Lessons from volunteer manager’s past

Managing Volunteers / Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Advice from nonprofit advisor Susie Haake on being a quality volunteer manager.

Written by: Anna Spady, anna.spadydesign.com

I should have brought a bowl of rice, incense or some sort of gift as I stared at Susie Haake. The days when pilgrims would bring offerings to the sage in exchange for wisdom wouldn’t shake out of my head.

I, the lowly pilgrim, had invited Haake to coffee because I had learned at a recent Nonprofit Neighbors meeting of her decade long work as a volunteer manager.

A quick glance into her resume showed me she had volunteered for more than 30 organizations, had been a volunteer manager for a major Kansas City corporation and still advised local nonprofits and organizations such as the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Currently, Haake is a pro bono nonprofit management advisor and accessibility consultant.

Needles to say, by the time we were drinking our coffee, I was intimidated. I was but a lowly devotee on a search for wisdom. My quest? What not to do as a volunteer manager.

AS: What’s the biggest mistake a volunteer manager can make?

SH: Not thinking strategically. Volunteer managers spend all their time putting out fires, yet they also need to take time to look at the programs’ vision and mission and strategize how to accomplish them. You need to sit back and ask yourself: In addition to my daily work activities, what can I do today that will make a difference tomorrow, next month and next year? I usually did my strategic thinking between 5-7 p.m.

AS: What should the main goal of a volunteer manager be?

SH: One — recruit, train and celebrate volunteers who have the expertise and passion to further the mission of the organization. Two — be the connector, the match-maker. Get to know people, find out what they love to do and find them a place to do it.

AS: What skills do you need to be a good volunteer manager?

SH: You have to be a good manager and wear many hats. You’re a marketer, HR director, project manager and a social worker, all in one day.

AS: What should be priorities for volunteer managers?

SH: Good systems. If you don’t have a great procedural manual, borrow someone else’s. If you have to write it yourself, do it. Make sure you have personnel policies, like how to fire a volunteer, so that when a situation comes up there’s a standard procedure.

AS: Thoughts on volunteer management software?

SH: Absolutely need it. But you also have to have actual conversations with people. If you’re a larger nonprofit and don’t have a volunteer management system, then write a grant to purchase one.

AS: How do you find the right volunteers?

SH: Recruit in the neighborhood of the organization, in nearby churches and synagogues and communitycenters. Ask current volunteers and board members to help you in your recruitment. But remember, your volunteers must have a passion to further the mission of the organization. Once you have potential volunteers, get to know them. The most common question I hear is: ‘I know I want to volunteer, I just don’t know what I want to do.’

  1. First, determine the potential volunteer’s passions. Give them an interest survey. Ask them: ‘When you read news articles, what tugs at your heart strings? What moves you?’
  2. Find out where they live, where they might fit into the volunteering community.
  3. Ask them if they’re married, if they have kids. If they have a family, involve them. It’s often two for the price of one.
  4. Make it easy. Realize people don’t have time to work, raise a family and a volunteer.

AS: How does one increase retention?

SH: Celebrate success. When a new volunteer comes in, celebrate! Get to know them. Celebrate success in any place that volunteers touch. Choose to focus on people over tasks, every time.

AS: How do you make volunteers who do mundane tasks feel valued?

SH: Remind them what they contribute. Create an atmosphere of value and gratitude. Make people feel needed.

AS: What would tell a volunteer manager who’s struggling?

SH: If you are overwhelmed, find someone to help you. Create a volunteer council, find advisors. Partner with people.

AS: Personally, whats your favorite moment?  

SH: During my time at Hallmark, we’d always held an annual breakfast to celebrate the impact our employees made in our community. It was a brief recap of the years accomplishments and Mr. Hall would always speak to share his appreciation. The employees seemed to really appreciate the event.

AS: If you could go back in time to when you were first hired as a volunteer manager, what would you tell yourself?

SH: It’s going to be harder than you thought. But you’re going to meet some of the most wonderful, caring people in the world.

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