Firestorm Forums

Have you ever been on an online forum, sharing words of wisdom with fellow business owners, vacation goers, cooks, surfers… or what ever the focus of the forum is… and suddenly you realize that the discussion has gotten out of control?

Sedona 2011 statue of painUsually what happens is some topic hits a nerve for at least one of the participants.  They see RED!  They can’t understand why the others do not understand the underlying issues (as they are convinced them to be) and feel compelled to write responses to push their idea on the others.

Next, others who may think of themselves as the voice of reason, or maybe they have a totally opposite point of view, get in front of their keyboards and click out a reply.  The first person then usually reiterates their viewpoint, only taking up more space to do so, and feel they have gotten their point across.

Not so.  Others chime in and on and on it goes.

I am not on a lot of forums, but I would say that everyone that I am on has at some point taken a momentary turn for the worse.  What is it about the forum format that pushes people into putting their ideas out onto an exposed forum and why does it get out of control?

First, I think that we feel that when we are on a forum, we are amongst like minded comrades.  If we are all interested in the topic and helping each other through participation in the forum, then we must all think alike, no?  NO.

Next, this is not a discussion where you can see the other person’s face, their body language, and hear the tone of their voice.  When we talk in person, we get immediate feedback from the other person as we are talking and as we are listening.  We know how to moderate our responses when we see that we are hurting someone else, if they are dead set against hearing our point of view, or if they are receptive to even one little point that we just made.

When we are chatting via keyboard and screen, it just gets thrown out there, we feel better that we have said our piece, and had a chance to be heard.  Many times we are just stunned that someone has joined the conversation and started picking on us.  What?  We were the voice of reason and suddenly someone has pulled us into the fray and torn us apart.

At this point people either recognize that the conversation is not going to be productive, or they get fired up and throw out another comment.  It is like watching an accident happen.

So what do we do short of divorcing ourselves from all forums?

Participate in forums that you feel give you support or that you can help others.  If you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a fire storm, recognize it for what it is… a discussion that is not going to have an agreed upon conclusion.  Don’t be offended if someone starts to pick on you… just back out.  That person has some issues that are not yours to deal with.  Or, if you see a discussion that is out of control and you have not put in your 2 cents… DON’T.  Just move on.  Getting yourself all worked up and in the middle of the fray will not make you feel better.  I can practically guarantee that no one comes out of these discussions feeling triumphant.

Solving big problems takes talking, listening, and compassion.  I am not so sure that this is all available when we are in the forum setting.  Take the setting for what it is worth.

PS – I realize that I am sitting at my keyboard, just spewing out information with no one to challenge what I am writing (at the time of the writing).  Yes, I see the irony.

How to Be a Good Volunteer

Volunteers - Stony PointI just got back from 4 days of volunteering to install windows in a new building.  I had no idea of how to do this or how I was going to be able to be useful.  The great news is that with a team of 6 volunteers and three professionals, we installed 25 windows in our time there.  Yes, I feel great about it.  I look forward to volunteering for this organization again.

One of the side benefits of this week is that I got to observe my own behavior and that of others as volunteers.  It made me think about what it is that makes a good volunteer:  someone who not only enjoys their own time, but also helps to make the event an enjoyable one for the other volunteers.  After all, the goal is to have everyone wanting to come back another time to contribute.

Here are some of the things you can be aware of when you are ‘on the job’:

  • There are lots of ‘cool’ jobs and lots of ‘dirty’ jobs.  All of them have to be done.  It is not fun if you are getting stuck with all of the dirty jobs.  It is also not fair if you seem to have all of the fun jobs.  A good volunteer is aware of sharing the load.  If you see someone always getting the boring tasks, take a moment and offer to change places with them for a while.  If you see someone with a job you would like to try, speak up!  Ask them if there will be a time that you can try some of the fun work.
  • Do a good job.  Just because you are volunteering doesn’t mean that the work does not have to be done correctly.  If you are not competent to do a task, ask for training, ask for assistance, or ask for another job.  Sloppy work is not appreciated by anyone.  Volunteers want to be proud of what they have accomplished.
  • Chill out!  There may be times when there doesn’t seem to be something for you to do.  Take a break and rest.  Going over to others and taking their job away from them, just because you are bored does not make volunteers feel competent and useful.  After you have rested, ask the coordinator how you can help or look around and see what needs to be done.
  • Show up on time and make sure someone else always knows where you are.  “Disappearing volunteers” is not a good thing.  It makes people worry about them.  Are they OK?  Are they coming back?  Can we give their job to someone else?  Simple communication solves all of these problems.
  • Defer to the volunteer coordinator or project head.  You may think that you know a better way to do things, but you do not know the whole picture.  Suggestions are appropriate, but the final decision goes with the boss.
  • When working in teams, make sure to communicate.  Get everyone working in the same direction and don’t take bumps in the road personally.  Keep it light and remember that the goal is to get the job done (not necessarily to be ‘right’).

