What I learned at my first volunteer management conference

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I recently attended the Volunteer Center Leadership Forum and the Synergize Conference in Ottawa.  Though I can safely say my brain has been turned to putty after so much information and meeting so many amazing volunteer engagement professionals, these four days were incredibly valuable for me, and I’m sure for everyone in attendance too.

I can’t possibly do justice to everything that I learned, as much from the incredible presenters as I did from the volunteer centres and volunteer managers in the room. Nonetheless, I will try! Here are some of the key tips I walked away with.

Volunteer Training

Be clear about the learning objectives.
Tell volunteers-in-training what they are expected to learn and the degree to which they are expected to absorb the material from the start of the training. It seems obvious, but think about it. Is it really clear to EVERYONE in the room what the expectations are? We all remember how frustrating it was in school when the teacher didn’t tell us what would be on the test, and how much worse it was when we studied all the wrong things. Set your volunteers up for success with clear expectations for their learning!

Make success the only option! 
Establish a scale of learning objectives, starting at the minimum you expect them to achieve. Empower your volunteers to decide how they engage with the material and to which degree. Here’s an example with the scale that was given to us at our session about Universal Design for Learning and volunteer training:

More aware – Aware and curious – Will share information with colleagues –
Integrate one change – Consider the review of an activity

Offer a note organizer
A note organizer helps learners to know what is most important and what themes or topics they need to look out for throughout the session. It can be as simple as 4 boxes with a key topic in each. If they know to look for those pieces of information, they are much more likely to remember them. This is another way you can make the learning objectives clear and easy to focus on.

Repeat key information 5 times
Research shows repeating information 5 times optimizes recall for learners. Don’t run the risk that someone was looking for their pencil or was daydreaming when you shared that piece of crucial information, and repeat what you really need volunteers to remember and absorb.

Volunteer Engagement

Focus on what volunteers CAN do, not what they can’t or aren’t allowed to do.
Volunteers should feel empowered to do their work. While outlining what they are not allowed to do is important, that should not be the focus of a role description. Think about how these expectations are presented to volunteers so that they can walk into their role empowered to make a difference.

Offer group volunteering opportunities.
This applies as much for employer-supported volunteering where companies engage their employees in a group volunteering activity to support their community, as for families who want to volunteer with their kids or groups of friends who want to make a difference together.

Add a personal touch
Keep notes on family members’ names, birthdays and topics of conversation for each volunteer. This doesn’t make your relationship any less genuine, it demonstrated your willingness to make an effort to maintain a positive relationship with them. It also helps future volunteer managers in your organization to get to know the people they will be engaging with!

Train and educate staff on engaging with volunteers
Staff – volunteer relationships are so important, if volunteers only feel appreciation for their work coming from you, and not from other staff at the organization, it can really undermine their sense of belonging in the organization. It also sends a message that their contributions aren’t truly valued, or aren’t important – and since most volunteers get involved to make a difference, that hurts the chances that they’ll stick around.

Don’t just report the number of volunteers and the number of hours.
Okay, I’m not saying those numbers aren’t valuable or important – but we all know that they don’t give a full picture of the success of a volunteer program. So, include the elements of data that DO convey the factors for success you see in your work. When the only thing that gets reported to leadership are numbers, those numbers are the only yardstick against which volunteer engagement is measured. A strong narrative that accompanies those numbers and hours can really put them into context and help your leadership better understand the full picture of how volunteer engagement is supporting your mission.

Volunteer Retention

What constitutes successful retention of volunteers at your organization?
Examining how your organization defines successful retention can highlight whether that definition of success aligns with what you see in practice. If they don’t align, then it’s an opportunity to talk to senior management about changing the definition and measurement of volunteer retention.

Return phone calls and reply to emails 
When we don’t return a phone call or reply to an email in the time frame that a potential volunteer expects, they are left feeling like they aren’t good enough for the organization. Which is a sour way to start a relationship to say the least! If you know you’ll take more than one or two business days to reply, activate your auto-reply to tell potential volunteers when they can expect a reply and include it in your voicemail message.

If you love them, set them free!
Of course, don’t tell all your faithful and dedicated volunteers to leave, but do give them permission and encourage them to take time off from volunteering if and when they need it. That might even mean taking a few months away from your organization to volunteer elsewhere. But if you support them in maintaining a relationship with your organization while they are engaged elsewhere, they are more likely to come back to you later on than if you had guilted them to stay, or made them felt badly about shifting their priorities.

Volunteer Managers

Connect with each other!
Unless you work at a fairly large organization, odds are you are the only volunteer engagement professional on staff. And while I’m sure your colleagues are lovely people, it can feel isolating and lonely when the work you do is so different from everyone else’s. So, make an effort to get to know other volunteer managers in your region and in your sector. You will benefit from their expertise, can share your successes and failures with others who understand your work, and can help each other find resources or innovative solutions!

Sit on a nonprofit board
Not only will you be learning new skills in leadership and management, you can advocate from within the board for a strong culture of volunteer engagement and valuing volunteers’ contributions to the organization. You have a unique perspective and experience engaging with volunteers and the sector needs more of that represented in leadership!

Advocate within your organization
Shout your successes from the rooftops! We need to be a persuasive profession, and convince our boards, our senior leadership and our colleagues about the value of volunteers in our organizations, and the value of investing in supporting volunteer engagement programs.

Reach out to your local volunteer centre
Volunteer centres are amazing local resources. They can provide infrastructure for your recruitment process, resources and information as well as connections. They are uniquely positioned to be aware of local trends that cut across sectors, and can provide expert guidance on these trends. Their mandate is to support volunteerism in their community, they are there to help organizations like yours!

I came out from these four days feeling inspired, energized and connected with those who share my passion and love of engaging people in community. There will undoubtedly be more blog posts that will be published in the coming months that were inspired by the conference’s theme and the conversations I had with volunteer centres and volunteer managers. These opportunities to get together as like-minded professionals and to learn from each other are invaluable – I’m already excited for the next conference!

Thank you to the team who worked tirelessly to organize the conference, your hard work blossomed into an amazing experience for everyone.

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