Many volunteer managers stumble into the position, and wind up learning on the fly. We asked a small group of volunteer managers for some of the most important lessons they’ve learned in their jobs so far.
Caryline manages 100+ volunteers for the American Cancer Society in communities across Iowa. It took her a long time to learn to trust her volunteers to help her accomplish the organization’s goals – and find some semblance of balance in the process:
“It’s so important to let the volunteer feel valued and to give them the tools to be successful without doing the job for them,” she says. “That’s how they stay connected to your organization’s mission and that’s how you as a staff partner ensure a healthy work-life balance. I worked from home my first few years so it was easy to stay working late into the night and on weekends. By working like this, I was not only hurting myself but also my volunteers. They didn’t feel empowered because I was trying to micromanage them. I was so focused on hitting my goals and being successful in my job that I was stepping on all of their toes. It took me a couple of years of learning from my co-workers and building trust with my volunteers before I realized my errors. I started to let small things not stress me out and I took up yoga.”
Joy works with United Way of Central Iowa, an affiliate of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and has found communication preferences to be different with her volunteers in the 55+ demographic:
“Many older volunteers use email and social media, but prefer phone conversations and face-to-face meetings,” She says. “I find a fair number of volunteers will reply to an email with a phone call. Flexibility is key. Using a singular method of communication with this age demographic won’t get the message across to everyone. It is truly being thoughtful of all methods of communication and using it efficiently. It does mean your message may reach one person twice in different forms, but it helps ensure you reach everyone. And while technology is pushing us to more virtual communications, I’m prepared to have a longer phone conversation with these volunteers.”
Chris, who has held roles in community engagement and volunteer management at several large nonprofits and currently works with the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, says his biggest takeaway has been how integrated volunteer goals need to be with the mission and work of the whole professional team:
“The entire staff – those who work with volunteers every day and those who may only work with them a few times a year – need to be a part of engaging them, and if the leadership is not role modeling that behavior, then we are just wasting our time,” he says. “In my time in volunteer management, it is evident that few Presidents/Executive Directors or Boards are truly aware of the potential available from a strong volunteer program. Or if they’re aware, they ask too much but do not show support. Resources like money, staff time, etc. are always nice, but if volunteer engagement is not a priority that ALL staff commit to, volunteer engagement/retention will matter very little. If the volunteer manager is the only one doing it, we are just spinning our wheels.”