A well run volunteer project is about getting the job done well and safely.  It is also about having the volunteers feel useful and accomplished at the end of the day.  Everybody wins this way and you have people ready to help with the next task, whenever that may be.  Strive to be the volunteer that makes the project great, not the one that makes it miserable for the rest.  As a volunteer, step up and carry some of the responsibility for creating a great experience for all.




Managing Volunteers – Part 3 – The Volunteer Board of Directors

Organizations that are governed by a volunteer based Board of Directors have their own brand of ‘volunteer issues’.   In previous postings we talked about organizations with Volunteer Labor.  Here we will discuss volunteer Board Members, what makes them tick, and how to create an environment that attracts and keeps your most valuable players.

Why do people volunteer to be on a Board of Directors?

There are various reasons why people will volunteer to be on a board of directors for an organization.   Boards are a long time commitment.  It is not like volunteering to collect tickets for 2 hours at the school play.  Most people can do that without a really strong commitment to the organization.  Board members believe in the purpose of the organization and what it is there to accomplish.  They are therefore willing to make the time commitment required.

Given that they believe in the purpose of an organization, what else drives them to commit their time and energy to a particular board of directors?  There are various reasons.  Some are good and some of them are not.  Here are some to look for when choosing new board members:

1.  They feel that they have a talent to contribute to the board.  A strong Board is made up of individuals who have various talents which complement each other.  Once the member is on the Board, ensure that they are given the opportunity to use their strengths.  It makes the member feel needed and that they are using their time in a way that is useful.

2.  They want to see the organization move forward based on their own concept of how things should work.  This can be a double edged sword.  Bringing change to an organization can help the organization to move forward and grow.  It can also bring disruption and chaos.  If someone is presenting ideas of change and upheaval before they are nominated, consider carefully if this is just the change you have been looking for, if you are ready for it, or if there might be a better candidate for your board at this time.

3.  It looks great on their resume.  Watch out for this one.  All Board members need to contribute.  Just being on the Board does not help.  All Board members need to contribute something in the form of ideas and action.

4.  It gives them high profile exposure to more people.  This only works in favor of the member if they are able to showcase their talent.  If all they do is sit on the board and do not contribute, their exposure will highlight their weaknesses instead of their strengths.

A bit of advice to those who are looking to join a Board of Directors:  Make sure you are dedicated to the cause, and be prepared to put in time, energy, and talent over the course of your tenure on the Board.  If this doesn’t sound like something you can commit to, then do the organization a favor and let someone else fill the seat.

How do you attract and retain quality board members?

1.  It is essential that the purpose of the organization is clear.  Don’t assume that everyone knows what the organization or the board is there to accomplish and its reason for existence.  People get their own ideas about what they think an organization should be doing.  Make sure that the board members are crystal clear about the purpose of the organization.  If they have other ideas, goals, or ambitions, then they need to find a different organization that will fulfill those ideals for them.

A clear purpose helps to set boundaries within which to work.  Setting boundaries for an organization does not mean inhibiting creativity or new ideas.  These are certainly welcome and essential to moving things forward.   The boundaries ensure that the purpose of the organization is being fulfilled.  They help the board to decide if new ideas are helping them to further their purpose or if they are getting outside of what they are chartered to accomplish.

2.  Accomplishments are well defined and easy to describe.  When volunteering time, people want to know that they are helping to make a difference.  Don’t assume that everyone can see what has been accomplished over the past month, quarter, or year.  Knowing the goals for the future allows people to see how they are going to contribute.  It keeps them interested and involved in the organization.

3.   Respect the time of all board members.  Most board members are busy people.  They typically have a ‘day job’, whether it be business related or raising a family.  They have taken their time away from their family to dedicate time for a cause.  It is important to respect their time.  How do you do this?

    • Have an agenda for every meeting.
    • Start the board meetings on time.
    • Stay on track.
    • If there is no apparent reason for the meeting, then don’t meet OR, make the meeting about figuring out what else the board can be doing to improve the organization.
    • Have tele-meetings when appropriate.  Only have one or two issues to discuss or vote on?  Consider meeting via the phone lines.

