Episode #031: Rethinking the Volunteer Engagement Cycle with Lori Gotlieb

Tobi: Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, membership, or movement, I made this podcast just for you.   

So welcome everybody to the Volunteer Nation podcast. I am so excited today to share a conversation with my guest, Lori Gotlieb, and we’re going to talk about the volunteer engagement cycle and maybe some new ways to think about it.  

So Lori is a volunteer management leadership expert and consultant faculty member at Humber College, as well as an internationally published author and workshop facilitator who’s taught workshops to many diverse audiences, including boards and committees, associations, and non-profit organization across North America. 

And I should mention, you are our Canadian guest today, she’s dialing in from Canada. So Lori, welcome to the Volunteer Nation podcast.  

Lori: Thanks, Tobi. I’m thrilled to be here.  

Tobi: So we’re going to jump right in. But you know, there are certainly innovations going on throughout the sector right now. So now’s a great time, I think, to challenge some of our long-standing structures around volunteer engagement, in this case, the volunteer engagement cycle. 

But before we kick things off, Lori, tell us a little bit more about yourself.  

Lori: Okay, so I’ve actually spent the majority of my career running volunteer programs. I’m even afraid to say how many years. I think I’m pushing 30 at this point, I’m going to start going backwards. So I have spent basically my whole career either working for a local, provincial, or national organization, either starting one up or leading one. 

I’ve worked in a variety of sectors, so I am hardcore volunteer manager. The last five years or so, I’ve decided to go off on my own more permanently. And so I’ve been doing that, working with the other nonprofits, built and taught the Humber College Volunteer Management Program, got certified from Better Impact. 

And on the other side of the coin, I’m also a federal returning officer for elections candidates. What I thought was every four years so far has been three in four years I had been running an election and a little tidbit. I am one of two Canadians to run the first pandemic election in Canada.  

My election, two of us, and we were under the microscope of the pandemic. And it was very interesting. So, New set of skills.  

Tobi: Yeah, totally. Totally new set of skills. So, you know, we’re going to talk about the volunteer engagement cycle, but before we jump into that, I think we define what it is, because we’ve got listeners who’ve been around forever and a day in the field. 

We’ve got executive leaders, we’ve got people who are new to volunteer engagement. So let’s establish a framework, sort of a foundation before we get started on how we might change it. So what do we mean, or what do you mean by volunteer engagement cycle? How do you define it? What are the elements of it in a traditional sense? 

Lori: Okay, so I see it as a blueprint or a foundation of how a volunteer program needs to function at its core basis. So let’s say the skeleton of a volunteer program. What I found interesting was I was doing a little research.  

That particular concept or the concept that we’re challenging began in 2001. And there’s something from Volunteer Canada, I’m pretty sure it was Volunteer Canada, that set the volunteer management cycle in a document with all of our leaders of the past.  

So Susan Ellis, Rick Lynch, Steve McCurley, Marilyn McKenzie. Trying to think who is, That’s how long I’ve been around. And so, the foundation has been around for a long time, but the world has changed so drastically that…we’re going to talk about that.  

But basically it’s the circle. It’s from assessing for a job to recruitment, and I’m going to use the words that were being used. Recruitment, interviewing, or screening and interviewing. Supervision. Recognition. Evaluation back to job design or assessment.  

So, you know, we look at that now and I shake my head. And I’ve been shaking my head for a while now. Yeah, and we shouldn’t even be using some of these words. 

Tobi: So, I think the life cycle, it’s really trying to map out through phases the life cycle of a volunteer from before when, are volunteers even needed for this role? Or these roles or this type of impact the organization is trying to achieve, all the way through exit and then back into redesigning. So it’s a cycle that perpetuates itself.  

Lori: And it’s the skeleton that, you know, let’s say you were starting a brand-new program, that’s where you got, that’s where you would start in theory, but then it’s the skeleton. So on top of that, there’s these layers.  

And even historically these, the Canadian Code of Volunteer involvement. NOS, you know, the National Occupational Standards of Volunteer Management. Those have always used this framework as the jumping off point.  

So policies and procedures around supervision, policies and procedures around, you know, interviewing. So not only is it a standalone, but it also is something that has attached almost like a body. You got the skeleton, you’ve got the muscles, you’ve got the skin and the whole thing.  

That’s how I see it. And I’m not saying that it’s something bad, but I am saying that it needs to be looked at in a model that reflects the changing world. And some of those words like supervision, I cringe. 

Tobi: Yeah. Yeah. So what do you think’s changed that requires us to take a look at these components of this framework with a new lens?  

