth.
Hear more about Michele's experience on the Time + Talent Podcast with Jennifer Bennett of VolunteerMatch and Tobi Johnson of VolunteerPro.
For more information on Hire Heroes USA, visit https://www.hireheroesusa.org/ and all social channels @hireheroesusa.