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?

Social movements, institutions and the Millennial generation: synthesis or breakdown?

In my afternoon MBA Leadership class today (prof: Anthony Yue), we watched a 2005 TED talk video featuring Clay Shirky about institutions vs. collaboration. This is really a mindblowing talk, considering social media was in its infancy and collaborative technologies such as Facebook and Twitter were just barely (or not at all) in the public conscious. (Note: Ideas from this post are drawn from classroom discussion).

The main messages of the talk focus on the shift from institutions to collaborative, unmanaged networks. The question is no longer “Is (s)he a good employee” but rather, “Do I want this idea/image/contribution?” Institutions don’t allow us to fully benefit from the valuable contributions of those that would contribute ONE idea. However, collaborative networks such as Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in general allow all contributions to have a chance to be valued.

Collaboration and Social Movements

So let’s say that you, as an individual, want to address an injustice. You want to alleviate poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, you want to protect fragile and rare habitats for species of the Haida Gwaii, you want to draw attention to wage disparity along gender and ethnic lines in the nonprofit sector.

You want to be a part of a social movement. You don’t have any money to build an institution, but you know you could contribute at least ONE idea, and there must be others out there like you.

This is the power of collaboration over the internet. Very little money (or none at all) is required. No institutions are required (save some sort of virtual space to collaborate). Some people may contribute the majority of the ideas, energy and talent, but the contributions from those that just have ONE can still add value.

Recent online activity re: #iranelection or #pman (Moldova) demonstrate the potential upswell of energy that can come from an unmanaged, online network. Granted, the actual impact of these loose networks can be and have been argued, but they still allow for potential valuation of ONE contribution.

Institutions vs. Collaboration and New Infrastructure Synthesis

Our society has recent, but strong history building institutions with hierarchies. Want to organize people? Group people according to task area/project/interest, throw in a manager, and voila – you’ve got yourself organized. Even community organizing can lead to creation of these hierarchies, thus mirroring the same institutions the group is likely organizing against. (Note: Even the phrase ‘community organizing‘ is shout out to institutional responses!)

Credit: Adaptation from Clay Shirky/TED
Credit: Adaptation from Clay Shirky/TED

Since we have grown up with hierarchical institutions as models for organizational structure, it’s hard to visualize another model. But this is where social media has come in. The development of technological features such as #hashtags has allowed people with like interests to find each other and organize around ideas outside a traditional institutional model.

Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis of Infrastructure

Credit: Tony Yue
Synthesis of new ways. Credit: Tony Yue

So we have an old way of viewing the organization of people (thesis: hierarchical institutions). Now there’s a new way of looking at things (antithesis: unmanaged cooperative collaboration). We (as a society) are still trying to figure out how to navigate this (synthesis) to produce results. Ivan Boothe’s (@rootwork) recent guest post on Beth Kanter’s blog about how social movements require more than social media provides great insight into the difficulty we find ourselves in.

Millennials and Structure

Now here’s the problem (maybe). The Millennial generation, generally, likes structure. They value authority. They grew up with uber-scheduled lives, their parents have been hyper-involved in their lives. So where do they fit in to this new, collaborative, unmanaged, loosely (if at all) structured infrastructure? One benefit of this new model for Millennials is the collaborative nature. Millennials went through the school system working in teams. But the lack of structure may be a barrier.

I suspect that Millennials will create their own ‘formal’ institutions as a solution. They may use informal, collaborative networks to find their peers, but then shift towards having more structure. Though current institutions may already exist, they don’t offer opportunities that they find meaningful and relevant. Again, Millennials will create their own institutions.


So how will this all play out? What will the new infrastructure facilitating social movements look like? I don’t think we know yet, but Clay Shirky predicts 50 years of chaos before it’s sorted out. If Millennials focus on creating institutions to facilitate social movements that come out of online collaboration – great. However, if these new Millennial institutions draw away from human and financial resources of the current nonprofit and social change sector, the current way of doing things is going to evolve (for a time) into chaos–struggles for sustainability and sector fragmentation will result.

