You will be moved when you read Elizabeth Lizberg’s guest post on our blog. First, you will be encouraged to know that programs like Camp Rainbow Gold exist, and that countless people have given of their time, talent and treasure to make the lives of people better. You also be challenged to read about what it takes to successfully lead the volunteer workforce that the program relies upon.
I have known Elizabeth for several years, and she embodies the leadership capabilities she writes about. What struck me, though, in her article was not what it takes to successfully lead volunteers, but how those same approaches could produce superior results in all types of organizations. As you read her article, think about treating your team members as volunteers and see what results it produces.
Will Work for Free: Valuing the Volunteers who Value Your Organization
By Elizabeth Lizberg
When I first started working for the American Cancer Society in 2007, directing its family and children services for Idaho, I knew right off the bat that I would be relying heavily on volunteers to get the job done. Part of my responsibility includes overseeing Camp Rainbow Gold, which started back in the 1980s as a week of camp for kids diagnosed with cancer. It’s exactly what you would imagine: caring, good-natured adults who are giving their valuable time and hearts to kids who really need a break from the rigors of all kinds of cancer, and the hospitals, treatments, stress and fear that come with it.
In twenty-nine years, that notion has grown exponentially. Camp Rainbow Gold is a year-round program that offers oncology camps, sibling camp, family camp, a scholarship program, support groups and a whole host of events like ski trips or getting together to watch a professional sports game. Every facet of it is free to the families, and everything we do is fueled by volunteers. The volunteers aren’t just the ones who wear the camp shirts and whistles and go on nature hikes and horseback rides with the kids. There are attorneys, social workers, doctors and graphic designers. There are others who are happy to do the not-so-glamorous tasks, be it stuffing letters or cleaning up after a sticky ice-cream party.
When I heard I was inheriting 500 volunteers, my gut reaction was an adrenaline-producing mix of enthusiasm and being overwhelmed. It reminds me of when I got my first ten-speed bike as a kid. I knew it was going to be a great way to take me places a lot faster, but what in the heck was I supposed to do with all those gears? It didn’t take long to learn by asking around and making a handful of trial-and-error trips. But eventually, I got there.
My experience leading volunteers is much the same way. And through it all, I’ve learned three key things that I think everyone who is leading a team of volunteers should know.
Make sense of the masses. Although I would love to, I just can’t meet and know every volunteer. And even if I do have the good fortune of meeting each one in person, I still lack the ability to really learn every potential these incredibly giving people possess.
What I can do, though, is make a promise to develop strong relationships with a small number of volunteers whose backgrounds are diverse. For example, an advisory council that is carefully comprised of key community members each have their own networks in different niches in the community. They bring a wealth of knowledge in a variety of different fields. They’re marketing executives and attorneys, physicians and philanthropists. Together, we know a lot of people and what these people do well. As I make a commitment to know this advisory council and other volunteers, they have the same commitment. Collectively, we are able to understand how we can leverage our volunteers and can serve as an effective conduit to get needs met effectively and in a timely fashion.
Reward beyond a paycheck. I am humbled every day by the countless hours our volunteers contribute to the overall success off the Camp Rainbow Gold Program. We simply cannot survive without them. And with them, hundreds of children get experiences of a lifetime. These people give their time, knowledge and work, expecting nothing in return. No paychecks. No company benefits. No retirement plan.
The selflessness is astounding, but that kind of spirit needs — and deserves — reward. That good nature needs nurtured. Here are three ways I find to keep a volunteer group fueled and rewarded:
1) Praise. Take the time to say thank you. Connect on a personal level to show gratitude.
2) Look for vision from the volunteers. Ultimately, a volunteer-driven program needs the vision of the volunteers to thrive. Ask the volunteers what they think will help the overall goal of the organization. Consider their ideas — big and small, short- and long-term — and put them into motion. As volunteers see their personal and collective vision come to life, the reward and satisfaction follow.
3) Make each minute matter. Sometimes the best reward and motivation to keep volunteers happy to volunteer again is by making their donated time matter. Don’t ask for volunteers to show up to a charity event and not have something for them to do.
Give and take. While volunteers willingly demonstrate their desire to see their charity or program of choice flourish, how often do you see solid examples of reciprocation? They are investing in our future, and it’s important to invest in theirs.
Camp Rainbow Gold has plans in the works for a possible leadership program and other avenues of educational growth for our volunteer base. I am thrilled and honored to be a part of this. Just as Camp Rainbow Gold has goals, we know that each volunteer has personal goals, too. I would love to know that we have helped our volunteers thrive as leaders, learn new skills and garner knowledge that benefits them and the entire community around them.
The privilege of leading a large group of volunteers is among the most rewarding things I do. Seeing our program grow, the children we serve have their lives enriched, and the volunteers get fueled by their visions coming to life is, well, why I’m here. I believe in what we do, and I believe in our volunteers. And that ultimately is what anyone needs to lead.