4.  Ensure that the Bylaws are clear and Understood by all members.  The bylaws are there to give the organization direction and boundaries within which to function.  It is important that all members of the board have read the bylaws and understand how they guide the organization.  Disagreeing with the bylaws and going off and doing things outside of them is not an option.  Board members that disagree with the bylaws are probably not good candidates for the board.  A good member who sees where a change could benefit the organization needs to go through the process of getting an official change made to the bylaws (this process should be stated in the bylaws).

Volunteers on a Board of directors will continue to serve when everyone is working together.  Following the bylaws means that everyone knows the boundaries within which to work.  Good members will leave a board if things start to run in a loose and undirected fashion.

How do you create a board where everyone is sharing responsibility? 

Have you ever been on a board where a couple of people end up doing most of the work and others seem to not be contributing?  I have seen this far too often.  Why does this happen?  Here are some things to look at:

1.  One or two people are more extraverted and ready to jump in to volunteer before the others get a chance to even think about it.  If this seems to be the case, those that are doing all of the work need to take a step back and consider how their behavior may be impacting the ability of others to contribute.  Remember, we all have different ways of viewing the world and responding to it.  Others may need more time to understand a situation or to know whether a task is suitable to their talents.  They may even need to be asked to take on a particular task or if they can do it with the help of another.

2.  Know the talents and gifts of your board members.  People like to contribute from their strengths.  Don’t expect everyone to be happy about doing every task that comes along.  Figure out their strengths and what they enjoy doing.  Make sure they are aware of a task that comes along that they would enjoy taking on.

3.  Choose and recruit your board members wisely.  Look at the talents that are missing on the up-coming board and seek out someone who can bring that to your board.  Having a whole board of people good with numbers will not move your group forward.  Neither will one filled with visionaries or sales people.   You need a balance of many talents to form a really strong board.

If you find yourself saying, “But, but, but… I had to do it.  No one else was stepping up to the plate.” Consider this:

Why would people volunteer to be on a board and then not want to contribute?  If they truly just want to show up to be seen, then you have the wrong person on your board.  It is a privilege to be on a board.  If you are in a situation where you are begging people to be on your board instead of choosing those that would benefit the organization, then there is a more serious core problem. Go back to some basics, as outlined in the section about “Why do people volunteer”.  See if any of these points sparks something in you that could be of help.

Consider a special board ‘retreat’ to focus on the board and how it functions.  This is about the board, not about the organization.  It is a time to be honest with the other board members and to express what is working and what is not working.  It is a good time to see how to strengthen the board as an organization.  I highly recommend that you bring in an outside person to facilitate the discussion and to help you to set up an agenda and expectations ahead of time.

Summary – Part Two

Volunteer Boards can be very rewarding.  Realizing that volunteers usually contribute with different standards than paid members is important to setting up a successful board.  Having the structure of a clearly defined purpose and a good set of by-laws is your first step to success.  Utilizing the talents of your members not only makes the volunteer happy, but it also benefits the organization.  Finding the balance between structure and allowing each member to contribute their gifts is the key to turning your board from good to great.

If you have been a volunteer yourself you can probably relate to the concepts brought out in this series of blog posts.  Whether looking to recruit volunteers to help you, or looking to improve your board of directors, there are a few things that seem to be common to volunteers:

They want to make a difference

They want their time and talents to be respected

They want to be appreciated

Establishing an environment to satisfy these three things is the key to running a successful volunteer organization.

Managing Volunteers – Part 2 – The Role of the Volunteer Coordinator

Volunteers!  Take an employee and put them in a volunteer situation and you have a whole different persona to deal with.  In this series of postings we are taking a look at what makes volunteers tick, what motivates them, and how you can create an environment that allows your volunteers and your organization to shine.

The previous posting was about Why People Volunteer.  In this post we will address the role of the Volunteer Coordinator.

The volunteer coordinator should be someone who is organized, can lead people, and has a special talent for being kind and courteous to every volunteer.  They need to know how to delegate and share their plan with others.  There should be plenty of people to get the work done.  The coordinator’s job is to coordinate the workers, not to do the work themselves.

1.     Set Appropriate Expectations for Time Commitments

Clock - what everWhat typically happens in a volunteer situation is that a couple of people end up doing almost all of the work, almost all of the time.  When others are looking to volunteer, they take a look at the situation and see that volunteering clearly means putting in a ton of time and effort, as that is the example they see.  Most are not ready to jump in with both feet and make a huge time commitment.  They can’t see that there might be other ways to volunteer and still be useful.

