Last month and for the third year in a row, I completed a series of 10 business trips in 10 weeks (#10TripsIn10Weeks). It’s a period I fondly refer to as “conference season.” While waiting in security lines and spending four hours squeezed into an aircraft seat (preferably on the aisle, please) is not top on my “favorites” list, meeting with clients, facilitating planning retreats, leading workshops, convening with colleagues from around the world, as well as seeing new places and revisiting old favorites are ALL on my list of top things to do and they make all hours of travel worth it.
In 2019, my travels took VQ from Anchorage, AK to Manchester, NH, from San Diego, CA to Virginia Beach, VA and many places in between. Reflecting on those many miles, one thing is apparent: My 10 Trips in 10 Weeks is similar to the journey of leading a volunteer engagement strategy. A journey, after all, is a journey. Here are four lessons to help ensure a successful, comfortable, and tolerable engagement expedition.
1. Know your Destination.
Of course, every time I board a plane, I know the destination – but beyond the arrival city listed on my boarding pass, knowing my destination means that I know why I am heading to each location and what success will look like. Whether success is presenting a workshop to equip volunteer engagement professionals to meaningfully measure and communicate volunteer impact or ensuring that a cross-divisional team at a client organization has a shared vision for their engagement efforts and a plan to achieve it, I know our priorities and goals for each trip. Keeping the end goal in mind helps me make decisions if the trip throws curve-balls like tech challenges or a change in schedule, for example.
What is your destination? Does your organization have a shared vision for volunteer engagement? Is everyone on the same “plane” and heading to the same place? What will success look like for volunteer engagement? Recruiting more volunteers simply for the sake of having more volunteers is not a destination. Whereas recruiting more or different volunteers for the purpose of reaching more students or providing respite to more families with critically ill relatives – now that’s a destination worthy of travel.
2. Build a Great Team.
While I may travel alone for most of these trips, I really don’t ever “fly solo.” I always have VQ Vice President Linda Puckett with me as she prepares most of our materials, holds down the fort back at our office, and much more. I also have teammates I am meeting – whether clients or co-presenters – I am never alone in this work.
Who are your team members? Whether fellow staff or skilled volunteers, engaging others in your work is the ONLY way to model strategic engagement. Building a strong team to complement your skills, share the load, and bring in additional perspectives ensures that you are not carrying the burden of engagement alone. Flying solo does not get you far; it would relegate engagement to living in just one branch or department of the organization. Flying together, on the other hand, means that engagement becomes embedded across the organization as a strategy.
3. Prepare for the Unexpected.
Sometimes, travel involves a few unexpected detours. Fortunately, amidst all my travel, I rarely experience significant detours or delays in air travel (for which I am very grateful), but I do experience detours in other ways – perhaps it’s just a projector that doesn’t work well, a finicky microphone, or being told that my planned three-hour presentation needs to be cut down to just two hours. How do I prepare? I bring back ups to help mitigate tech problems (e.g., I always have my laptop, plus a flash drive with copies of my presentation files, not to mention other versions accessible through the cloud). I also harness my spirit of adventure and flexibility when I am thrown curve-balls around timing.
How do you prepare for the unexpected? What redundancies do you build into your engagement efforts? How does your volunteer management software support your efforts and provide backup and flexibility with your data? Do you engage volunteers as leaders to support other volunteers? Are other staff members responsible for engaging and supporting volunteers in their departments? If not, then you are relying too much on yourself to personally manage all the volunteers. The more you can engage staff and volunteer leaders, ensure you have flexible, accessible, and user-friendly database, and embrace a spirit of innovation and flexibility, the more easily you will be able to adapt to the unexpected.
4. Take Care of Yourself, Too.
I don’t ever leave home without my personal survival kit – which includes my running shoes so I can decompress after a long day of work, a bottle of migraine meds (just in case!), and a good book or movie. I know that I must take care of myself in order to bring my best self to my clients and colleagues.
In the nonprofit sector, it is all too common to work seven days a week, being available all day every day, not to mention the pressures that many engagement professionals are under to accept all offers of assistance and to keep everybody happy, no matter how unrealistic that may be. But there are tactics to overcome these challenges. If you are touching every decision, learn to delegate. If you need to be present every time volunteers serve, develop volunteer leaders to support front line teams. If you are unable to take days off without the whole process crumbling, then advocate for assistance, put systems in place that don’t require you to be present, and hone your ability to trust others to do the work. Only by taking care of yourself will you be able to bring your best self to the work – and supporting the rest of the team to success as well!
Enjoy the journey and safe travels along the way.