Written by: Adam Janes

We are in a new world; this is an unprecedented time. You have, no doubt, heard these types of statements in spades over the past two months. I know I have.

As a Volunteer engagement professional, these terms are irritating at best, if not infuriating. I have had enough, to be honest, and I find myself wanting more control over the success of my programs.

 If you’re reading this, you probably feel a similar way. Your program was probably shut down; the programs and portfolios you are so committed to ensuring are filled with quality volunteers have stopped; You may have been redeployed or furloughed or you are sitting back scratching your head thinking ‘how the heck am I going to engage people now?’

‘How do we keep our amazing volunteers engaged in the mission when they can’t physically be part of accomplishing it?’

  1. See your volunteer team as a community:  Beyond the work you do, the people you work with have shared values and probably would get along outside of the work they do with your organization. They were initially drawn to you as they care about your mission and mandate, and share some of the same values. However, there lies an opportunity for them to connect all the more.  Speak to them as a community and invite them together as such. What did this look like for our organization? For the first few weeks, I held a weekly volunteer community gathering: We talked, had some fun, tried out some Zoom games, and I asked people for help with making social media posts to reach out to kids and families. I imagine that a lot of these things are doable in your situation., You can probably host a virtual gathering and talk about how they can continue to be part of this community. You can discuss how being involved with your mission might look like, and even offer up ideas you may never have dreamed of. This will take time, so be patient with yourself and ask your volunteers to share the same patience. If you do and invest the time in building this sense of community, this group culture you will see dividends much like how our organization has.  In this season, besides a very glitchy game of Balderdash, the effect has been personal, beneficial and has kept more people connected. Volunteers have shared families stories, we have grieved together and laughed were shared both from new memories from our gatherings and old, from our stories from time spent together. 
  1. Pivot (I’m sorry, I had to say it….because you need to): What does pivoting actually mean? As volunteer positions end, new possibilities can be revealed if you ask the right questions, and embrace a mindset of ‘how can we make this happen’? Can you create virtual roles? How can you invite volunteers into planning and leadership? Get their opinions and aim at further embracing and living the truth that Volunteers are partners in your organization’s mission. Move discussions online into specific goal setting items. You’ll also have to consider more technical elements. Do you need an updated orientation guide or resources online to help future recruitment, perhaps a more in-depth testimonial? Do you need to update how you deliver training and onboarding to better reflect digital realities? I am in the process of inviting more volunteers behind the counter (or to look under the hood). We have program development and future evaluation processes to work on. In reshaping our structure as a community first program (not Staff and Volunteers), the essential quality for doing work is the desire, skills and commitment to do that work. This means if Volunteers are interested and skilled at a particular project, invite them in and allow them to engage. Create clear and concise virtual, short term and ongoing opportunities. Some of the norms that said ‘this is the way it is’ are no longer holding strong, Take the adage ‘staff lead and volunteers help’ – this doesn’t have to be, volunteers lead all the time. 
  1. Remember the past, paint a picture of the future, together: This opportunity is a great time to reflect and remember, celebrate the past; celebrations are active reflections. Every time we gather to celebrate, it is a time to reflect and to look to the future! Maybe it is time to honour and credit some well-seasoned volunteers! Just because this situation is hard doesn’t mean the good accomplished prior has been erased. This season is a time to look back on growth and progress and a time to engage imaginations in what the future could hold. We are going to be hosting and holding some reflection workshops and celebrations, as our typical year wraps up!
  1. Embrace technology in all its forms: You know Zoom now, but what about SLACK, Trello, MURAL, CANVA, KUDOS? Did you know that Google, Facebook or Mircosoft could give you the whole suite of almost every tool you need? There are thousands of online tools and apps to get you connected and engaged with others. If you were not tech-savvy before, you need to be now. As a Volunteer Manager, you are already a skilled generalist when it comes to workplace competencies, now is your time to shine in the digital world. I’ve successfully used each of the platforms listed above for different purposes to aid in my, not for profit work and volunteering. With SLACK, for example, I have experienced efficient internal communications, idea generation, planning and filesharing. With Canva, I can produce a high-quality poster, social media post or postcard in a fraction of the time that it takes in Word or Photoshop. Check out Tech Soup for guides to Volunteer Management and Not for Profit tech needs.

Note: Digital will not replace the joy and richness of human interaction, but it may be the tunnel you have to travel down to get to the other side of this mountain.  

The last two suggestions come from a place of knowing that in all our work we are people and we are all in this together.

  1. Be a Leader: You are in a unique position. You have the ear of your whole volunteer cohort and also your leadership within your not for profit. During this time your leadership will be an important part of short and long term success. Engage and listen to people on both ends. Lean into people’s pain points. Ask what are their hopes? Focus on what can we do and not what we can’t do. Leadership again isn’t about a position but about inspiration and influence. In the role of Volunteer Manager, there may be a sense our leadership is stunted. I argue the same people that were coming to you providing excellent work in the field are no doubt skilled and able to add value and enrich both effort and plans for each phase of this pandemic response. Along with that you will also be engaging and bringing more of your team with you through the uncertainty. 
  1. Be Human: At the heart of this time; it is a crisis. There are pressures and strain on all of us. Some incredibly so! Empathy is needed more. Grace is required here and now. We must bend to the situation of others and understand their situation. Yes, COVID19 impacts us all, but each person has been dealt a dramatically different hand. From not being able to see friends and family, to losing jobs, to seeing family and friends become sick, to suddenly becoming a teacher/baby sitter/chief entertainer for kids, to the constant stress and trauma of living through a pandemic. This is the time to remember that we’re all human and others won’t be able to give as much as they had before. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be involved – it just looks different, and we have to respect that. So take some extra time to check in with your volunteers, be more flexible where you can, and offer up opportunities that help give people back a sense of power to effect change in a way they want. Most importantly,  take time to think and reflect, and recharge your batteries so you can continue to serve those in your own life.

While we’re physically distanced, our desire for engagement and connection has never been greater. While it might look different in that we’re seeing people from across screens, or over phone lines, the basics are all the same: our words, our time, and our hearts. Treat your volunteers like they are part of your community because… they are. 

Additional Reading

Not Volunteer specific but take a look at Elizabeth Bishop’s Article: People before Programs for more insight on community-focused leadership and change management.

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