Volunteer Management Conference

After being kind of disappointed by MinneTESOL, I wasn’t hugely excited about the next conference on my list, the Volunteer Management Conference.

Concrete Bricks by Alesa Dam on Flickr
Concrete Bricks by Alesa Dam on Flickr

It seemed unlikely to be valuable because I was feeling pessimistic about conferences in general, and also because volunteer management is kind of a “fluffy” profession, not backed up by much research or data or formal history.

I’m thrilled to report that I was pleasantly surprised.  The sessions I went to did not perpetuate the fluff, but sought to give us concrete ideas and skills for taking our work to the next level.

I gained background in creating a volunteer-led ESL curriculum, setting up focus groups (of students and volunteers), addressing the 80/20 rule of life (that 80% of your effort will go to 20% of your tasks and problems), and creating well-designed flyers and brochures.

I think I actually found the last one to be the most useful.  Making flyers is one of those random parts of my job that I’m expected to just do, and I have never had the slightest bit of training on how to do a good job.  The presenter walked us through the four pieces of the puzzle that we need to consider, and three days later I still remember them: proximity, alignment, repetition, and contrast.

Here’s what I think she did right:

  1. limited her scope,
  2. stayed focused on it, and
  3. provided different levels of meaningful practice.

That presentation had no hand-outs.  This was disconcerting at first, but it turned out to be a strength.  Her goal wasn’t to give resources, but to convey four interrelated elements of design.  She didn’t try to make us into designers that afternoon.  The unified design she was teaching us was reflected in her presentation: she taught what she said she was going to teach, and she did it in a way that assured our attention was never split.  She also followed the basic format of a good ESL lesson: I do it, we do it, you do it.  By this I mean she gave us opportunities to practice what we were learning, and that over the course of the session she went from actively guiding our practice to letting us work through examples independently.

I think what made this conference stand out is that all the sessions I went to were taught in this way.  I hope other conferences catch on soon.

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Creating Change (By Our Powers Combined)

Thanks to Ben at Island94.org for getting me to read Dan Pallotta at Harvard Business.

Memory Fragments by lovefibre on Flickr
Memory Fragments by lovefibre on Flickr

Pallotta argues here that since our problems (i.e. hunger) are massive and systemic, the only way for nonprofits to stand a chance of winning against them is to consolidate efforts into one unified effort to eradicate the problem within a stated time frame.  He advocates setting an audacious, specific goal and restructuring our sector around it so that it’s not about the little nonprofit’s mission, but about all of us reaching the goal.  Only this larger vision will shift us away from the “fragmentation and redundancy” we’re currently facing.

I see what he means.

However, I’m coming from a bias against his argument because I don’t like or trust large organizations.  I wrote about it here about a year ago.  To me, they turn humans into numbers and the momentum they build up for the sake of efficiency is actually slow to change with the times.  That being said, when a billion people are starving in a world with plenty of food, maybe it’s ok to focus on efficiency at the expense of personability and adaptability.

Ok, so let’s say Pallotta convinced me that bigger is better and that the process of consolidating wouldn’t completely derail our work for decades.  I still have a couple major questions about how this would play out, and I’m actually quite interested in the answers.

1) How would the consolidated nonprofit system relate to current systems?

Would we be creating a giant system for the sake of efficiency to clean up after the other system? That does not seem efficient to me.

Or will this second giant system fundamentally change the first one?  How will that not turn into a political mire?  And what if it does succeed?  How could something that big phase itself out or radically change itself to pursue a different goal?  Are there any precedents for that actually happening?

2) How is this different?

How would this plan produce an organization whose impact is different from the United Nations and the World Health Organization – benevolent organizations that provide some leadership to their fragmented membership?

What about the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – organizations that arguably crippled many countries’ development when they tried to make large-scale change for the better?

And from a national standpoint, how would it differ from the USA’s failed War on Drugs?

I’m not convinced from this one article that Pallotta has hit upon The Answer, but it was a great read that’s provided a ton of food for thought.

The Super-Effective Volunteer

As the coordinator of an all-volunteer teaching staff, a large and fantastic part of my job is volunteer support.   I don’t know how I ended up with such great people, and I hope they stay forever.  I write this in hopes that more volunteers will contribute the way mine do.

I’d like to put it out there for whomever is listening that the most effective volunteers are not the ones who arrive with their own agenda.

Super Boy by Łéł†Āķ Mă3ý on Flickr
Super Boy by Łéł†Āķ Mă3ý on Flickr

Super-effective volunteers have their eyes and ears open to the needs of the organization. When something comes up and they have the ability to help with it, they speak up and dive in.

And you know, any help is help. Coming in and telling me exactly what you’d like to do is something, and I’m as grateful as I should be and I try hard to work with you.

But take a step back and think how amazing it is when a program realizes it needs something, asks for someone to do it… and then someone does it.

And now think about how well a volunteer gets to know the organization by helping where it’s needed.  Think what a great position this puts the volunteer in to make suggestions, push for change, and bring a relevant and mutually beneficial to-do list to the table.

Are you that kind of volunteer?

Oops! and Skype is Sneaky

I’m at a VISTA supervisor training in Dallas, and I completely forgot to blog.  Sorry!  I’ve met so many fascinating people and have lots to report.

One barrier to reporting this, besides full days of sessions and an evening out in Dallas was that Firefox was running funny, and I couldn’t understand why.  I finally figured out thanks to Felipe that when I installed Skype, it automatically/sneakily included a buggy Firefox add-on.  Shame on Skype for sliding that one under the table, and further shame for doing so with something that hurt my web-browsing.

More soon!

From Godin’s Tribe Building: Surprise Them

Item #21: Go Somewhere Different – e.g. Surprise the heck out of them!

This leaped off the page at me for learning centers.  I love my learning center, and one of the things I love about it is its unpredictability.  What with our student population facing transportation and childcare barriers, our entirely unpaid teaching staff, and our geographic propensity for extreme weather conditions (last Thursday it was -10 outside), there’s a whole lot of unpredictability.  Unfortunately, many of the surprises end up being challenges: absences of people or materials; having planning take longer than you thought (doesn’t it always?);  feeling more tired than you thought you would.

It’s kind of a forehead-smacker that a coordinator can (partially) take control by making a few surprises, and making them positive ones.  A card, a balloon, a tasty treat, a “congratulations” for x number of hours spent at the learning center.  Duh – but I’m not sure it would’ve occurred to me in those terms.  Thanks, Seth!

I guess the catch is that lack of time tends to be one of the challenging surprises that comes up repeatedly for me, and contriving positive surprises takes time.  Yet another matter of achieving a delicate balance.

How do you balance the need to control/fix unpleasant surprises and to create pleasant ones?

State of the Welcome Video Request

To re-cap, I’m hoping secure a 1-minute video of Obama saying “Welcome” to new citizens.  It’s part of every new citizen ceremony, and the first one is the day after Obama’s inaugurationRead more about the request here.

The good news is that people are looking at the post (not in overwhelming droves, but significantly more than normally read my blog).

And I know that at least a few people have tweeted @obamainaugural.  Thank you!

Next steps:

Continue tweeting @obamainaugural and @barackobama the message:

1st new citizen natlztn ceremony = 1/21. Will they have a new welcome message from the new Pres? http://bit.ly/14EUV

Spread the word to your contacts, linking back to the explanation post at http://bit.ly/14EUV.  From that we’ll either get numbers or the attention of one person with an in.

How else are the Obama folks listening?

What do you think about next steps?