Lori: Well, I mean, let’s start with the economy. You know, let’s start with see like the world is in a 10 year cycle, everything that we do is cyclically about 10 years. And like I said, I’m pretty sure this program or this particular set of life cycle steps, I’m thinking is more than 20 years old 

I’m pretty sure you’d agree with me. So what’s changed? Volunteers have changed. What they want has changed. The way organizations are being run has changed. Pandemic, you know, and from that remote, hybrid, like all this new kind of things. 

The stay at home parent who needs to change hours. So the type of volunteer, what volunteers want. Technology has changed everything drastically. You know, the financial landscape has changed everything drastically. 

You know, non-profits are struggling to survive, so there’s a lot being thrown at the not-for-profit sector and organizations that are driven by volunteers. So these smaller organizations are being affected heavily in terms of that whole concept of volunteer management, because they’re letting go of the volunteer coordinator, you know? 

Or it’s a part-time volunteer coordinator. So even the way that volunteers are being supported is changing. There’s a lot going on right now. That’s what I’m saying. Timing is everything. And I think the volunteer management cycle, and therefore the sector is in for some big changes.  

Tobi: Yeah. Yeah. Do you think volunteers have more. You know, I’ve been thinking, and I argued about this in Volunteer Engagement 2.0, when I wrote my chapter for that book, I argued that volunteers are consumers and therefore have a consumer’s mindset when it comes to choosing a volunteer opportunity. 

And they have a level of criteria, whatever they are. Depends on the person for what that volunteer opportunity’s going to do for them in their lives. It’s not that people aren’t altruistic because they are, that’s part of the picture.  

But people, you know, and when you think about the pandemic and you know, pandemic epiphanies that are going on and people are doing quiet quitting, and people are leaving jobs, and I think people have leveled their expectations of a workplace. 

Do you think that’s also translating into volunteerism and volunteer expectations as a quote unquote consumer, for lack of a better word, of someone who’s evaluating whether or not they want to jump in?  

Lori: Well, absolutely. I mean, and, and the numbers are telling this, like, I mean, there’s been articles that have been written on this that, you know, the percentage of volunteerism has dropped dramatically. 

I mean, I see the word “consumers” as an interesting word. I also see, there’s stakeholders. So we have a series of stakeholders that are more and more vested in the organizations that they work with or give to. So people are then writing checks. Money is not as available. So they want to ensure that things are happening. 

People that are volunteering want to have that relationship. So agree 100% that volunteer for the sake of volunteering, I think it’s still there. I think people obviously volunteer because they want to engage or help out, but we have layers now.  

So you have a volunteer who’s doing it so that they can build a resume. You have volunteers doing it because they’re early retiring. But you also have things like boards of directors are leaving in waves. You know, there’s some major changes happening, but I agree.  

I think it’s partnerships. And I think volunteer engagement programs need to look at it more from a partnership perspective, from their stakeholders. And every organization will define their stakeholders differently. So that, I think, is the lens. 

Tobi: Yeah. I also think, just in the world in general, if you think about the workplace. The top down command and control model of supervision, for example, in a paid workplace, people don’t want to put up with either, even if they’re getting a paycheck, right? 

Folks are like, No, no, no. Especially younger generations, they’re like, Uh, no way. I want to be considered an equal partner in things even if I don’t have all of the experience I need yet. I want to have a say in what impacts me.  

Lori: Agree. Agree. I’m not a hundred percent sure whether the non-profit has risen to the level that the profit has, where employees are basically, I don’t want to use the word controlling, but definitely have a say in their destiny.  

I think non-profits, again, are such lean machines. I’m more concerned that people are losing their jobs. You know, that old model where we get rid of this person and somebody takes on a second position. That’s what worries me.  

And then, then you start heavily look at volunteers again. Like this has always been our problem in our field is that the volunteer coordinator – and, sorry, I’m going to get on the soapbox for a minute – is not well paid, not well respected, not well listened to. And therefore the better the program they run, the more at risk they are. I don’t think that’s changed.  

Tobi: Yeah. You mean at risk for getting more assignments because they’re efficient in effect? 

Lori: Or losing their job because they’ve done such a great job. You know, volunteer programs are usually one of the first to get cut. And yet to me, they’re the most important part of the program of any organization. 

Tobi: Yeah. I was talking with Beth Steinhorn and Jerome Tennille, interviewing them about their new book, their collection. It’s just coming out and we were talking about sustainability and the relationship between organizational sustainability and volunteerism. 

And our VolunteerPro community, we find that the members who kept their volunteers engaged even when they couldn’t bring them down to work. You know, we have arts and culture organizations that they couldn’t, they were closed. 

