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Info You Can Use: Playing With Your Volunteers

About a month ago I wrote about how our accreditation team used games to get the leadership ready for the accreditation process coming up this year. I had noted that while accreditation is a pretty oppressive and mind numbing subject, the games made learning about it easier. I had suggested that this was a good approach for tackling administrative and governance processes.

This weekend, we actually used a similar approach during the much more pleasant process of volunteer training so I thought I would share what we did.

We held a brunch in our lobby. My assistant theatre manager and I made Belgian waffles and pancakes to order for our volunteers (we also had eggs, breakfast meats and a pretty good toppings bar.) After eating our fill, we talked about the upcoming season of shows and why each was so interesting.

Then we had a scavenger hunt which actually proved to be a good tool for making people more aware of many aspects of their jobs and the theatre building. Some of the questions were just fun and silly like getting a picture of a prop backstage and some information from a set model. Others were more directly related to things we wanted our volunteers to know.

For example we asked how many theatre seats were in a row that had empty spots for wheelchairs so they were aware that the number on the right most seat wasn’t actually the seat count for the row.

Because there is construction next to the theatre we had them take a picture of one of the large signs directing people along the detour from the disabilities parking to the lobby which forced the volunteers to walk the path a wheelchair would have to follow.

We asked for the name of the person who sponsored the Green Room so that the volunteers knew where the green room was and were familiar with the name of one of our important donors.

And of course, we made sure they knew that most crucial of all information–where the bathrooms are–by making them count all the stalls available for use by audience members. (Which also helped them know which restrooms had the most capacity.)

I think this was a much more effective technique to simply giving a tour and pointing things out because it forced the volunteers to pay closer attention to the surroundings as they sought out our grand piano and the 2005-2006 season brochures hidden around the building. It also promoted team work and helped the volunteers bond over activities other than ripping tickets and stuffing program books.

Though to be clear, this doesn’t replace our orientation tours. Every volunteer is given a tour of the facility which points out the location of emergency exits and life safety equipment along with instruction about the procedures.

Nearly all of the volunteers are interested in going around the building again if provided the opportunity. Opening all the doors and turning on all the lights to let them scurry around looking for things changes their relationship with the facility and infuses the experience with a bit of the playfulness and fun that characterize the arts.

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Can Arts Orgs Play Moneyball With Their Staffs?

Ever since the movie Moneyball came out, I have been thinking about whether similar system can be applied to the arts. I mean a system by which baseball teams with small budgets were able to compete on par with the most well-funded teams by assembling a team of under utilized misfits? Heck, I am describing the place you work, right? It seems ready made for the arts!

I was happy to see a recent post by Shawn Harris on the TCG website raising the same general question. I agree with most of what Shawn suggests, including taking an objective look at different aspect of our operations and audiences to determine whether we are truly serving the interests of the community or just perpetuating assumptions.

One assumption I feel pretty safe in making is that what motivates people to attend a baseball game is different from what motivates people to attend an arts event. While celebrity is certainly a factor, people attend baseball games looking for an engaging contest. If they don’t know a lot about each of the players, that is okay if the game was well played. Can the same be said about an arts event? If someone is unfamiliar with a performance, will the fact that statistically speaking, the actors, while unknown, are the most effective performers in a period play?

Probably not. But then again, you shouldn’t be selling the show based on statistics anyway. Even though stats are a huge part of sports, that isn’t what primarily sells tickets. While a well-known artist would make it easier to sell a show, in the long run it is going to be better to take the “brains in the seats” view and work on engaging audiences in the organization, one aspect of which is going to be based on the quality of your personnel choices.

That is what I first started thinking about when I was considering whether Moneyball could be applied to the arts–are we hiring the best people? More over, are we actively seeking the best people or just casting a net and taking whatever swims our way?

I recall going to an Arts Presenters conference where Andrew Taylor talked about how a lot of arts organizations didn’t know how to effectively evaluate the skills of job candidates. He said there was a tendency to hire to the specifics of a job description rather than to the general needs of the position. Though he did mention an associate who hired a person who managed a Sears call center to run their ticket office after some unsatisfying interviews with people from the arts field, it seemed the exception rather than the rule. Taylor said he teaches his students to take control of the interview in order to illuminate their skills and illustrate how it applies to the criteria laid out in the job description.

While I am reluctant to put arts people out of work by suggesting that you look to hire those without any industry experience, I think it can help to always be mindful of the basic abilities you seek in employees. I once had lunch with some representatives from Enterprise Car Rentals and they were so impressed by the affability and service provided by one of the wait staff, they tried to recruit her at the end of our meal.

When was the last time you even thought about adding a person you met outside the context of the arts to your team? In fact, other than pursuing people who would increase the prestige of your company, when is the last time you tried to recruit someone way from another arts organization based on abilities and effectiveness alone?