Although there are those that want to be a part of the organization by giving consistently and often, I have found that most people are willing to give of their time and talent, as long as it is more or less on their terms.  What does that mean?  It means that they get to decide if a particular opportunity fits their schedule.  They don’t want to be committed to every week, every month, or (heaven forbid) every day.  They want to have the flexibility to go away on vacation, see the kids in a play, sleep late, or simply not be ‘working’ during an event.  If you ask them to commit long term, they will head for the hills, and you will lose your largest pool of people to ask for help.

It is important to make it clear that there are many ways to help and not all of them require large commitments of time.  If you present an opportunity to a prospective volunteer with clear boundaries and expectations, they can decide if they want to accept it.  It is better to say, “We need someone to help us on Thursday between 1 and 2 to clean up after the lunch” than to say, “Would you like to help out with the annual lunch?”  By being specific, the prospective volunteer knows how long it will take, when they need to be there, and what they will be doing.  If they are willing to do more than you ask, they will let you know.

2.     Provide a Framework

Putting together a plan ensures that you know how many people you need for each task, what the numerous tasks will be and how long they will take.  A plan is also something that can be shared with others.  It makes an event or day to day operation run smoothly.  Volunteers like to know where they fit into the big picture.  They like to know what is theirs to do.

There are plenty of events that are run on the most minimal of a plan.  The better that plan, the better your chances are of not only having a successful event, but of getting your volunteers to come back again next time.

3.     Create a schedule and be ready to adjust it as needed

As the volunteer coordinator, you may find yourself saying, “Darn those volunteers!   If they would just sign up for a consistent time over the next year, my job would be so much easier.”  Yes, it would, but this rarely happens.  It is your job to ensure that all time slots are filled with volunteers.  This entails coordinating the volunteer talents with the needs of the activity.  It is also your job to continually check in with the volunteers to ensure that they are still happy with the job that they have volunteered to do.  Don’t let a volunteer burn out and suddenly quit.  Discovering that a volunteer is unhappy working every week gives you an opportunity to reduce their schedule and at least be able to utilize some of their time and talent.

Some volunteers like to work consistently and often.  Others are only willing to give time on a sporadic basis.  Be flexible with your schedule and with your requests to prospective volunteers.  I remember when my elderly mother took on the job of scheduling volunteers for her church thrift store.  She had a huge calendar on the dining room table and her job was to make sure that the store had coverage each day that they were open.  She knew that she had to have 2 volunteers for each time slot.  The best part was that many of the ladies liked to work a consistent schedule.  They knew that Thursday afternoon, for instance, they would get to go to the thrift store, work the cash register, and talk to whomever was there.

But… my mother could not assume that they would be available every week.  Two weeks before the beginning of a month, she would call every volunteer and verify that they could make their commitment for the following month.  There was always a slot that had to be filled with a ‘stand-in’.  This is where the opportunities were for those that wanted to give, but did not want to make a full time commitment.  By asking, “Would you be able to work on Thursday, the 2nd, between 10 and noon?”  the potential volunteer was able to see that it was a one time commitment, there were no other strings attached, and that they were truly helping out… not by just the work they would be doing, but they were also pulling the store out of a jam.  The volunteer also had the option to say, “No, I can’t do it this time, but please keep me on your list and call again.”

Putting together a schedule of tasks and time slots is your first job.  It is also an on-going job.  As needs change, as lessons are learned, as the talent pool shifts, the schedule needs constant tweaking.  Make sure to keep your eye on the needs of the organization and the needs of the volunteers.  Always be aware of how to have them working together.

Thank You4.     You can never thank them enough!

As Volunteer Coordinator, you are in charge of ensuring that the volunteers are shown appreciation.  If you have a lot of volunteers and cannot personally talk with each one, then it is your job to assign others the job of appreciation.  I have addressed appreciation In the previous blog posting.  The important point here is to know that it is your responsibility to see that the Thank You’s are indeed given out in an authentic way.



5.     Managing the process and the results

Happy volunteers and well-oiled organizations don’t just happen.  There is a lot of thought, process, and structure that gets put into having this happen.  As the manager of the volunteers, you need to ensure that:

Jobs are well defined.  The volunteer understands what they are being asked to do.  They know when to show up, when they can leave, and are trained to perform their duties.

Volunteers are communicated with before they show up for work.  This way they know when to come, where to report, how to dress, what to bring with them and what they are expected to do.

A point of contact is assigned.  When volunteers are uncertain about how to handle an unexpected situation, they need to know who to contact.  Make sure that it is clear who their contact is and how to reach them.

Appreciation is built into the project plan (for one-time events).  This typically happens after the event is over.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that the job is over at the end of the event.  You can have your Thank You’s ready to go before hand, but they need to be mailed or distributed after the volunteer work is completed.