The theater was dark, but they were still able to keep in touch and engage their volunteers and their supporter network. And when time came, turn the lights on, folks were there and said, Yeah, absolutely. We will be here.  

And organizations that shuttered their doors and didn’t maintain relationships are having a hard time building back. And so I think that’s a really hard lesson about sustainability. And yes, volunteers, it may feel like it’s not obvious, the connection between your organization’s sustainability and the volunteer core that supports it. 

But if you think about your organization as an entity…I like to think of it as a solar system with supporters all around your giant beaming sun. The more support you have of all kinds, whether it be donors, volunteers, community partners. The more you have, the more sustainable you are, the more resilient you are. 

Lori: Absolutely. So, which is why this model has to shift into more about support. Partnerships and less about that traditional, I supervise you, I interview you, you have to come in to do orientation and training. You need to do this. No you don’t like it’s? That’s that.  

Tobi: Yeah. Well, let’s take a quick break and then when we come back we’re going to get into it. We’re going to go through each step of the traditional cycle and talk about alternatives. How’s that sound?  

Lori: Sounds fantastic.  

Tobi: Okay, so we’ll be right back after this break with more on how we might reinvent the volunteer engagement cycle with Lori Gotlieb. So don’t go anywhere.  

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We’re back with our discussion with Lori Gotlieb around rethinking that volunteer engagement cycle. That framework we’ve been using for decades. Now, let’s walk through Lori, each of the steps in that traditional cycle and.  

Kinda rebuild or rethink, what are the key things that need to evolve in your mind at each step? Let’s start with role design. We talked about that before the break as one of our steps. What do you think needs to evolve there?  

Lori: So let’s rename that, first of all, to assessment. So that too, because it’s bigger than the role description. So I look at it as an opportunity to look at your program and as a whole, do maybe a little bit of SWOT analysis. 

What your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, what your opportunities are, what isn’t going to work, and then set some goals as to what your outcomes are, how do you want the volunteer program to be part of an organization?  

And then from there you look at the rules and the rules..you know, I think what we’re dealing with now is some customized rules. So it’s not, you know, the old day was here are the five things that volunteers do for organization. Put the square peg into the square hole. 

And we know over the past 20 years, there’s been a bit of a shift. So we have, yeah, this is the job, but if you can only do part of the job, then you do part of the job. We’ll find somebody else to fill in the other half of the job.  

Then we went into, okay, now you can do the job part-time. We’re not expecting a year for you to do the job right now. We’re expecting you to do it in a way that works for you. So now I’m looking at, look at the independence of the role. What can be done if somebody’s working from home? Can friendly visiting turn into an online support group?  

Can we scrap rules that were traditionally, this is what volunteers did. So there has to be a bit of an assessment. And that assessment is again cyclical. So as your organization goes through planning, social, the volunteer program. And volunteer leaders or administrators should be part of that conversation.  

So while your board and your executive director and your leadership are doing StrAP planning, you should be too. So to me, role one, you know that first part is your own volunteer management strategic planning.  

Tobi: Yes! And I can’t believe you said this because I’ve got to mention this. We are actually hosting the first week in December, our very first VisionWeek. And it is a week of strategic planning where we take participants, our audience members through a week of strategic planning. 

And the goal is at the end to have a strategic plan for volunteer engagement. And so it’s like a multi, and we thought, you know what, what can we, how can we help our field get a handle on things? Because I think most people don’t even create a strategic plan.  

I mean, they may assess what roles they need, but they don’t create, they don’t work backwards from what are the organization’s goals. How are volunteers going to roll up? How is volunteer work going to roll up into those goals? And what is a strategic plan I can give my leadership to say, look, here’s the plan. Now I need resources for it.  

Lori: So when I’m asked about workshops and people are looking at what topics they want for their workshops, my number one for volunteer coordinators is strategic planning. How could you run a program, and how can you get at the leadership table if you’re not thinking like them? If you’re not thinking about what are the outcomes?  

You know, I don’t want to have a long conversation about StrAP planning. But you know, you take that piece of that volunteer management cycle and you flip it into StrAP planning for the volunteer program and you’ll see what comes out is going to be so different.  

Your rules are going to be so different. Your timelines are going to be so different. So yeah. Big fan. Love it. Love StrAP planning training. Love it.  

Tobi: Yep. I am like a geek for it. Okay, let’s, so. I will put a link in the show notes for this. We are really excited. It’s the very first time we’ve given it a try and it’s all online, which is hard to do sometimes.  

