Survival Skills in Volunteer(Vacation)land

This year has marked a lot of firsts for me: my first time writing a blog post (yes, I admit it), my first time attending the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, and my first time managing a volunteer program. As an AmeriCorps*VISTA Leader, I gained a great deal of experience in many aspects of volunteer management while supporting the members of the Maine VISTA Project. With that experience, I believed that I was pretty well prepared to take on my new role as AmeriCorps Program Representative within Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. It turns out that I was. I knew how to recruit and screen potential AmeriCorps members, develop and implement trainings to support them during their service terms, and recognize and celebrate their hard work and dedication. I was pretty confident that I knew a lot. In many aspects of volunteer management I considered myself at about an intermediate competency level. A few weeks into my position, however, I quickly realized I had A LOT more to learn. Being an “intermediate” level volunteer manager was not good enough. I needed and wanted to find ways to hone in on the skills I already possessed while finding new ways to gain additional skills and knowledge in this field. Luckily for me, the professional development funds I was awarded by the Maine Commission for Community Service gave me the opportunity to attend the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in Washington D.C., and the first session I signed up for was Survival Skills in Volunteerland!

As I walked into the room for my session, amped up on the positive energy of being at a conference with 5,000 passionate people, I expected to meet a lot of newbies like myself – fresh into the field, with a few months or a few years of volunteer management experience under their belts. What I didn’t expect was that I would be in a room filled with volunteer managers of varying levels and abilities, some who have even been doing this for over 20 years!

Session facilitator, Debra Bressler, Manager of Volunteer Engagement at Loudoun County Area Agency on Aging in Virginia, introduced us to the topics that would be discussed in the workshop. She immediately provided us with a faux passport and itinerary and told us we were taking a journey into Volunteerland. There were three stops along the way: Map out Your Journey, Prepare your Journey (5 Survival Skills), and Explore your Adventurous Journey.

Map out your Journey

When you are heading out on any journey, it’s obvious that you can’t get where you’re going if you don’t know how to get there. In our case, we also needed to figure out from which point we were starting from. You can determine your starting point (your current skill level) by using the Competencies for Managers of Volunteers assessment tool. Your overall skill level will fall into one of four categories: novice, intermediate, advanced, or expert. This will be your starting location. Your destination: expert volunteer manager!

Prepare your Journey: 5 Survival Skills
Once we determined our starting locations, Debra provided us with five survival skills to help us along the way. Here is a recap of those five skills:

Survival Skill #1: Volunteer in your community at least 5 hours a month. Seek out episodic volunteering or one day events. Walk in the shoes of your volunteers and try to experience various volunteer positions first hand, especially the ones you are recruiting volunteers for.

Survival Skill # 2: Develop volunteer engagement skills continuously. Locally, you can check with your Chamber of Commerce about their non-profit initiatives and see what opportunities they have available to you. Connect with your State Commission for Community Service office to find ways to engage at the state level. Connect nationally by attending the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, accessing resources from the Corporation for National and Community Service, or participating in webinars provided by organizations like VolunteerMatch and ALIVE! One thing Debra mentioned about this particular survival skill that really stuck with me is to never stop learning!

Survival Skill #3: Integrate resource materials. Going to conferences and attending trainings is a great way to gather new resources and materials to utilize in your position as volunteer manager. But only if you USE IT! Don’t stuff it away in your desk drawer never to be seen again. Use what others in the field have already discovered and implemented. You can use these resources to develop a Volunteer Manager’s Guidebook of your own.

Survival Skill #4: Network with volunteer managers. Come together with others in the field, using what Debra called the “Chat & Chew” platform. Set up brown bag lunches or meet for breakfast. If you don’t have time to “chew”, simply coming together over a cup of coffee is a great way to connect. Social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, are also a great way to connect with other volunteer managers. Establish an email distribution list so resources can be easily shared among your networks. Make it a point to travel and network with other volunteer managers within a twenty mile radius.

Survival Skill #5: Select a mentor. Whether informal or formal, identifying and working with a mentor and establishing a mentor plan with goals and expectations is a great way to expand your knowledge and skill set with some guidance along the way.

Explore your Adventurous Journey.

In order for an individual to advance their competency levels in volunteer management and develop as a professional manager of volunteers, they first need to establish their own self-directed journey, or action plan. Debra encouraged us to do this by taking small steps first and selecting one survival skill to focus on.

I chose Survival Skill #4, Network with Volunteer Managers. I plan to attend monthly meetings held by the Portland Area Volunteer Administrators (PAVA), a professional networking group that meets casually for round-table discussions on specific topics relating to volunteer management. Finding networks like these in your community can provide you with great networking opportunities and keep you abreast of any skill-building workshops that happen throughout the year.

Reflecting upon what I learned during this session, I came to the realization that in order for me to fully support the AmeriCorps members that I manage during their term of service, I need to make sure that I am a fully-trained, competent, confident, and professional volunteer manager.

These five survival skills will help me on my journey into the vast and ever-changing landscape of Volunteerland in order to achieve this!

Erin Dunne is the Program Representative for the Great Strides Rural Education Corps, an AmeriCorps program of Goodwill Industries of Northern New England and funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service. She is a transplant from Florida who served two years in Maine (Vacationland!) as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member and loved her time in Maine so much that she stayed.

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