6.     Coordinating with others in the organization

Volunteers span many areas of an event or organization.  As the coordinator, you will be interacting with people who are in charge of their own little part of the organization.  It is important that you understand what kind of volunteer help they need and when they need it.

If you are really organized, you can give the other leaders a structure within which to request volunteer help.  The easier you make it for them to get what they want, the easier it is to fill the volunteer opportunities and to make everything look smooth and easy.

Working with Volunteer Labor is not just about having them volunteer once, but it is about how to have a staff that is happy to be there, contributing to the organization, and wanting to volunteer over and over again.  As Volunteer Coordinator you have the ability to make that happen.

In the next post, we will address the topic of Volunteer Board of Directors.


Managing Volunteers – Why People Volunteer

Volunteers!  Take an employee and put them in a volunteer situation and you have a whole different persona to deal with.  This article is designed to look at what makes volunteers tick, what motivates them, and how you can create an environment that allows your volunteers and your organization to shine.

In this posting we will address the organization with “Volunteer Labor”.   In other words, the leaders of the organization are looking for the help of volunteers.  Without this volunteer labor, the organization will not function.

Part One – Volunteer Help – Ongoing Labor that makes an Organization Function

Helping HandThere are many organizations or events that count on the contribution of time and talent of volunteers in order to function.  They are unpaid labor.  They put in their time at the thrift store, the church, the 5-K Run, the charity fundraising dinner.  These are typically non-profit organizations who count on a community of volunteers to keep them running and serving their cause.

Our volunteers are so important, yet I remember talking to the Volunteer Coordinator at my church.   She told me that every time people saw her approaching them, they looked down at the ground and scooted away in the opposite direction.  They assumed that she was going to ask them to do something. To volunteer!

People are not opposed to volunteering and helping out.  Some are even seeking out volunteer opportunities.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, as the volunteer coordinator, people sought you out to ask what could be done, instead of avoiding you?  How do you get to be the ‘go to’ person, instead of a pariah?  Here are a few things to look at and consider for your organization.

Why People Volunteer

What’s in it for volunteers?  Why do they want to give freely of their time?  If we know this, then we can look at our organization and structure it so that we provide the environment, structure and rewards that volunteers are looking for (whether they know it or not).

  1. Volunteers want to see that through their actions, they have contributed to the purpose, mission, or goals of the organization.  It can be as simple as directing people on where to park at an event or as complex as running the sound system for a charity dinner.   If at the end of their shift they can realize that without them, things would have been confusing, chaotic, not brought in as much money or that they helped even one person, then they feel good about their contribution and are willing to do it again another day.
  2. Volunteers want to have their time well utilized.  Creating a framework and structure for your event or on-going work allows volunteers to know where they fit in, where they are supposed to be and when, and what they are being asked to do.  They hate getting up at 5:00 on a Saturday morning, to arrive on time at 7:00 only to find out that no one knows where they will be working, what they will be doing, or when they will get started.  Most don’t appreciate hanging out with coffee and donuts until someone “in the know” gets a moment to handle the volunteers.
  3. Volunteers want to feel that their contribution is necessary.  Showing up at an event and seeing that there are more than enough volunteers to accomplish the job does not make them happy.  If they had known that they weren’t really ‘needed’, they could have slept in or gone golfing.  Trying to get them to volunteer for something else at another time will be very difficult.
  4. Volunteers like to be thanked.  Yes, it is pretty simple.  Say Thank You.  Not just once, but multiple times while they are working.  For one time events, make sure to send out a Thank You card or letter afterwards.  The more personal, the better.  Knowing that someone appreciates their time and contribution goes a long way to having them volunteer again.  If it is an on-going schedule of volunteer opportunities, make sure to send periodic, personalized Thank You notes.  This ensures them that you do not take them for granted and realize that without them the organization could not function.  The group ‘form letter’ thanking the volunteers seems like a good idea, but I have found it to mean very little to the recipient.  They are just bunched in with everyone else and the true appreciation is not felt.  Annual appreciation luncheons or dinners are also great if you make sure that each volunteer is addressed personally at some point during the event.  Make sure that the person thanking them knows a little about how they contribute and can at least say one thing about how that helps the organization.

The first step in running a successful volunteer organization is to know why people volunteer.  Can you look at some of your volunteer experiences and see why you either felt fulfilled or like you would never volunteer there again?

In the next blog posting, we will discuss the role of the Volunteer Coordinator and how they can establish an enviroment that has the volunteers wanting to come back over and over again.