You know, I do like graphic facilitation and strategic planning, but that’s all in in person. But we’re going to give it a go and see if people can move forward into 2023 with an actual concrete plan of action.  

Lori: You didn’t even coach me.  

Tobi: I didn’t even coach you! I’m like, wait a minute, I gotta mention this! 

All right, let’s get into the second phase, or second step, which is risk management.  Let’s talk about how we might evolve in that area.  

Lori: So risk still stays as risk. The question where we need to look at is as the roles have shifted into hybrid, virtual. Third party, online, training online. You know, as we move into the technological side of things, our ability to manage risk becomes a little bit more challenging because the volunteer is not physically in the building all the time. 

You can’t watch it, see it, account for it. So I think volunteer programs are really, need to focus on what are the realities of risks. Okay. So I’ll give you an example. You have a friendly visitor. You used to have a friendly visiting program. Like you said, we go to remote and now you’re friendly visiting on the phone. 

Okay. So I had during Covid, the religious institution I belonged to, I was getting phone calls regularly from volunteers. Love the idea. What risk was put in there, what stopped that. What was that volunteer being taught, what to do, what not to do?  

So risk policies, procedures, manuals, orientation, training. That whole concept needs to be looked at from the lens of the different layers that we’re working with. Now we have volunteers that are in and volunteers that are out, and we need to use technology better. So there, there’s no reason why websites, your website, your volunteer management page shouldn’t have a ton of risk material on it.  

Tobi: And there’s risk to people, certainly risk to intellectual property. There’s also risk to reputation.  You know, You need to look at all levels and prioritize because you can’t manage every single risk that comes along.  

Lori: No. But the further you are, the more arm’s length you are for your volunteer, the more you have to give them the tools. Because there is an accountability, there’s a due diligence. So there are things that you need to do.  

Risk is related to assessment. Risk is related to role design. Risk is related to clients. And how that relationship is, you know, what is the, all these different stakeholders. So it’s not that, you know…risk management as a title, I still like.  

I just think writing a policy and procedure book that nobody sees that is sitting on a shelf. And an orientation manual that’s not really reflective of the time is not what I see risk as today.  

Tobi: I also think there’s areas of risk that were not traditionally included in risk management. For example, equity. Inclusivity and equity is not something that was really traditionally part of the risk management conversation.  

But when you think about your organization living into its values, and if your values are diversity, equity, and inclusion, you gotta walk the talk and it will impact your organization’s reputation if you’re not bringing in and welcoming volunteers from all walks of life. 

So there’s definitely, I think risk has become more nuanced and even the way we mitigate and manage risk. For example, you know, with the DEIJ conversation, you could say, well the risk is, you know, we we’re going to do volunteer screening.  

Well, that’s great, but is it fair and equitable the way that you’re determining the suitability of your volunteers? And who are you blocking from service? You know, that could be a great volunteer. And is it equitable to people?  

Lori: And everybody’s got a cell phone. Everything happens in a second.  

Tobi: Yeah. So it’s really interesting, the nuances of risk. I think it needs to be a much more nuanced conversation than it has been in the past, I think. 

Let’s move on to people’s, you know, we hear this in our volunteer management progress report survey: recruitment, recruitment. Number one challenge always. So let’s talk about how that might be rethought in our volunteer engagement cycle.  

Lori: Okay. I want to blow up that word, Every time I hear recruitment I go, you know, if I see “we need you” one more time. Ok? So you know, dear audience, do not call it recruitment.  

What are you doing? You’re marketing. You are a strong marketing team. And if you look at the volunteer management cycle as a business, which is the way you should be, then that proactive word is marketing and you’re looking at, you know, the five P’s of marketing. 

What’s the product that you’re selling? What’s the price? Where are they doing the volunteer work? How are you going to promote it? The days of sitting in a community church basement with a wooden table and a…remember the cardboard things where you took pictures and you pasted it on? Gone! That’s what we did. The little thing, and we sat down and we did it. 

Use your website. Use social media. I’m seeing such poor uses of organizations’ websites. 

Tobi: Don’t get me started. I did an episode on how to create a better landing page gang. I will link to it in the show notes. Anyway, yeah.  

Lori: I have a marketing degree, like I came from sociology, and then I went to marketing and my biggest pet peeve when I teach a workshop. Are you buying volunteers? Are you selling volunteers? And one of the exercises that I look at is if you were going to buy a diamond ring, what are you looking for? 

And if you were going to sell a diamond ring, what are you looking for? And it’s two different groups that did it and oh my god, the answers were so different! It’s the same thing with volunteerism. So you have to look at it as marketing. 