When I think about the Moneyball model of finding success putting together a seemingly mismatched set of players few other teams desired, I wonder about our collective ability in the arts to effectively identify and cultivate the talent of people who aren’t necessarily shining in their current position. I know this can be tough in the arts where everyone wants to be the star actor/dancer/artist/director. Even if you are perceptive enough to see their talent lay elsewhere, people may be resistant to taking a different role.

The thing is, non profits should be pros at identifying and leveraging undiscovered skills. With all the volunteers we use to assist us with our programs and to serve on our boards, we should be championing seemingly unorthodox hiring decisions. But if Andrew Taylor is correct, the hiring practices in the arts are actually more orthodox than in the for profit sector.

If that is the case, perhaps we aren’t using our volunteers’ skills as effectively as we could, as well. That question starts to bring me back to my post last week featuring Aaron Hurst’s suggestion that certain volunteer programs may be a waste of time.

The research he cited found little difference in effectiveness between well- and poorly- managed programs involving less than 50 people. I wonder though if well managed programs might have beneficial side-effects for organizations in the form of improved hiring skills. In other words, the capacity to identify and employ highly capable people may be developed in the process of effectively doing the same thing with volunteers.

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Info You Can Use: Efforts You Can Skip…Maybe

From time to time I advocate for carefully evaluating the technology tools ones organization uses rather than jumping on what appears to be the hottest new thing everyone is apparently using. Not every tool is appropriate for every organization.

It was with great interest that I started to read Taproot Foundation president Aaron Hurst’s piece, Five Investments You Can Skip. In it, Hurst follows a similar theme in suggesting that non-profit organizations of a certain size and scope consider giving certain “must haves” a pass. Upon reading them, however, I was a little skeptical about some. The five he suggested were:

1) Volunteers. Recruiting and managing volunteers generally isn’t worthwhile unless you use at least 50 per year, they do at least 50 hours of service each (or fewer volunteers and more hours each), and you invest in volunteer management systems. Short of that, it’s almost certainly a waste of time.

2) Websites. Most nonprofits (the small neighborhood ones) would likely be fine with just a Facebook page. A template site would do the trick for slightly larger group. Only 25 percent of nonprofits need customized web design.

3) Board. There is a tremendously high fixed cost to training your board to facilitate donations (in kind or cash). If your board can’t generate a large part of your budget (say, 20 percent), you are likely to find them getting in the way of fundraising success and eating up senior staff time (and increasing burn out). If that’s the case, your organization would likely see more success with a smaller board focused solely on audits and the legal requirements of governance.

4) Social Media. Does it drive your advocacy, fundraising, or program success? It does for likely less than 2 percent of nonprofits. Everyone else is wasting a ton of time and energy on it. Much like my local car wash that urges me to “like” it on Facebook.

5) Strategic planning. You need a strategic plan, but for most organizations it can be a lot lighter than most MBAs want to admit. It doesn’t need to be perfect and frequently should be more of a living document.

Numbers 3 and 5 I can agree with pretty readily. The suggestion to eschew websites in favor of a Facebook page in number 2 seems to be contradicted by the implication in number 4 that social media, including Facebook may be a waste of time and energy.

I did consider that what he says might be true for non-profits in general. I don’t think it is applicable to arts organizations where providing up to date information about events and activities pretty much necessitate a web presence that is adaptable to your specific needs. I have a difficult time imagining that Facebook is a good option for most non-profits given that they need a site that distinguishes them and their mission from everything else one might come across on the web.

His suggestion that only about 2% of non profits are seeing any benefit from social media made me wonder 1) what he based that on and 2) if true, it may just as likely be due to lack of understanding about how to use social media effectively.

Number 1- Not investing in volunteers, held a number of reversals of opinion for me. At first I assumed he opposed investing in Volunteer management software, then I realized he meant not having volunteers at all. This seemed the most controversial of his points as reflected by the long and impassioned comments that followed. Hurst answered those objections with some research that supported his assertion that volunteer programs weren’t effective below about 50 people.

“When an organization reaches 50 volunteers AND achieves an effective volunteer management model, not only do they lead and manage their organizations better, but they are also significantly more adaptable (i.e., reflect the capacity to be a learning organization), sustainable and better resourced (i.e., have skills, knowledge, experience, tools, and other resources to do their work).”

On the other hand, the way I read it, a small number of volunteers, even poorly managed, help to leverage organizational effectiveness at lower budgets.

