Posted By: Elisa Kosarin

It’s leaders of volunteers who forge the heart-centered connections to nonprofit brands

You may have noticed that I like to feature volunteer managers in my posts. These colleagues have mastered a practice or innovated in a way that’s worth sharing with the tribe.

That’s why I featured CVA Heather Lother a few months back. Heather talked about what it’s like to lead a stand-alone volunteer engagement department as Senior Director of Engagement. She had some great insights into what’s possible when you sit on your organization’s senior team.

We need to hear from peers like Heather. Her experience expands our view of what’s achievable in our profession.

I’ve come to realize, though, that I’m doing a disserve to readers by focusing solely on volunteer managers.  There are other perspectives that matter – including the outlook of our nonprofit leaders. The value that they place on volunteer engagement puts our work into context, framing it against the organization’s over-arching goals.

So this month I picked up the phone and spoke with Heather’s boss. That would be Paige Stephenson, President & Chief Executive Officer of United Way of the Piedmont. I asked Paige what it meant to her to have volunteer engagement as a stand-alone department, with its director sitting on the senior team.

For Paige, the input of her Director of Senior Engagement is much more than a value-add – it’s essential for realizing the strategic goals of the organization.

This is especially true when it comes to branding.

Paige Stephenson, President & CEO of United Way of the Piedmont

“I was not CEO when volunteer engagement became its own department,” Paige explained, “but I supported the shift because it brought us more in line with our three strategies for growth – ‘give, advocate, and volunteer.’ At the time, only two of those three strategies were represented on our senior team. We could not create a clear brand experience without articulating all three strategies.”

For Paige, volunteer management’s strategic role is in forging community ties and deepening the emotional connection to the organization’s work.

“If you think about the strongest brands that are out there, she continued, “there is always a heart connection. That’s what engagement directors facilitate. They are creating that brand experience for the individual and sharing the brand message with corporations and the community.

“Having a consistent brand experience also means that we standardize that experience, Paige observed. “Again, this is an area where we depend on volunteer engagement to create an equal, high quality experience for every volunteer who works with us.  That includes our corporate volunteers, our board and committee members, and our individual volunteers.

Paige recognized that this level of relationship-building required a deeper investment in the volunteer program. While the strategic plan placed a priority on increasing corporate engagement, there was no one entirely tasked with that goal. Carly Burns was hired as a Corporate Engagement Associate, working under Heather, to build relationships with employees and their corporations.

“We know that strong corporate relationships run both ways. Paige added. “While we may receive a donation, it’s equally important that we add value for the corporation. Heather and Carly have been trained in Human-Centered Design, which means that they ask new volunteer groups a lot of questions, such as ‘What are you looking for? What kind of experience do you want to have for your employees?’ It’s this level of customization that leads to a quality volunteer experience.”

Having greater intentionality around volunteer engagement has translated into impact for the organization.

Paige shared this example: “At staff meeting this morning, Carly reported that they have doubled the number of corporate engagement hours in nine months. That figure includes hours contributed to nonprofits and to UWP.

“We have also increased the percentage of those hours that contributed to United Way directly.  We’ve made exponential progress over the past three years from 27%, to 45% to 82%. That’s a huge measure of success towards achieving our strategic goal of greater corporate engagement.”

When I interviewed Heather Lother about her role, I asked if she had any advice for her colleagues. Paige received the same question. Her response?

“If you want to elevate your organization, you need to elevate your programs. Invest in your volunteer program, and it will operate at a higher level.”