So it’s not recruitment. You’re not recruiting people, you’re putting out there. The value, the benefits, the expectations within reason, but it’s all about why would somebody want to volunteer for you? And you know very well that volunteer centers that were the center of recruitment are also becoming dinosaurs in many ways. 

They need to get with the program and all these apps are starting up, right? And between Instagram and Twitter and all these things, and then all these organizations or companies’ apps that are building up, that are basically Indeed, you know, Match.com 

Tobi: Well, and Volunteer Match has been around for decades. I mean, it’s not a new app by any means but it’s, I think it’s even not just marketing, it’s digital marketing. You know, we do tons of training in VolunteerPro around using technology to reach people on their phones.  

And marketing is 360 degrees. It’s about listening and understanding your audience more. As much as you spend more time when you’re really planning a good marketing campaign, you’re spending more time analyzing your audience before you even start to figure out what channels you’re going to use. 

Lori: And the volunteer management cycle does not focus very heavily on the recruitment side of things. So the weight is really not there. It’s, you know, it’s recruitment. So I agree with you a hundred percent. I mean, there’s the left side, which is networking and using your connections because as volunteer programs that’s key to what you do. And then your right, embracing the digital, because that’s where it’s at.   

Tobi: Yeah. I mean if you think about any time you’re thinking about doing something, you’re sitting around the couch binging a Netflix series, whatever, and you say to yourself, you know, I wonder, Hey, I’m thinking about doing xyz. 

You pull out your phone and you jump on the Google. You type in your keywords and folks are typing in “volunteer opportunities near me.” And if your organization’s not showing up on page one of Google, nobody’s finding it.  

Lori: But even if you can’t, and I can understand organizations don’t have the manpower and the budget to be that high caliber technologically to get on that first page, to be top 10.  

But at minimum, when they go to your website and you click on because you really can’t control the homepage, but you can control the volunteer management page.  

A, if there’s no volunteer page, that’s number one. There should be. And B, put some time and effort into it. You know, like use that as a introduction, as a screening. Right? And to me that’s a missed opportunity.  

Tobi: Let’s talk about screening. Where are opportunities in that step in the cycle? 

Lori: So, we can go remote. I think the days of interviewing in person, unfortunately there is value to that, is kind of gone. I think that screening needs to be, and it’s a two-way screening. You’re screening for the volunteer, and the volunteer is screening for you.  

So you need to understand, it used to be do we want you to come and work for our organization? So, like you mentioned before, it’s our partnership, right? So it’s a matter of what are you looking for, when do you want to volunteer?  

You know, are you a snowbird going to Florida? Can you still do your volunteer work? So I think we can move remote for the most part on screening. I think that obviously from a due diligence, from a security perspective, there’s certain things that we still need to screen for. I think we need to put more steps into place for screening in terms of conversations.  

Tobi: It almost seems like screening is a little bit obsolete as a term, you know? Because screening kind of intimates you’re screening people out, whereas if it’s a two-way conversation, then I’m wondering if it makes sense nowadays.  

Lori: Well, I think it does. So here’s my issue, and it’s probably not…The law is old. The law is old. So where we have to go and do 100%, I don’t know whether you’ve been following Hockey Canada? Okay. So there was an issue with sponsors leaving because of something happened, the board chair has resigned and now the board has resigned. 

So, you know, the law is still old enough that you gotta do your check and your balance. If we’re not doing our fiduciary responsibility of some kind of screening, role dependent, then I’m going to step back and say, yeah, I want to go into the 23rd century there but I need to feel like there’s a bit of a check and a balance. 

Tobi: Yeah. Okay. What about orientation and training? Where can we evolve there? What are the opportunities?  

Lori: So, you know, historically orientation, so orientation and training are two different things. That’s number one. Orientation is obvious about orienting to the organization, both from a social, a role. So there’s all levels of orientation.  

It’s not just about this is your organization, this is your chart. Here’s a big book of paper that you’re going to get. Read it. You know, you’re done. Orientation is about the connection and the building of the relationship between the new volunteer and the organization. 

And so a successful one is orientation that has a hybrid of having conversations, learning from departments or programs, opportunity to maybe shadow, plus that due diligence side of paperwork.  

So orientation is important, but it’s more than just orientation to the role, it’s orientation to the culture, orientation to facilities, like that section. Training, this is where I think there’s a huge opportunity, and you know, old school versus new school.  

Training is ongoing in whether you’re training for role specific or you’re training for equity, diversity, you know, training for communication, training for conflict resolution, like there are so many opportunities to keep training so that your volunteers, A, are more invested, and B, are better learned to help you run your role. 

