Upcoming events: Volunteers and technology; what the next gen wants from nonprofits

I’ll be speaking in three different places next month – hope to see you at one or more!


Complete details here >

Tuesday, July 5 | 5:30pm | 306 Abbott St (upstairs) | FREE
Join me and Elijah van der Giessen (of Net Tuesday and David Suzuki Foundation) as we share strategies about the use of technology for effective volunteer engagement.


Complete details here >

This two-part series will introduce you to data and research on what the next generation wants from nonprofits, help you identify how your organization is currently performing, and encourage next steps you can take to achieve your goals. Sample topics include volunteer opportunities, new donors, staff retention, and social media.

No more guessing: Data and research on what the next generation wants from nonprofits

Wed, July 13 | 8:45am – 10:30am | 1183 Melville St.
$40, including light breakfast

Future engagement: Assessing your current practices and taking the next step to effective next generation engagement

Wed, July 27 | 8:45am – 10:30am | 1183 Melville St.
$40, including light breakfast

Fundraising through engaged staff

Take a Hike reflection
Image credit: Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation

One of my favourite charities, Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation, was fortunate to be on the receiving side of Clara Hughes’ Winter Olympics bronze medal bonus.

Ten thousand unexpected dollars.

And then her sponsor, Bell Canada, matched her donation. That’s now $20,000.

And with the news stories on the donation, thousands of more dollars came in.

This wasn’t the result of some long-term relationship building between the ED and Hughes. It didn’t require shmoozing, prospecting, donor analysis or any other hard work of a fund development team.

It started because one of the Take a Hike program’s teachers embodied Take a Hike. He had met Clara Hughes’ partner randomly while on a remote kayaking trip on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. Friendships developed, and Take a Hike came to mind when Hughes was looking to make a difference by contributing any bonus she might win along with a medal.

The teacher didn’t have a script. He wasn’t trained in fund development. He knows his work and the impact it makes in the lives of youth and feels confident sharing.

The lesson

I think it’s often easy for fundraising to be relegated to the ED and fund development staff. That way you can contain messages and hit key talking points. Because you can’t trust the program staff to always say the right thing, you might only let them connect to fundraising when a tour of their workspace needs to be done to show donors how the charity is serving <insert disadvantaged group here>. Or maybe you only call on them when you need statistics to report back to funders or donors to show that your efforts are successful.

I think that most people, no matter where they work in an organization, like to know how their work contributes to the bigger picture. The mission of the organization. To what end your charity exists. Staff are more than just their job titles, and very likely have interests and abilities beyond their job descriptions.

So let them in on the big picture. Connect them with opportunities to contribute to the mission more directly through committees, communication, or other work.

Be sure your staff are engaged with your mission. The payoffs could be huge.

Connection to mission: proposing a new org chart

Credit: Mike Rohde
Image Credit: Mike Rohde

One common piece of an orientation program for new staff or volunteers is a review of an org chart – a chart of the reporting structure of the organization so that everyone knows where they “fit” in the grand scheme of things.

I propose an alternative chart – or at least an additional one.

What about an organizational chart that demonstrates how each person contributes to the mission?

Instead of the Board of Directors and CEO at the top, the mission statement is at the top. Some roles may have a direct link to the mission – those that deliver services to clients, for example. Others may have a role that support the mission down the line. Many roles would likely fit in more that one “reporting line” based on the variety of their duties.

I suspect (since I haven’t actually drawn one of these up before) the resulting chart would look very flipped in many places, articulating the importance of staff and volunteers that might usually show up on the very bottom of a traditional org chart.

No matter what the role, everyone in an organization should be contributing to the mission. Show them how.

Nonprofit sector recruitment: time for a tagline?

Today I was lucky to be invited as a guest to participate in an advisory committee meeting with the HR Council for the Voluntary & Non-profit Sector. I met great people from across Canada that work in the sector, learn in the sector, and support HR growth in the sector. A great table of people, with a great table of food a few feet away. Two of my favourite things.

Before I get into the fun stuff, let me preface this by sharing that there was a lot of very invigorating discussion and a lot of work was accomplished.

We reviewed and discussed research done by Decode about university students on their opinions about work, comparing the full data set to students who had indicated interest in the nonprofit sector. We went over questions for an upcoming online focus group about students’ attitudes towards work in the nonprofit sector. We went over possible knowledge dissemination venues for the results of the final research report, stakeholders, possible practical products of the research, the scope of the recommendations, and strategic themes of the recommendations.

But, back to the fun stuff.

We also got creative. The scope of the research discussed today relates to recruitment of new/young/recently graduated potential employees to the nonprofit sector. So we brainstormed messaging that could be tested in online focus groups.

“There are no bad ideas,” we joked, “until no one votes for them when we whittle down the ideas.”

The messaging ideas spanned facts, heartstrings, and humour.