“Organizations with 10 to 50 volunteers, regardless of whether they are managed well, are statistically equally as “effective” as their counterparts without volunteers on all measures of organizational effectiveness (capacity), yet their average (median) annual budgets are almost half…This implies that organizations that break the barrier of 10 volunteers, regardless of whether they have figured out all of the best practices necessary to manage those volunteers, are equally as capacitated as their non-volunteer-based organizational peers, at perhaps just shy of half the cost…it is important to challenge the assumption that an organization cannot aspire to a more fully “volunteer-engaged” organizational model. Lastly, it is important to acknowledge the need to conduct further rigorous research to test the cause-and-effect assumption of this important finding.”

The other thing about the study Hurst cites is that it seems to be focused entirely on whether volunteers contribute to organizational effectiveness in executing their programs. It doesn’t seem to examine the role of volunteers in furthering organizational goals in terms of advocacy, awareness building and generally representing the organization to the community. If these factors are measured as part of some criteria, it is not clear.

Despite the doubts that one may harbor about whether all his points are well supported, there is some validity to Hurst’s essential idea that it may be worthwhile to assess whether the implementation of all those best practices everyone knows you need to be employing really provides the best return on investment. It is understandably difficult to be a confident skeptic in the face of widely recognized best practices, but these days it could contribute to long term survival.

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Thank You, Volunteers

Tech Soup had a tweet linking to a post on HandsOn blog post containing tips for writing thank you notes to volunteers. One of my initial reactions to some of the suggestions like writing the notes out by hand and writing drafts first, made me think that if we had time to do that, we wouldn’t need the volunteers in the first place. We actually do hand write our Christmas cards to volunteers and follow HandsOn’s tips about personalizing the message by acknowledging things they have done or contribute to our efforts. But that is a really long undertaking.

While thinking about adding writing a first draft to the process for every person makes me groan, they are correct that the more you write, the better you get and the easier it is. Also, thanking everyone by hand once a year like we do at Christmas does make the process onerous. Acknowledging people throughout the year as they provide great service breaks the effort up a bit more. It is probably more impressive to the volunteer when they receive a note out of the blue in the middle of April than at a traditional time like Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I have read many of the tips they offer before, though it is always helpful to be reminded. A tip they give that I have never really considered is the first one.

1) Focus on the volunteer.
Before you write the thank you note, try writing the volunteer’s address on the envelope and write it out by hand. As you’re writing their address, think about your relationship to the volunteer; think about where they’re living and how they’re serving. It will help you to write an individual message for that volunteer.

I think that addressing the envelop first and thinking about the volunteer is a good exercise for focusing your mind on what you want to say in the message. Often I will come to a person’s name on our list and my pen will sit poised over the paper as I try to recall all the contributions they have made. Addressing the envelop fills that time and can help you generate some thoughtful remarks as you think about them. The suggestion of thinking about where people are living intrigued me a little. I never really focused too much on that, but just thinking about the process of thinking of where my volunteers live reminded me that those who volunteered for the various organizations for which I have worked have been retirees living on fixed incomes and have invested a fair portion of their limited resources in travel and preparation for volunteering. Some of the best volunteers I have had were families in the lower income range where the parents were trying to instill the values one derives from volunteering.

As something of a corollary to this subject, the blog has a link in the right column to an Acrobat document, “The Nine Basic Rules for Volunteer Recognition.” It reiterates some of the same things about timing and degree of recognition.

1. Recognize . . . or else — The need for recognition is very important to most people. If volunteers do not get recognition for productive participation, it is likely that they will feel unappreciated and may stop volunteering with your program.

2. Give it frequently — Recognition has a short shelf life. Its effects start to wear off after a few days, and after several weeks of not hearing anything positive, volunteers start to wonder if they are appreciated. Giving recognition once a year at a recognition banquet is not enough.

3. Give it via a variety of methods — One of the implications of the previous rule is that you need a variety of methods of showing appreciation to volunteers.

4. Give it honestly — Don’t give praise unless you mean it. If you praise substandard performance, the praise you give to others for good work will not be valued. If a volunteer is performing poorly, you might be able to give him honest recognition for his effort or for some personality trait.

5. Recognize the person, not just the work — This is a subtle but important distinction. If volunteers organize a fund-raising event, for example, and you praise the event without mentioning who organized it, the volunteers may feel some resentment. Make sure you connect the volunteer’s name to it.

You will have to follow the link if you want the other 4 tips. The last tip reminded me of an embarrassing incident over 15 years ago when I was misquoted in a story about volunteers that made it sound like we used volunteers as cheap labor rather than that volunteers often provide a service which will often command a respectable wage. Thinking back on the incident and groaning a few years later, I realized it might have been better to focus more on what volunteers bring as individuals– mothering artists in the hospitality room, being as organized and motivational as a drill sergeant with a pleasant demeanor that made people forget how tired they were–rather than discussing them as a labor force. In many cases they are bringing the same passion for our cause as our employees are.

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