And then take it online. I just finished training for, I’m working for the municipal election next week, so Toronto is having a election. They moved all the training online.  

Tobi: Absolutely. On demand.  

Lori: We have learned with covid, if nothing else has taught us orientation and training do not have to be physically there and we have to give up that concept of touchy feely. 

Tobi: Yeah, I think it’s the challenge in online training is when…you know with orientation, it’s really a process. I always think of orientation as, and teach about orientation as relationship development and induction into the culture of the organization, understanding the culture and then basic safety stuff, et cetera, policies and procedures.  

But really it’s about solidifying that relationship and that commitment to one another, right from the organization to the volunteer and the volunteer to the organization.  

Lori: And it’s also been part of the screening process.  

Tobi: Yeah. Well, I debate whether or not orientation should be used for a screening or matching. You know, for people to determine suitability because it’s a tremendous amount of resource to spend. 

I used to run a program where I, at one time I did a little calculation about our binder. We had a 35 hour training because, volunteers needed. And it was role and orientation together combined. And I figured out it cost about $200 to produce that binder for each volunteer. And we did it in person. 

So folks were traveling around our state. And so it was tremendous resource to have only half of the volunteers come back and actually become active. So I said, you know what gang? We gotta stop using training for screening because it just. It’s not a smart use of resource and it’s not a smart use of the volunteer’s time either if it’s not a good fit. 

Lori: So I agree with you, but the beauty of technology is it has minimized those costs. So, you know, you could do a group orientation through a Zoom call and then do a workbook or whatever it is. So that’s a positive. We’ve minimized certain costs when it comes to orientation screening and training by using our websites better. 

Tobi: Yeah. Yep, absolutely. Let’s talk about supervision and support. it gets put in a step, but isn’t it like all the way around the life cycle? 

Lori: I’m going to call it retention. It’s retention. It’s all around the life cycle. Agreed 100%. But it’s really retention. It’s keeping volunteers engaged that want to be engaged. Volunteers do want to have a check and a balance. So supervision, you know, it’s really hard to supervise somebody who is working, volunteering from home as a friendly visitor or storytelling or whatever it is.  

How do you supervise that? Well, you send a survey. That’s not supervision. So, you know, to me it’s more about that support and that retention part. And probably, you know, it’s really a layered situation. So yes, there’s some supervision in there. Again, accountability. But it’s how do we support your journey through this volunteer life cycle. 

Tobi: Yeah. I always think of retention as a result and you know, I’ve often asked…years ago, I wrote a blog post once about volunteer wellness. Like, should we have volunteer wellness programs or initiatives? And nowadays, more than ever, I wonder if this phase is really about that, about volunteers helping volunteers achieve. 

You know, people are volunteering for a reason. I, I think it’s they’re working their way up, on a subconscious level, up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They’re moving to self-actualization as humans. You know, people are living into their values, their values giving back to the community.  

Now certainly people are getting other benefits as well. But you think about the more well people are in their volunteering, the more their wellbeing is cared for, the more they want to stay and the more they want to help.  

You know, it’s an interesting way to think, a lens to look at it through. Obviously it’s not the only thing, but I always think about this phase and how are we thinking about the wellbeing of our volunteers, especially with Covid, and it’s just brought this to the forefront. 

Lori: But there is a psychology of volunteerism and that’s why I think field of volunteer management is so undervalued and so unique. Like once I got into the field, I never left it because it throws everything in the, into the pot. It throws psychology, it throws sociology, it throws economics, it throws technology, all of it. 

And you know, the more you embrace your role of managing or this volunteer management life cycle, the more interesting your programs can be. So I agree with you. Like, at the basics, are we all just following Maslow’s hierarchy? Is it about putting food and bread on the table? 

Or is it about being able to say that you’ve helped others and therefore you feel good about yourself, Who knows? That’s always been this underlining of why we do what we do.  

So that whole concept of supervision. You can supervise an employee because there’s an accountability of a dollar here, you know? I don’t buy the whole supervision thing because let’s say you supervise a volunteer and you give them some criticism or some positive criticism, what are they going to do? They’re going to quit.  

So I’m not really seeing it as supervision. Maybe milestone checks, maybe, you know, check-ins. Maybe mentorship, maybe coaching, maybe, you know, who knows what we want to call it. That all can fit in there. But the whole idea of supervising now is…  

Tobi: I wonder. I’ve always had an issue with voluntary evaluations, like, we’re going to do an annual evaluation of your performance. And I’m like, Are you kidding me? First of all, in the employee sector, in HR world, an annual evaluation has become passe. 

