Thursday, July 21, 2011

Guest Post: The Education of the Misinformed Superior

Today's post comes to you courtesy of Amy Dawson. She's heard my strategic volunteering pitch many times and has some great advice on "selling" your volunteer commitments to your manager. Thanks, Amy!


The Education of the Misinformed Superior
One of the many reasons volunteering is essential to building your career is to gain leadership experience in areas you don’t have in your full-time job. But have you ever considered what to say in an interview, pitch for a new client, or to a boss who dismisses your volunteer role? 

Let’s face it — not every boss or potential client understands how volunteering keeps your career skills sharp, and might dismiss them as, well, not as significant as accomplishments in your full-time job. So it’s time to educate these folks to what we already know: volunteer roles aren’t easy. In fact, they are more difficult than your 9 to 5 job in oh-so-many ways.  First, you are wrangling people whose paychecks do not depend on a job well-done. Motivating these people to prioritize a volunteer project to the top of their to-do list is as easy as convincing Harry Potter that Voldemort is just a misunderstood fellow in need of a nose augmentation.

Working with vendors is no easier, since your non-profit is almost never their biggest money-maker. And not snapping off the neck of, say, a printer who misspoke and won’t have your printed invitations until two weeks after your mailing date takes serious restraint.
And so, you are forced to sharpen your skills with lots of setbacks, difficult personalities — and 27 different people certain their way is the right way. When it comes to learning to be an effective leader, leading a volunteer committee is superior to all others. (Trust me, I’ve been on the board of the PTA and the Junior League.)

So, here is what you say to anyone calling into question the significance of a volunteer position:  “This volunteer role is a key success in my career because I {insert volunteer leadership role here like “led the committee} to successful completion {this is where we want to insert numbers and results like “increased enrollment in program by 75 percent} by motivating a team of volunteers with limited time and resources. I accomplished this project through excellent organization, persuasion and leadership skills, and expanded my skill set in the process. Additionally, I expanded my network and used my time and resources to give back to the community.”

So, wrangle as much responsibility as you possibly can out of your volunteer assignment. Push to expand your role. Then do a blow-the-barn-doors-off job. Show you work well under pressure. Keep track of measurable results. Keep copious notes of all of your volunteer accomplishments. Learn to become a leader. Then ask your volunteer coordinator to write a testimonial for what a great job you did.

After all, you deserve much credit for donating your time — and your ability to communicate how you are making a difference builds your career, one wrangled volunteer at a time.

Amy M. Dawson is a newspaper columnist, writer and public relations strategist. She has volunteered for more leadership positions over the years than she cares to count. Amy writes about successfully merging life and work at See more of her articles at

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Preparing Your Nonprofit Organization to Meet the Need: Volunteer Application

As a followup to my earlier post on preparing your organization to meet the growing demand by strategic volunteers, this entry focuses on the volunteer "guide" and application. Many of you have asked for real-life examples of these tools in action, so here you go!

Strategic Volunteering attracts top-level corporate volunteers to assist with WIT programming.

At Women in Technology (WIT), they employ strategic volunteering and have incorporated it into all areas of their volunteer program: promotion of opportunities, application process, selection, training, and succession planning. Here are links to the WIT materials so that you may create something similar for your organization...

WIT Volunteer Opportunities Guide

WIT Strategic Volunteering Application

We worked with a website developer to feed the results of the volunteer application directly into our database, but you could have yours go to a spreadsheet, Google docs, etc. It is important not to let the technology issues stand in your way of implementing a robust strategic volunteering program and on-boarding/application process. When WIT started, we used a blank PDF volunteer application and asked applicants to email or fax back their completed form. It still does the trick!

Whatever format you choose for the volunteer application, be sure to include the following elements:
  • Employer: helps your development folks create a pipeline of potential support (support dollars often flow as a result of employee involvement in a nonprofit)
  • Availability: crucial to determining the initial commitment of the applicant and their match to potential roles
  • Interests (this section was quite an evolution for me over the years): having applicants name specific potential roles and rank them is an immense help in the matching process; it also ensures that thought has gone into their application
  • Areas of Strength and Development: this is probably the most foreign concept for volunteer managers; specific to strategic volunteering, we want to know what skills a volunteer brings to the table and those areas where we provide an opportunity for them to use this experience as a professional/personal development tool (that's the whole point, right?!)