NOTE: These are from memory. Actual ideas, which will be flushed out further by skilled people that actually do this sort of stuff for a living, may have been better or worse.

Facts/Realities of the work

  • Did you know there are 70,000 employers and over 1 million employees in the nonprofit sector? Where do you fit in?
  • IT. Media and marketing. Accounting. There’s an opportunity for you in the nonprofit sector.
  • Today I: helped a family, wrote a strategic plan, and met with business leaders. All in a day’s work in the nonprofit sector. (Umm…I think strategic plans take more than a day though, just sayin’.)


  • Every day is different when you are making a difference.
  • Use your talents for good – work with people who care. (This actually would have been in the awkward humour section before it was changed from “Use your talents for good, not evil.”)
  • Find work. Find balance. Find purpose.


  • Finally, a job you want to talk about at parties.
  • Want to go to work on Monday morning?
  • Dangit, I’m forgetting the funny ones. Can anybody else from the meeting help me out?

What tagline would you use to help recruit new employees to the nonprofit sector? Give me your facts, your funny, and your heart.

Staff are people, too.

At nonprofit organizations, staff members (or, often, volunteers) can be equated to the programs they administer.

Program coordinator = program.

Ergo, investment in program = investment in program coordinator, right? Right?


Think about it this way. If organizational leadership/management doesn’t invest in a staff member, why should a staff member be invested in an organization? Why should they be loyal to organization leadership/management? Sure, in a tight economy people may feel more tied to a job that usual. But, if you were leading an organization, would you want people working with you to achieve your mission only because they were afraid of unemployment as an alternative? Doesn’t sound like a happy place to work to me.

Millennials, among many other characteristics made through broad, sweeping generalizations, have been said to be loyal to people, not organizations.

So how can we treat staff as people, not programs? How can loyalty be built with Millennials, the next generation of nonprofit leadership? Here are some proposals that spring to mind.

Ask for their opinion

Staff have ideas. But if the ideas are not related to their programs, it may be difficult to find an appropriate place to bring up an idea. So ask. “In your position, you work a lot on ABC. However, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on our work with XYZ as well.” Who knows, you might get some inspiring ideas out of it. People bring diverse work and life experience to a position, so tap into all of it and not just the parts related to their job.

Involve them outside their program area

Especially in the beginning, nonprofit workers are often drawn to an organization because of a belief in a mission. However, their jobs often only related to one small piece of that mission. If there is an appropriate space for committee work – an event that spans the organization’s mission, for example – create a committee to work on it. Granted, we’ve all been on committees that are just huge time sucks; however, speaking from experience, committee work that gets me involved with people and ideas outside of my daily routine can be invigorating.

Cross train

This is kind of an extension of the last point, I suppose. Cross training provides value to individuals, AND organizations. If work is siloed, ie where very clear boundaries are drawn between what is your work and what is mine, it means that losing one individual can cause paralysis to a program. However, especially for young staff that are trying to build their skill and knowledge base, cross training can be invaluable. If a staff member is responsible for communications, but is given an opportunity to learn a bit of grant writing, and maybe facilitate a workshop for program clients, the staff member has gained in experience, and the other program areas have a new person to reach out to in times of staff loss or time crunch.

Make investments in their personal development

I don’t just mean professional development. I mean personal development. Ask where they want to be in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years. While some people are fine with stability and constancy, many are looking ahead to the next move. That might be within the organization, but maybe not, and that’s OK.  What can they get involved with, inside or outside the organization, that can help them on that path? Some people may view this as setting people up for leaving; I believe it’ll keep them around a bit longer than they would have otherwise.

Staff turnover costs an organization money. One step to keep down these costs, and to keep moral up, is to treat staff like people, not just programs.

So, how do you invest in your staff? Or, how have you felt invested in?

Leading from the (outside): can kind-but-tough love strengthen our organizations?

A friend of mine recently updated her Facebook status:

(name withheld) is wondering why she is always disappointed by the non-profit organizations she becomes involved with. Drama, politics, and unprofessionalism abound. Should she stay away…or start her own?

This friend is a great person with solid, professional skills to offer with lots of passion for a variety of issues. Yet her support of the various causes continues in spite of the organizational leadership, not because of it.

I agree sometimes. It’s one of the main reasons that I am doing (almost done!) my MBA. Passion for the mission is definitely not lacking in the nonprofit sector. However, the knowledge of what it takes to lead and manage an organization to fulfill that mission is not spread as equally. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s lacking, but it’s concentrated, leaving many organizations to frustrate the very people that want to help them further the cause.

One could definitely argue that this “drama, politics, and unprofessionalism” also exists, even runneth over, in the private and public sectors as well. But that doesn’t change the fact that nonprofit organizations are losing good volunteers (and good staff, too).

So what are the options?