It’s not what cutting edge HR professionals do at all. It’s more about the day to day. And I also think it’s really about catching people doing things approximately right. I like to like, let’s catch people. You know, positive reinforcement is really powerful, and people do want to do the right thing.  

So they do want to get feedback in the moment if there’s something they can do better. I ask a room of volunteers, would you like to get constructive feedback so that you can do a better job? They all raise their hand, you know? So, really, you know, the evaluative side of things, I’m like, what are you evaluating?   

Lori: I’m a fan of yours on that. I don’t buy evaluation of volunteers. I buy evaluation of programs. And all these steps within a program. Are you successfully marketing? Are you successfully retaining? But to take a volunteer and do a, you know, you’re one outta five.  

I remember when I was teaching at Humber and they had to do a volunteer evaluation. Oh my god, yes, no. Yes, no. Yes, no. Yes, no. No. It’s check ins, milestones, you know? You can’t evaluate a volunteer, but that’s a conversation.  

So check in at the three month mark. Check in at the one year mark, like the, whatever that conversation is. But it gives also an opportunity for a volunteer to tell you what he thinks, right? 

Tobi: I mean, shouldn’t the goal be to assess the volunteer experience, their experience, and have the organization reflect on that and make improvements? Seems to me that’s the better approach at that point in, well, at all points in the life cycle, really,  

Lori: I think at all points in the life cycle. Like I remember, you know, quick story. I sat on a board, and I was brought onto the board with very little information, very little orientation, very little…Anyhow, two years into my board seat, I didn’t like things that were going on.  

I was not happy with the direction they were going in. There were a few of us, so year three, I gave notice and I said I didn’t feel like I was bringing what I thought I was supposed to bring to the table. I handed my resignation.  

Do you think that the executive director or the board chair reached out to me in any way, shape, or form, or my friend who also handed in his resignation, to ask me why? You know, that whole offboarding thing. So 100% to this day, I still tell that story because I think it was a missed opportunity, and one of those like basic lessons learned of volunteer manager 101. You know, it’s not just bringing ’em on, it’s taking ’em off too.  

Tobi: Yeah. Let’s talk about recognition as our final step. What are our opportunities there and have you seen anybody doing this well? 

Lori: In recent years, it’s really been about storytelling as part of recognition. So the concept of recognition as a step in the life cycle. You know, it’s weird. That again becomes, it used to be one prize fits all. 

Everybody got the certificate. Everybody got the little thing. But you know, that’s gone. So what I’m seeing as recognition are, again, opportunities for education. So I’ve seen some really successful ways to acknowledge people by telling stories about them. 

And relationships and the impact that they’ve made. So you have that outward and giving them opportunities to A.) be a mentor, be a coach, have the leadership. And also having conversations with leaders in the field that they want to. .  

So really it’s a bit of a hybrid. You know, to me, recognition is both acknowledging education and kind of that statistical, because you did this, this is what happened. People knew. We’ve seen a lot more of that, especially when we only had…you know, the last three years, we’ve only had our website to work with. 

And we’ve only had our websites to engage volunteers. So you’d started to see more stories, but we’re not seeing. There is not enough storytelling going on to engage people more in the community. 

Tobi: Yeah. I love the idea of storytelling as a way to make meaning of our experience. It really is. I mean, I think about my family and we tell stories about my grandmother. I mean, she passed when she was 101. And she had like 10 kids, 20 some grandkids, 20 some great.  

I mean, I don’t even know how many. And then 12 great-great-grandkids. Nobody can keep count. But we all share her stories over and over and over again. And it’s the way our family makes meaning of our lives because we’re descendants, and also of our values and the way we do.  

So it’s a way of recommitting to a culture, to a set of values. It brings us back together. So I think it’s has multilevel effect when you’re engaging in storytelling with volunteers.  

Let me ask you something. What do you think about the volunteer engagement cycle? I mean, we’ve kind of punched holes a little bit in some of the steps along the way that they’re not really a step. They’re all the time related. Do you think a life cycle is the right model right now, or do you think it’s obsolete? What do you think about that?  

Lori: So conceptually, I do believe that we need a foundation to work with. So I think from a concept model, you know, given we shift some of those words around, I like the idea of still having something, you know, the bone so that we can put the meat on the bone. 

I think if we don’t have the bone, we don’t have consistency across not for profits. So I think the one thing that we have going for us when it comes to this volunteer management life cycle is that it’s consistent across not for profits.  

