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Session Notes: Points of Light Conference on Volunteering and Service

This is part of a series of Session Notes from grantees who have received Professional Development grants from the Office of Commonwealth Libraries. Each grantee will share their professional development experience and include tips and other resources from the workshop or class. Grantees had their choice of an article for the Compendium, a webinar or a podcast. This project was made possible by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Susan Walraed photo
Susan Walraed

by Susan Walraed,
Coordinator of Volunteer Services,
Chester County Library/Henrietta Hankin Branch Library

Thanks to a generous LSTA Professional Development grant, I was able to attend the Conference on Volunteering and Service in Seattle WA presented by Points of Light on June 19 -21.

Points of Light is dedicated to furthering volunteerism in the United States and thirty-six countries throughout the world. It is committed to advancing programs associated with social justice, higher education, the business tract, all through connectivity and volunteerism. Both nonprofits and for profit organizations are deeply involved in the work to improve the plight of under-served citizens here and beyond our borders.

Monday started with a one woman performance by actress Tara Ochs. Tara played the part of Viola Liuzzo in the feature film Selma. Viola was the only white woman murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1965 in the aftermath of the Selma to Montgomery marches.  Ochs developed her one woman show describing the events leading to the Liuzzo killing.  And so the conference kicks off with the theme of social justice and inequality.

The Service Unites Summit introduced the theme of volunteerism in all walks of life with stories of helping and being helped, and the benefits at either end of the spectrum.  This was a pep rally that got everyone ready for new ideas on how to improve and change our own home territory. Nonprofits of all sizes and shapes are motivated just like libraries, to impact communities through wellness, education and resilience. We are all fortified and inspired by volunteers in service.  It behooves Volunteer Coordinators such as me to do everything in our power to preserve and create new opportunities for citizen service in our communities.  I have seen the benefits of volunteerism up close and it gives me joy to oversee such a program.

I attended sessions intended to equip Volunteer Managers with the tools to recruit, retain and manage volunteers at all levels.  My main focus was to learn how I can interest millennials in library service.  I learned that it can be done but it won’t be easy in a library environment. Libraries have many routine volunteer positions that are a perfect fit for some but not for this new, young generation.  Millennials are drawn to programs where they see an immediate impact and not an ongoing result.  To that end, short term projects fit the bill.  I came home with ideas for new position descriptions directed at this group in areas such as our new Digital Media Lab/MakerSpace and in our Public Relations.  I think this talented group of young people in the correct positions in service to libraries can advocate and promote libraries to their own demographic group. The millennial generation is not the generation that will stay with us forever; they are the generation who will move about looking for short term projects to share their talent, see the result and continue on to another project. They are drawn to community building and innovation.

One speaker talked about the Three C’s of Happy Volunteers, Comfort, Convenience and Connection.  Of course, this was not a new concept but the speaker presented different avenues to accomplish these goals. Volunteers must feel safe in their environment and at ease with the staff with whom they are working.  We cannot just train and walk away.  Would we do that to hired staff?   Volunteers often fit service into their busy schedules; it is not always at the top of the list.  It is imperative for us to be flexible.  They want to feel a connection, to feel a part of the bigger picture.  These three words may seem small and insignificant on their own but they represent a huge part of the volunteers’ buy in to the mission of the library and their personal payback reason and why they stay.  It can be the feeling of belonging, a thing as small as a thank you, a chance to learn, or a place to share what they know.

Inviting volunteers to attend in-house training where they have an interest was a great suggestion.  The cost would be minimal and the return could be significant. It could foster a feeling of belonging and learning.  Virtual volunteers can also feel connected with something as simple as a weekly phone call.  These are all small gestures that can easily be combined with accepted gestures of appreciation such as awards, lunches, a shout out wall of fame for an extra special volunteer who went above and beyond, and the ever popular and highly appreciated thank you note.  I quote presenter Dana Litwin, “Every interaction with a volunteer is an invitation to stay or an invitation to go.”

Another issue, always on my mind is selling the idea of volunteers to staff and helping them to realize that volunteers are not threatening but are here to make our jobs easier.  This is why it is so important to place the right volunteer for a project or position, or to have no volunteer – than to place the wrong volunteer.  Of course, mistakes are always made but it behooves the Volunteer Coordinator to take the time to recruit and place the right people for different positions. Selling staff on taking the time to train a volunteer will give them time in the long run to do other work.  Staff engagement is the key.

Volunteers help us deliver our services; they are a window to the community, our advocates and they share skills that we don’t have.  Why wouldn’t we love volunteers? We have Volunteer Supervisors at Chester County Library who support me at every turn.  Recognizing them for their service to volunteers is also an important component of success.  Supervising volunteers is not usually the norm in a staff job description.  I have always believed and heard over and over again at the conference that this supervision should be part of the job description to insure success in a volunteer program.

It’s important to ask, do we employ good screening practices?  Do we maintain open communication with our volunteers?  Do we train them?  Do they trust us? Do we listen to them?  Do we respect them?  Do we show them appreciation?  Do we offer them new volunteer opportunities? Can we build a volunteer path for moving up to volunteer positions that represent change or new learning? If we can answer yes to all or most of these questions, we are operating at a high level on the Great Library Volunteer Programs scale.

In the end I learned new ways to keep volunteers, possibilities for new positions, and I believe I am better prepared to build experiences for staff and volunteers that will serve to promote retention and understanding among everyone.  Thank you to LSTA and Commonwealth Libraries for providing this worthwhile and enjoyable opportunity.

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