Perhaps the calm out of chaos will come not from organizing people, but organizing institutions. Hierarchical institutions and collaborative, cooperative networks finding each other and working together towards common goals.

I really don’t know. Do you?

<end of murky personal academic musings>

3 mistakes of the new-to-nonprofit job seeker

Rosetta Thurman recently wrote an article on the Jobs for Change young professionals section about sabotaging your chances at a great nonprofit job with your cover letter. Her three main points cover the dreaded “Dear Hiring Manager” intro, mixing up the organization name, and finally, not demonstrating any passion. Having conducted a fair number of hiring processes in my current and previous jobs, a few other gems come to mind.

Business lingo. In both interviews and cover letters, hearing my organization being referred to as a company sends chills up my spine. This may not be offensive to some nonprofit hiring managers, but to stick on the safe side, it’s better to use a term like “organization.” I’ve also been in an interview where the candidate (attempting to move from the private sector to nonprofit) spoke of goals of being a senior VP in 5 years. That’s great and all, but nonprofit senior VP roles are few and far between. Plus, it made her sound corporate, and not in a positive way. Understanding the common use of “ee dee”, or Executive Director, vs the less common CEO is also an important distinction. (I blundered my first nonprofit interview by asking what they meant by “ee dee”. Thankfully, I overcame and still got the job.)

Missing the mission. I want to know that you are a fit for the organization. Memorizing the mission statement is a start, but truly getting “it” could be incredibly important for the organization, depending on the role. As is true for most jobs, skills are only one part of your application–fit is just as or even more important. I usually throw in a ‘toughy’ in an interview that links back to the mission. In my current role where community-campus engagement is important, I often ask candidates why they think it’s important for the university to be engaged with its greater community, and what challenges might arise in doing so. It’s not a question than can easily be prepared for, and the answer can make or break a candidate. Usually, if I can’t find someone with the skills and the mission fit, I wait for someone else to come along who truly is the right person to be on the bus (a la Jim Collins).

Buying into nonprofit myths. If you’re new to the nonprofit sector, talk to friends in the sector, or do some informational interviews. As Rosetta Thurman mentions in a separate post on being clueless in the nonprofit sector:

You can’t be clueless about the nonprofit sector if this is the field you want to work in. There’s more to this line of work than handing out food and bell ringers for the Salvation Army. As a future nonprofit leader, you need to know the unique facets of nonprofits, from their business structures to legal requirements to specific training available. All of the information is out there for you to learn, so there’e no excuse for being a total ditz.

Trust me, no one wants to hire a ditz.

What have you come across in your hiring experience? Or have you made a blunder yourself in a nonprofit application process?

The rush to create group volunteering opportunities

Group volunteering is high in popularity thanks to both corporate volunteerism, stemming from trends in corporate social responsibility; and the Millennial generation’s propensity for group activities, stemming from their history of group work and cooperation in the K-12 school system.

I remember the volunteer coordinator at the last nonprofit I worked for asking if I had anything I needed doing suitable for a corporate group of professionals. The call would go out to various programs once in a while, and I always found filling this role to be awkward. On one hand, corporate volunteerism might lead to corporate donations, so nonprofits often jump to sort something out for these potential donors. However, precious resources may get used up, taken away from working with clients, running programs, etc., just for a group of corporate volunteers to spend a day doing a ‘meaningful’ task.

Nonprofits may also start jumping to create team opportunities for Millennial volunteers, though this trend might take a bit longer. It may be hard to change the way volunteers are engaged if the current model has been working for so long. However, if your organization is only offering individual opportunities, the current model is not going to work forever. Secondly, nonprofits will soon (and many already have) start to realize that their aging donor base isn’t going to sustain them forever and new donors are going to have to be cultivated from this Millennial generation.