It creates a commonality like HR practices that allow leaders of volunteers to be able to share and work together. If you blow it up, you’re going to have everybody all over the place. And what you’re going to end up with is organizations that only focus on marketing, organizations that only focus on retention.  

But having said that, it’s gotta be more reflective. It’s gotta be more flexible and I think it needs another word. So whether it’s “volunteer management operations” or “volunteer succession plan”
 or whether it’s a sequence. Because I don’t believe the word cycle works anymore.   

But is it a sequence or is it a volunteer management relationship? Because remember, it’s also going to reflect, or be the foundation of the questions that we ask and the operations that we build on it. So we gotta be careful.  

Is it an evolution? I don’t know. So, you know, volunteer engagement evolution? Volunteer engagement succession plan? Or operations? 

Tobi: Yeah. I like “life cycle” only in that you can think about the volunteer side of things and you can think of it as a process of volunteers changing as well. 

Lori: But that’s the volunteer side of it. So I’m okay with the volunteer life cycle because that’s the relationship with an organization, but from the volunteer management side of that, is that really what we’re running? Is it a life cycle or is an operations? 

I get it from your side, from a volunteer side, it’s birth to, you know…I come on board. It is a life cycle or it is a path volunteers walk on? But from a volunteer management side of things, I’m not seeing it as a life cycle. I’m seeing it as an enterprise. 

Tobi: Yeah. Excellent. Well, this has been fantastic, Lori! Just talking about not only this conception of a volunteer engagement life cycle, but also just the different steps and really calling into question and you know, none of this has been not a lot of consistency across the field.  

I mean, some of these have been sort of solidified in terms of terminology. We talked a little bit throughout our conversation about some of the terms that might need changing nowadays.  

I think there’s much more to come in the field just in conversation about where we can head and, you know, volunteer engagement as a human endeavor, human to human, and really engaging communities and our missions in new ways. 

Volunteerism is the, aside from financial contributions, it’s really the way, the method or pathway for the community to really get involved and have a say and understand what we do and share back out from our organization back into the community what we’re doing.  

So it’s still, I think, such a fantastic way to not only build on the sustainability of the organization, but just to involve the community, and have the community have a voice in the directions we had and the services we provide.  

So let me ask you one more question before we leave, and I really appreciate you having this conversation with us and talking through how is it that we can make changes. What do we need to call into question about long held beliefs about our practices in engaging volunteers.  

But let me ask you one more question before we wrap up. What are you most excited about for the year ahead?  

Lori: For me personally, it’s about back to teaching and listening and hearing from people in the field. You know, it’s been a couple years since I’ve done a lot of teaching because Covid really knocked the crap outta everything. So back to engaging in not for profit. Because I really…you know, that whole back to in person. Just the concept.  

We’ve lost a lot of emotional intelligence, the way we communicate with each other. Like, we need to get that back. And, as you and I both know, being in the field that we’re in, it’s all about people. And when we’ve lost that concept of people helping people and people just engaging in partnerships.  

I’m looking forward to people going back and helping others in multiple ways. But you know, the last thing I was going to say to you to answer that first question is, here’s my soapbox. People need to think outside the box, number one.  

But the new generation – I just aged myself – needs to be educated. You need, volunteer management is not a field that you fall into, like I felt into it. It’s a field that is hard. And accountabilities. And I think that, I’m hoping that those that run volunteer programs will continue to take workshops. You know, listen to your podcasts, in person training and build better relationships with their leadership. 

And don’t be so afraid to come out of the closet, out of the basement room, out of the kitchen. Like use those opportunities to be part of the leadership.  

Tobi: Yeah, so that’s an invitation to those who are listening that are leaders of volunteers, but also some of our executives that are listening, it’s a great time to have your leader of volunteers, or some of your volunteers, come and have a sit down and have conversation once in a while about what’s happening in the community and how the community wants to be involved. 

So great invitation to inspiration to make that happen. Lori, thanks so much for joining me today and talking through the volunteer engagement cycle, how we might change it, how we might evolve, and I hope it gives folks some inspiration to think in new ways, and it’s okay to let some old stuff go. It really is  

Lori: And embrace new, Embrace different. You know, the world is changing very quickly, so thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to be on the podcast.  

Tobi: Aw! So thanks everybody for joining us for this episode of The Volunteer Nation. If you liked what we’re talking about, I hope you’ll share this episode with a friend or colleague who needs a little inspiration, and of course, like and subscribe. 

And join us next week, same time, same place on the Volunteer Nation. Bye everybody. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review so we can reach people like you who want to improve the impact of their good cause.  

For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at TobiJohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.