Leaving can reduce your frustration in the short term, but how does this support the cause that you are passionate about?

Start your own

Takes work. And time. Other orgs are already doing it (however unprofessionally you may think). Thought starting your own may be the right answer, there are many reasons why not to start your own nonprofit.

A third option?

What about sticking with it? Is there a way to demonstrate (outside) leadership, provide constructive feedback, and keep our nonprofit relationships strong?

How might a conversation starter like this be taken by (inside) nonprofit leadership?

I really believe in the mission of your organization. I’m really passionate about this issue and want to contribute my time, skills and knowledge to help you further the cause. However, I have come to find myself frustrated with [X, Y or Z], and it’s leading me to question whether or not I will continue volunteering with [insert org name]. Is there something that can be done to improve [X, Y or Z] to help attract and retain volunteers like me?

Suggesting improvements alone may result in defensiveness, and not including the suggestion of leaving may make the issue seem less important than it is.

Is there a way to get this message across without coming off as an annoying “I’ve come to help professionalize you” type while actually positively impacting the professionalism of nonprofit leadership and managment?

Firing volunteers…yes, I said it.

I don’t have an incredulous level of experience firing volunteers (thankfully), but I have done it, and I’ll probably do it again. Not that I enjoy it (well, maybe in the ‘weight off my shoulders’ sort of way). But I feel very strongly that volunteering is a privilege, nonprofits have limited resources, and just because someone wants to help doesn’t mean that it’s in the best interest of everyone involved.

Often, a bad volunteer can hold others from moving forward or can cause resentment among other volunteers. Addressing the actions of a bad volunteer is important. Whether firing or providing critical feedback to volunteers, here are some pointers to consider.

Start with clear expectations

Things that should be made clear in writing from the beginning are:

  • time expectations (hours per week, training dates, time frame of position)
  • skills required (if you just need a warm body, that’s fine–but if you need someone that has certain skills, be up front about it)
  • communications expectations (response time to queries, meeting attendance, email guidelines)
  • boundaries/limits of role (included in volunteer training as well; could include items about representing the organization, confidentiality, contact with clients/vendors/donors/staff, etc.)

If things aren’t outlined from the beginning, it’s hard to go back afterwords and tell volunteers they weren’t meeting expectations.

Give them a chance

Surprisingly, if a volunteer is not meeting expectations or acting inappropriately, they may just have no idea. If you see a volunteer starting to wander off track, nip the problem in the bud. If you let it go for a while, it just gets harder and harder as the volunteer wanders more and more away from your expectations.

An important part of leading volunteers (and people in general) is to communicate with clarity. Find out their side before you launch into a Donald Trump rant. For example:

  • “Hey, I noticed you weren’t at the meeting last night. Has your availability changed?” Many responses could be followed up with: “Well, the committee requires volunteers to attend Monday night meetings, so if you aren’t able to come consistently, this position may not a good fit for you.” or more directly, “…so if you have to miss another meeting, I’ll have to ask you to step down from your position.”

Give them an out

Make it seem like leaving the position is a choice before you make it an ‘order’. My most recent firing started off with me stating that I recognized the volunteer seemed to have many commitments that would make it hard for her to find the time to participate. I told her that if her schedule was too demanding, that it was OK to pull back from her commitment–she just needed to let me know.

This is an ‘out’. A chance to save face.

Focus on the fit

Bad volunteers aren’t bad people. They’re just not in the right position at the right time. The may have overestimated the variety of priorities in their lives. They may have overestimated their tact or their skill writing press releases. That’s OK. Perhaps another role may be better suited to them. A better fit.

The tricky bit is phrasing the “You’re Fired” line.

Send them off with a sandwich

This sounds cheezy, but I think it’s important. Sandwich feedback is like sliding some smelly old deli meat in between two slices of lovely homemade bread.

  1. Start with good.
  2. Put the constructive feedback / firing in the middle.
  3. End on a positive note.

Unless a volunteer has done something absolutely inappropriate (like invoking violence, getting drunk at a fundraiser, etc.) make the final send off clear, but friendly. Again, bad volunteers aren’t bad people. The fit just isn’t right.


Keeping a bad volunteer around does our sector a disservice in many ways. Virginia Edelstein at Volunteer Vancouver recently shared her opinion of recent Canadian Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating results – “Sorry, But Who Cares?“. When considering statistics around number of volunteer hours contributed or economic “value” of volunteering–

Someone could volunteer 1,000 hours and accomplish nothing – except that the stats would look good. It’s hard for me to get excited about that. So instead of measuring how many hours your volunteers work with you, why don’t you measure what impact they had on your organization, your clients and your mission?

So, for a bad volunteer, if the impact is neutral or even negative, pumping up the number of hours our organizations have engaged volunteers ain’t all that great and is kind of like lying.

Have you had to fire a volunteer? What methods did you use? How did you communicate?