Some of these group volunteer opportunities may last a day. Others a year. Here are some ideas for creating group volunteer opportunities that may be suitable for either corporate or Millennial volunteers.

  1. Stock up. Doesn’t it always seem that when you need people you don’t have them and when you have them you don’t need them? Even though the timing may not be ideal, save your donation sorting, activity room painting, or garden planting for when you get that call. Better yet, initiate contact with prospective group volunteers or donors and offer the opportunity. Ahead of time.
  2. Create a group of mini-skilled positions. Maybe you want your website or brochures translated into other languages. Maybe you need a bunch of documents realigned with your new branding. Corporate and Millennial volunteers can be a skilled bunch, so set aside some small skilled tasks, have a potluck, and get a work-party on!
  3. Re-brand individual activities as group activities. I don’t mean calling a duck a swan–some legitimate changes need to happen. For example, if your organization holds multiple events per year that requires volunteers, create a “Crew” opportunity. Give them chances to meet and greet each other outside of event times, offer some value-added training, and provide them with some unique chances to be engaged in other ways, and be sure to communicate with them as a “Crew” throughout the year. The SFU Student Development department is great at this branding. The orientation volunteers are the “O Crew”. The Week of Welcome volunteers are the “WOW Crew”. The volunteers are a team.
  4. Get Professional Development. Both corporate volunteers and Millennials may have backgrounds that could be beneficial for your staff or clients to learn from. Corporate volunteers from an audit company may be able to deliver a workshop to program managers about demonstrating a program’s return on investment. Millennial volunteers in a university HR program may be interested in leading a workshop for community centre clients on resume building. For example, SFU Career Peer Educators have work as a team before to deliver just such a workshop. It was valuable for the participants, and a highlight of the year for many Peers.
  5. Bring together individuals or small groups of volunteer together for special opportunities. I am currently working with two fantastic segments of student volunteers at SFU Volunteer Services. Two students scout and write stories for our ENGAGE blog; another team of volunteers is helping plan a Volunteer and Civic Engagement Week on campus this fall. Both groups are working in teams already, but bringing them together for special development or social opportunities could a) reinforce how each group contributes to our mission, and b) build social connections and a larger sense of team.

How have you engaged groups of volunteers at your organizations? How have you been engaged as a group volunteer?

Tapping Into the Millennial (Blood)stream

I recently wrote an article for Vantage Point, an issue-based online publication of Volunteer Vancouver. The issue this time: generations.

Featured authors include Peter C. Brinckerhoff, Kathi Irvine, Colleen Kelly, Brian Fraser, and….me!

My article summarizes a variety of data and trends related to traits of the Millennial generation and delivers practical implications for the nonprofit sector. Check it out here and tell me: agree or disagree?

Anyone want a strategic management report?

This summer I’ll be completing some of my last master’s courses to complete an MBA in Community Economic Development. One of the courses, Strategic Management, requires a final project that assesses a variety of characteristics of an organization. I’ve figured that rather doing a report for distant company or organization XYZ, I’d like to do one for a nonprofit that might find value in the results of the report.

The topics the report that I need to produce for this course include an overview and analysis of topics such as:

  • Organizational life cycle
  • Organizational and governance structures
  • External operating environment
  • Financial indicators
  • Operational strategies
  • Marketing, financial, and research & development strategies
  • Leadership
  • Alliances and partnerships
  • Performance measurement tools

The report will include suggestions for changes (if any) to strategy or structure that may enhance the success of the organization in fulfilling its mission, along with a time frame for these changes.

There is no limit to the type of organization, but the organization does have to be large enough to have a variety of programs/activities and possible partnerships. I also need to have access to financial statements.

Obviously this report is limited in the sense that I am expected to include pre-determined sections, whereas an interested organization may only want a few areas to be examined. I could provide a complete or abridged report if this is the case. Or perhaps an organization is willing to support a graduate student by providing information to help inform such a report without any interest in the actual report.

In any case, if this is of interest to you and/or your organization, be in touch by the beginning of July.