These volunteer managers do their jobs better by blurring the lines between organizations

One time several years ago, I had coffee with the leader of a local symphony that engages  volunteers.  And as often happens in the volunteer engagement world, the conversation soon veered around to our local volunteer managers association.

Our association is such a great group – and just about the only place around where volunteer managers can get together to swap notes, share ideas, and just plain enjoy being in the company of other pros who do pretty much the same kind of job.

But this symphony leader had a different take – she had attended one of our association meetings and did not feel like the group (no pun intended) resonated for her.

Most of the association’s members belonged to human services organizations or to county government. There was no one else who managed volunteers in the arts. And while there are commonalities in the way we all manage volunteers, the needs of arts volunteers were different enough that she would have benefitted from sharing with others in her same nonprofit niche.

I thought of this conversation recently when I spoke with a Henry Coppola, the Stream & Park Cleanup Coordinator for the Volunteer Services Office of Montgomery Parks.  As with my colleague in the arts, those of us who work to protect our environment run up against unique challenges that their peers are most qualified to address.

Capital MOVE member Henry Coppola shows offs the results of a volunteer clean-up project

So Henry and his colleagues did something very smart – they formed their own informal organization for volunteer managers in area environmental organizations, Capital MOVE.

If you visit Capital MOVE’s website, you will see that the mission is very clear, to “share resources, troubleshoot problems, create partnerships, and promote the professionalization of this important field.”

It’s a place where those who work with environmental volunteers can get answers to very cause-specific questions, things like:

  • How do you show a volunteer how to plant a tree?
  • How do your teams manage litter removal?
  • How to you manage projects in bad weather?

These are questions that the average volunteer association may not think to consider, but for Henry and his colleagues, the answers can make the difference between a volunteer experience that’s rewarding enough to repeat or a turn-off to future projects.

But here’s the more interesting thing about Capital MOVE and its members – they see themselves as stewards of a resource (volunteers) that belongs to all of them.

Capital MOVE members visit the Casey Trees farm in Berryville, VA

That means that Henry and his colleagues are constantly sharing volunteers and referring them to one another’s organizations.

“When you work in the environmental arena,” says Henry, “things get broken up into human geographical boundaries that don’t match up with the natural order of the environment.” The best interests of the environment take priority over everything else.

Henry says that lots of volunteer groups have very particular preferences when it comes to volunteer projects. One group contacted Henry and wanted to do a clean-up project on canoes. Henry’s agency doesn’t have a volunteer opportunity that fit the bill, so, rather than try and hold onto the volunteers by suggesting a different project, he referred the group to another organization.

Henry explained: “Because we have relationships with people in other jurisdictions, it makes more sense to say, ‘that’s not a project that my agency does, but here’s the place you want to call and here’s what to ask for.”

Collaborating with colleagues makes it easier to measure outcomes, too.

“We’re all trying to record data about volunteer accomplishments, such as measuring how much trash gets collected. When we work separately, we end up asking our volunteers to collect the same data multiple times for multiple organizations. By working together, we have been able to streamline our data collection asks.”

There’s one other thing that strikes me about Henry and his colleagues. They see themselves as environmentalists who happen to specialize in leading volunteers. Does that mean that this group is less capable or committed than those of us who identify first and foremost as volunteer managers?  I don’t think so.

Much like Geoffrey Cohrs, who seeks to educate the public about American culture and effect positive change, excelling at volunteer management is the means towards a achieving a larger vision.  Perhaps the best way to elevate our profession is to remember one thing – it’s not an end in itself, but a powerful change agent that creates very, very important results.


Influence your volunteers without ruffling feathers! My Six Principles of Buy-In will boost your leadership skills in any situation. Email me for the handout and worksheet.  – Elisa