Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lessons from the Field: Investing in Your Volunteer Program & The Reading List

Here at Metro Volunteers our mission is to mobilize and cultivate volunteers as a vital force in our community. For over 16 years, we’ve been helping connect organizations to potential volunteers and training nonprofits to maximize engagement of volunteers to build capacity and to use their volunteer assets strategically.

Like the rest of the community, the economic calamity in the fall of 2008 caused us to look closely at our bottom line as need for services increased while funding decreased. It led to difficult choices here at Metro Volunteers, including a staff reduction in January of 2009 when we went from 8 ½ fulltime employees to 3 ½. The need to fully engage volunteers became not only good strategy – but necessity. However, was our volunteer infrastructure ready? Aside from our board and committees, our volunteers were either in the field acting as project leaders for other organizations, or AmeriCorps volunteers supporting staff efforts. It was time to increase the responsibility of our current volunteers, increase our base of internal volunteers, and activate tools and processes to fully integrate volunteers in our work. In essence, to rebuild our staff – with both paid and volunteer positions. Over the past 15 months or so, we have taken our own advice and matured our volunteer program. We did this in several ways.

We created task teams and operations teams that raised the expectation and responsibility of volunteers. For example, our Volunteers with Impact and Purpose (VIP) program is a new program run by a volunteer operations team with minimal staff support. These volunteers developed the program, oversaw the pilot, and have now launched the first cohort.

We elevated the roles of our AmeriCorps members from program support to program oversight and delivery. Our Project Leadership Program is now managed by an AmeriCorps/VISTA member, under whose guidance it has flourished. For sustainability, we are building an Operations Team of volunteers to continue to deliver and grow the program once our national service member has completed her term of service.

We created significant new volunteer roles using our own best practices and tools. We conducted an assessment of our internal needs and identified tasks that could be owned by volunteers. Our new Client Services team fill a variety of roles in our organization: The front desk volunteers field inquiries, greet visitors, and provide program support; a database volunteer has organized and updated our records, and a membership specialist has grown our nonprofit membership by 40% in just six months.

Not all of our internal volunteers commit to regular hours. Most of our training courses are taught by skilled volunteers with specific expertise who serve a few times a year. Other volunteers come in for specific short-term projects, such as organizing the store room, planning an event or assisting with a marketing effort. We have found the best way to recruit and retain volunteers is to ask questions. The more you know, the more you can align the project to benefit all parties.

Of course, it hasn’t been easy or gone completely smoothly. In the course of one year, we’ve recruited, trained and placed five Client Services volunteers who left their positions in less than six months for various reasons. For some, who came to us because the economy made finding work difficult, a paid position came along. Although delighted for them, we were disappointed but don’t consider their departure a loss. We made valuable connections with community members who can now act as ambassadors for us, who understand our work, and who can connect others to our programs and services.

Investing in your volunteer program – staff, supplies, training – may seem to be a drain on resources. But with good planning, your return can be far greater than the costs.
Implementation of our expanded internal volunteer program has been a tremendous success. We have created capacity for our paid staff by putting volunteer staff in significant roles. We stay focused on maximizing our volunteer program, continuing to recruit, train, and recognize our volunteer staff. We understand their true value and are grateful for their support of our work and our mission.

There are many resources available to help you develop your volunteer program. At Metro Volunteers, we are experts in the field of building organizational capacity via volunteers. Now, using the tools, best practices and processes that we’ve offered other organizations over the years, we have created our own volunteer program that enables us to increase our scope and scale and better achieve our mission. Please review The Reading List for helpful online tools and articles.

The Reading List: Engaging Volunteers

HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector: Staff Volunteer Relations

The Huffington Post: Don’t Let Goodwill Slip Through The Cracks

Energize, Inc. Hot Topics from Susan J. Ellis

The Cost of a Volunteer - Recognizing that “Volunteers aren’t free,” the Grantmaker Forum on Community & National Service decided to explore the question: What does it cost to mount an effective and high quality volunteer program?

Using Volunteers Effectively: Turning Short Term Volunteers Into Long Term Resources by Christina Jones

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Great Volunteer Relationship Creates an Exponential Effect

Everyone wins, the volunteer, the organization, the community and those being served.

I am both fortunate and exhilarated to have a great volunteering relationship with the Community Resource Center (CRC). I selfishly began volunteering at CRC as a way to feel useful, to connect with others and keep my skills honed during a period of unemployment. What I have received is more than I could have imagined.

