What She Lacks in Skill, She Makes Up in Enthusiasm

Posted on March 12, 2020

Elaine dancing

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Kirsten Wyatt. Connect with Kirsten on LinkedIn and Twitter!

The title of this post is an actual quote a college friend made about my dancing skills. And it’s 100% true: I have no natural dancing ability but I’m very enthusiastic about dancing, especially after a couple of cocktails.

This quote is also appropriate for today’s Morning Buzz about my approach to volunteer management. ELGL relies on hundreds of volunteers to allow our association to cast a longer shadow than our small staff and board could do on our own. This is similar to our local government members who work daily with community volunteers in all aspects of public service.

Here are five concepts that I employ to work with ELGL volunteers. I hope that our volunteers agree with my overview (and please let me know if this differs from your experiences volunteering with ELGL!):

  • Enthusiasm Wins the Day

There’s a new daily email newsletter called The Clikk and it’s for digital communicators. Here’s an excerpt from today’s edition:

WORKPLACE OPTIMISM FTW: It’s not magic, it’s the Pygmalion Effect. It was coined by psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, whose research found that elementary-school students (regardless of starting IQ) performed better whenever their teachers expected them to do better. This pattern holds well into adulthood. But why?

Long story short: our beliefs about people affect how we treat them, which then affects their beliefs, which finally affects their performance. That motivational speech you gave to your team doesn’t just make you a great leader (and all-around awesome human), it just might have a bottom-line impact.

My goal is to approach ELGL members with enthusiasm and happiness about the volunteer work that we need to get done, and how the individual perspectives of our members make the organization stronger and more successful.

I like to set big goals for our volunteers so they can see big results.

Approaching volunteer opportunities, especially those that take a lot of time and energy, with excitement and joy immediately frames the opportunity as something that’s fun and not drudgery (more about drudgery in a bit).

It’s not to say I’m happy all the time or that I spend every day in a magical fairyland of bliss. But I’ve learned that when I’m grumpy or frustrated, it’s not the right time to reach out and enlist new people to join our efforts or contribute their time. Getting in the right headspace before engaging with volunteers is important.

  • The Fun Stuff

Another component of effectively managing volunteers is to allow them to focus on the fun stuff and keep the drudgery out of the work. ELGL staff works really hard to pick up the loose ends, boring administrative tasks, and general drudgery so our members can use their volunteer time on things they care about or want to learn more about.

As an example: when we had 30 people step up earlier this month to organize #NDOSC events, our goal was to make the events as turnkey as possible. We wanted our members to focus on the joy of hosting Supper Clubs with people in the region, and not worrying about registration links, marketing, reimbursements, etc.

Another example: when we plan ELGL events like our annual conference and regional events, we tell our teams to “focus on planning the local government conference you’ve always dreamed about.” Staff manage the logistics and details and we want our volunteers to dream big and think boldly.

  • Volunteer or Voluntold?

If you’ve engaged with ELGL on social media, there’s a strong likelihood you’ve been “voluntold” to participate with ELGL – the concept where we ask you to do something for us instead of waiting for you to step up.

Our approach is to encourage and engage in social media conversations with our members, and when we come across someone who has a perspective to share, we jump on the opportunity to ask them to contribute.

A great example of this is Mike Skibbe. We realized that he has valuable experience to share, and so we’ve looped him in the Morning Buzz rotation, and he even wrote about his cosplay approach to data driven decision making for our Creative Community series. He’s planned Supper Clubs and #ELGLRoadTrip events too.

There’s a big difference between a more passive approach to waiting for people to volunteer, versus the more aggressive approach to asking people to help with specific things.

To date, my tendency to ask people to participate in the things we need their perspectives on, has rarely backfired. I think it’s similar to any type of shoulder tapping exercise we can do to recognize and identify talent (similar to when you’re recruiting for a new hire).

I believe that people fundamentally want to be asked and recognized to share what they know. I’m sure some people find this bossy, but I prefer to think of it as “targeted leadership and skills identification.”

  • Flatten The Org Chart

When ELGL was first starting, we set a value to not have a complex hierarchy that members had to navigate to get involved with the organization. I’ve watched many organizations set up detailed structures for involvement, usually starting with basic membership, and then involving a five- to seven-year span of increasing responsibility, only then culminating in meaningful opportunities like committee chair roles and leadership positions.

Who has time for that? My view is that when people can carve out time in their schedules to volunteer for ELGL, we should let them. It doesn’t matter if they’re in year one of their ELGL membership, or became a member when we first formed the organization.

If someone wants to take on a major role (like organizing a conference or hosting an #ELGLInspire event) we should celebrate that and make it happen – not make them wade through a hierarchy of committees and appointments first.

I also try to recognize that everyone is approaching volunteering at different points in their careers and lives. Someone who just had a baby, for example, might not be interested in hosting a Supper Club, but might be absolutely the right fit to write for a new blog series. And when that baby grows up, they might be better positioned to take on a role leading a more time intensive event or activity.

  • Encouragement & Gratitude 

I’ll end with the most important aspect of managing volunteers – recognizing them, celebrating their work, and showing gratitude for their time and energy.

A frequent topic of discussion in the ELGL Facebook and Slack groups are the ways that local governments have volunteer appreciation events. I love reading the ideas that different organizations recognize volunteers.

It’s ultimately the most important thing we can do (other than pay them!). I’m always on the lookout for new ways to celebrate the incredible people who contribute to ELGL and welcome your ideas.

What are your tips and ideas for effective volunteer management? Share with me on Twitter or LinkedIn, so I can put them into action for ELGL!

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