7 Ways to Get Respect for Your Volunteer Program

Respect on Cork Board ImageWe’ve been interviewing volunteer program managers across the country for a new service we are launching in April. It has been so much fun to hear stories about how people get started in the field of volunteer management.

Very few leaders started out thinking they would have this career.  Instead, many were led to it by a personal service experience, which made them aware of the power of volunteers and the good work they can do.

While these stories were different, a consistent theme surfaced throughout — the lack of true acknowledgement volunteer coordinators feel that they and our field of practice receive from peers, executive leaders and even communities.

We all know that this work is challenging and complex, but how do we convince others of its value, the true potential of volunteers, and the need to invest in building our volunteer capacity?

Building respect for volunteer programs means that volunteer program leaders must strategically and adeptly manage up and across.  No ones gives away respect.  You have to earn it.  Below are a few tips on how to do just that.

Before You Start

If you don’t know where you’re headed, chances are you won’t get there. So, take the time to form a clear picture of what respect looks like to you. How will you know you’re getting the respect you think you and your program deserve?  Is it an increase in funding?  Is it inclusion at specific meetings?  Is it the way people talk about volunteers?  Is it the approval of a new initiative?  You need to know your end goal and what you are asking others to do to support you.  That way, when you get there you can celebrate!

7 Ways to Gain R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Re-Align Match Your Program Goals with Organization’s Larger Goals and Mission

When volunteer programs become key players in mission fulfillment, they move from being something that is nice to have to something that is indispensible. Is your mission to reduce poverty?  Then, how does the work of volunteers directly and specifically influence that outcome?  Draw the picture, and connect the dots.  Communicate this information widely through all levels of your organization.

Educate Mount an Internal Marketing Campaign

Many people think volunteers are free and volunteer programs are easy to manage. Show them otherwise. Maintain a program budget. Keep your position description up to date, so that it includes everything you are responsible for. If you are proposing organizational change, you will need a Change Management Communications Strategy that targets key influencers and strategically encourages buy-in. Get your smartest volunteers to help as key messengers.

Share – Consistently Communicate the Tangible Achievements of Your Program

Share broadly and widely – at board meetings, in the agency’s newsletter, to your volunteers, on the website, etc.  Share achievements through not only data but also through stories of personal success and transformation for volunteers and those positively affected by their work.

Positive – Shelve the Complaints and Keep it Upbeat

Although our jobs are challenging, whining about them doesn’t help our case.  Exercise self-restraint when you want to complain. Instead, find a sympathetic person (or professional group) who is willing to listen and continue to challenge you to find workable solutions. If you must vent, give yourself a time limit, and then move on. Winning influence means winning hearts over minds, and enthusiasm trumps negativity.

Edit – Carefully Frame Your Messages & Listen Carefully

Words have more power to influence than you think. When communicating with people outside your program, cut out the jargon and “insider speak” and keep your communications short and to the point. Always remember to answer “what’s in it for me?” for your audience. Instead of focusing on your case, ask questions about their perceptions and needs and listen carefully to their responses. Make it about them, not about you. You might learn something valuable, and you will go a long way toward building trust and, with it, respect.

Credential – Get your Certified in Volunteer Administration (CVA) Credential

Join an elite global group of professionals who have actually obtained their CVA (or CAVS) credential. Put it in your professional development plan for next year. Whenever you obtain credentials, be sure that you list them along with your name (Tip: to get your credentials listed on a conference name badge, include them at the end of your last name in the last name field of the conference’s online registration form). It’s important for others to understand that you’ve achieved a level of expertise, and you’re credential positions you as an expert.

Track – Volunteer Contributions Beyond Just Volunteer Hours

Volunteers add considerable value to organization, and sometimes silently. For example, how much does your volunteer corps add in financial contributions to the agency’s annual budget? In terms of productivity, what is the full-time equivalent (FTE) in staff time of your volunteer corps? It may take some sleuthing to get these answers, but imagine the response when executive level staff realizes volunteers directly impact the bottom line even if they aren’t directly involved in fundraising!  And, if volunteers haven’t been asked to donate at your organization, they should be. Research shows that volunteers donate twice as much as non-volunteer to charity and two-thirds of volunteers donate to the same charity where they volunteer.

These are only a few ways to get the respect you deserve. What has worked for you?  Please share in the comments link below.

Bonus: Three Good Books on Influence

If you want to read more about how to gain the respect and responsiveness of others, check out these three excellent books:


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7 Responses to 7 Ways to Get Respect for Your Volunteer Program

  1. Jerseygator March 10, 2015 at 9:20 pm #

    That’s a good list.
    Regarding respect from outside of the organization, I would replace the R word for organizations already aligned with “Respond.” Great programs that rely on volunteers systematically address their concerns on a daily basis. I worked for two programs which received written feedback from volunteers every day. One was a Meals on Wheels program and the other was a foster children’s shelter for infants. For both programs, their hundreds of volunteers knew that the Program Director was paying attention to their concerns. This led to them recruiting more volunteers and spreading respect for the volunteer programs in the community.

  2. Debra Bressler March 12, 2015 at 1:21 am #

    Thanks Tobi, As always you provide timely practical tips. I observed the impact of the “E”step. By listening you find ways to be a resource for your internal customers. For example, provide staff training, assist with survey design to measure performance impact, provide reports, mailing labels from vol software to save taken time & so much more.

    • Tobi Johnson March 12, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

      @Debra I couldn’t agree more — listening is such a trust builder! I was reading “The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook” recently (a wonderful leadership book by Green & Howe) and they focused a lot on listening as THE primary way to build trust — paradoxical, because we think we have to talk to convince, but in reality, it’s the opposite!

  3. Tony Goodrow - Better Impact March 12, 2015 at 7:05 pm #

    For me, that you starting with mission orientation was SPOT ON. I see the others as important too but if we are not working towards the organization’s mission, then what are we doing???

    On tracking the hours, I really feel its worth treating volunteer hours more like an expense (as we are spending their time after all) and reporting on the value of what got done in those hours. We don’t brag about how much donated money we spend so why brag about how much donated time we spend? The current wage replacement theory (where the benefit gets reporting in FTEs) suggests that volunteers planting 100,000 seedlings in 3,000 hours is BETTER than volunteers planting 100,000 seedlings in 2,000 hours (all other things considered equal). Given that the sector’s intent is to place great value on donated time, shouldn’t we abandon practices that, this basic example, see no value on the 1,000 hours of volunteer hours, time they could be spending do anything else, for themselves of for the organization?

    • Tobi Johnson March 17, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

      Great points, @Tony. When we only consider the traditionally hourly value of a volunteer’s time, it really limits our understanding of their immense value the offer (not to mention encourages “gaming the system”). To break it down into basic terms, I think volunteers benefit organizations in three foundational ways. They: 1) reduce costs (through extra help and thus reduced staff costs), 2) generate revenue (through fundraising and their own cash and in-kind donations), and 3) build social capital (the often intangible benefits derived from the social networks the volunteers bring to the table). The best in class organizations find a way to track the value of all three — hard, but really impressive if you can do it!

  4. Rob J Consulting March 27, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

    Great blog Tobi. Your point about starting with the end in mind is so important. Too often I hear Volunteer Managers saying they want to be taken more seriously, or seen as professionals but rarely do they seem able to articulate what that means in practice if they are successful. Thanks for a thought provoking article.


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