While volunteering at CRC, I have felt useful, connected to people and have used my skills in service to the organization. By virtue of CRC’s mission of providing a continuum of services to nonprofits throughout Colorado, I have connected with so many amazing individuals with incredible dedication, heart and smarts, all willing to give, share and contribute. I am now fortunate to have many professional peer relationships both within and outside the organization.

In addition, CRC provided the opportunity for me to contribute in a way that is fulfilling and meaningful, through their Statewide Coaching Initiative, Onsite Trainings, Executive Leadership Program and Volunteer Engagement. I have coached executives; developed and conducted public trainings; assisted, trained and coached aspiring leaders, and recruited additional volunteers. At a broader level, my volunteering has assisted CRC in meeting their organizational goals and objectives. I’m fortunate that I am able to immediately see the fruits of my labor.

Volunteering with CRC has been a labor of love. I am both blessed and grateful.

Cindy Sorensen

Midwestern Colorado Mental Health Center

By Will Paterson

The Midwestern Colorado Mental Health Center (MCMHC) is the only community mental health care provider in six counties of the Western Slope region: Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray, and San Miguel. And because of this, the MCMHC accepts referrals from primary care doctors from all over the region. On the surface this has been an effective solution. The MCMHC has the resources and the experience to handle mental health disorders that primary care physicians do not. The MCMHC also has the funding to help Medicaid, low income, and indigent patients, so they can accept nearly everyone. But until recently there has been an important flaw in the system. Adolescent patients were missing their appointments in large numbers. When they studied the problem, they realized 94 percent of patients, ages 11-18, never made it to their appointments. Looking at it a little further, it was easy to see why. These are rural counties, traversed by winding mountain roads that can turn a 20 minute summer drive into an hour long adventure in winter. And perhaps more importantly, there is a stigma attached to mental health centers that stretches back to the days of asylums.

The lack of adolescent mental health care is made more critical when considering the effects of going without treatment. “National statistics will tell you that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness are diagnosed by age 14. And if children aren’t diagnosed early, it’s usually ten years from onset to diagnosis and treatment”, said Janey Sorensen, the marketing director for the Mental Health Center. A lot can happen in those ten years, and adolescence is already difficult enough without mental health challenges such as untreated depression, bipolar disorder, or even schizophrenia.

However, because of Rural Philanthropy Days the MCMHC has been able to begin assessing and treating many of the adolescent patients who used to go without treatment. In June of 2009 Janey Sorensen attended Rural Philanthropy Days in Crested Butte as a representative of MCMHC. She enjoyed seminars, workshops, and dinners with funders and other nonprofits from around the Western Slope. She met representatives from the Colorado Health Foundation at the Roundtable discussions, where she was able to share stories from her time at the hospital and begin talking about a funding partnership to correct this unmet need. The relationship developed quickly through email and phone calls, and within a month the MCMHC was applying for funding from The Colorado Health Foundation. Less than six months after Rural Philanthropy Days, The Colorado Health Foundation had awarded the MCMHC two grants totaling $259,561 to begin the Pediatric Integration Project and to update all their electronic health records.

Among other things, that money has allowed the MCMHC to place a behavioral health therapist onsite at the pediatric clinics in Montrose and Delta. Now, pediatricians can walk patients and their parent(s) straight to a therapist in the clinic, and the patient can be seen and treated in a familiar environment in conjunction with his or her pediatrician, avoiding many of the previous obstacles to treatment. Of the 1050 adolescents who come into the clinics for Well Child Checkups every year, the MCMHC predicts 350 will screen for a mental health disorder. More important than the numbers though, because of Rural Philanthropy Days and the partnership between the MCMHC and the Colorado Health Foundation, “these children will be more successful in school; they will have better friendships, better relationships with their families, and therefore they will have more successful lives,” this according to Janey Sorensen.

The partnership that developed through a conversation at Rural Philanthropy Days has produced tangible outcomes for the communities served by MCMHC: locally accessible services that bring balance and wellness to the lives of young people. To learn more about Rural Philanthropy Days, please visit

Where in Colorado? April

Take a guess for a chance to win The 2009-2010 Colorado Grants Guide.

Each month, we feature a photo taken during our travels around Colorado. Last month, we featured this photograph of Rocky Ford. Congratulations to Cliff. He wins a copy of Collaboration and Strategic Alliances: Essential Strategies for Success During an Economic Downturn. Thanks for participating!

For this month's "Where in Colorado?" we are inviting guesses on a photo from a different part of Colorado.