Aug 20

Farmers & Chefs: What leaders of volunteers are and what they’re not

By Erin Spink | Thought Leadership

I’m much slower than others in summing up my reactions and takeaways from the 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership that took place at the end of July in Minnesota. I echo all the positive feedback already shared- it was an energizing and inspiring gathering of peers, with solid learning and hope for the future of the Volunteer Engagement profession.

Reflecting on what unique perspective I could add on the conference though, is one piece that I found concerning at the conference: language. I heard many delegates refer to it as the conference on “volunteering”, or talk about our role in “volunteerism”. It wasn’t and it’s not.

For me, the relationship leaders of volunteers can and should have to volunteerism and volunteering is that of a chef to a farmer. Volunteer Centres, schools, community service programs and other places, like faith communities, where sharing your time and talents with others are instilled, learned and encouraged are the critical farmers, growing the produce- volunteers. Like all good chefs, our role is to take that produce and find where it shines best in support of advancing our organization’s mission.

Should there be a relationship between farmers and chefs? Absolutely! Is there an impact to each other when for example, chefs waste produce’s time or enthusiasm- of course. It makes it harder for the farmers to continue growing bountiful crops. Effective volunteer engagement is a perfect example of the farm-to-table philosophy, where the chefs work closely with farmers to grow and utilize the best crop possible, recognizing that we are interdependent on one another and anything that diminishes either the growth or the application of the crop weakens the whole ecosystem.

Clearly I’ve taken this analogy of farmers and chefs to an extreme, but I do think it can be a helpful way of framing the dynamic between promotion of volunteerism and the practice of volunteer engagement. What do you think?

Jun 27

Let’s check our VEgos: we can’t take all the credit or the blame

By Erin Spink | Uncategorized

There’s a saying that parents can take neither all the credit, nor all the blame for how their children turn out. Removing the parental references, I believe the same concept applies to Volunteer Engagement (VE) professionals with volunteers.

Let’s face it, few of us would argue we have enough leverage, influence and autonomy in our organizations that we can fully control how a volunteer’s experience really turns out in an organization. But neither should we ignore or deny that we are able to help set a strong course for an organizational culture that values volunteers. The biggest obstacle I’ve observed is ourselves.

Clearly, that won’t be a popular sentiment, and it’s not in any way an absolute truism. What I hear consistently, however, from peers is a struggle to present the value of volunteers to upper management and to have volunteers’ role and ours recognized. It’s a fascinating paradox that we are at once both central yet removed from directly impacting the quality of a volunteer’s experience if we are skillfully performing our jobs. That kind of complexity and nuance doesn’t fit well in an ego’s duality of credit or blame.

To say we don’t have enough influence is not the same as saying we have none. Smart Volunteer Engagement professionals mine their sources of power and grow them strategically, not as an exercise in self-congratulations, but as a means to an end. As our influence grows, we have more power in shaping volunteer experiences than if we were the direct staff partner, because we are changing the culture, dynamics and framing of volunteer involvement for all.

So let’s be a little less quick to take credit when a volunteer has a great experience and instead take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves what more we can be doing to help our organizations deliver on better quality volunteer experiences.

May 06

Leaders of Tomorrow and other Time Lord biases

By Erin Spink | Uncategorized

I’m not a generational expert, I’m not even an expert on my own generation. For that matter, I don’t even watch Doctor Who regularly. But it’s been increasingly rubbing me the wrong way when I hear youth positioned as ‘leaders of tomorrow’ as it clearly implies they’re not leaders right now.

I’ve spent a lot of time, money and energy studying leadership and one thing I can say with confidence is that it’s always a work in progress. Am I a more competent leader today than I was 10 years ago? Yes, I believe so. Does time provide unique perspectives and experiences that cannot be gained otherwise? Yes to that as well. However, inferring that time magically bestows on us increased competency and wisdom is false. There are people working in jobs for 20 years who have not grown or developed and there are people who have only lived 20 years who have maturity or talent that time will only enhance.

Leadership isn’t about title, it’s about influence. That’s only one of the reasons I’ve been advocating and encouraging Volunteer Engagement professionals to consider themselves as leaders for years. If Volunteer Engagement is about identifying where people shine and helping them use those talents in a way that advances your organization’s mission, then are we saying youth are a light bulb not yet at full wattage? I don’t think anyone in the profession would say so, but we are covertly thinking and acting as if it’s so when we position youth as leaders of tomorrow.

Let’s move away from our Time Lord bias of treating youth as ‘leaders of tomorrow’ and focus on the leaders they are- and we are today. That’s a tomorrow worth building.