Many Hands Make Light Work: Coordinating volunteers to accomplish the greater mission

Stephanie Hankerson directs volunteers towards some of the work that needs to be done at Frogtown Farms // Photo by Amy Anderson

Stephanie Hankerson directs volunteers towards some of the work that needs to be done at Frogtown Farms // Photo by Harrison Barden

If volunteers are the lifeblood of a nonprofit—essential to accomplishing the organization’s mission—volunteer coordinators are the heart keeping that blood pumping.

Part cheerleader, part wrangler, part teacher, and part event host, volunteer coordinators juggle all kinds of people with different skills and motivations for showing up. Whether working with corporate groups doing team building for a day, students fulfilling their volunteering requirement for school, retirees with long-term relationships with an organization, or families who volunteer together as a fun and giving activity, understanding why each person is volunteering is key to inspiring them and getting work done.

Volunteers at Open Arms of Minnesota, a nonprofit that cooks and delivers free, nutritious meals to people with life-threatening illnesses, are often drawn to the organization because of a personal connection to illness. Lila Gilbert, the senior manager of volunteer engagement at Open Arms, sees her job as providing volunteers with impactful experiences. “It’s important for volunteers to be able to come in, contribute two hours of time, and make a tangible difference,” Gilbert says. “Whether it’s cutting carrots that go into a soup or salad or delivering meals directly into the hands of a client in need, volunteers can see the direct impact of their efforts and connection to the mission. Volunteers are making a change as part of a community coming together, which is pretty amazing.”

The organization also devotes resources to outreach in the community, as a way of drawing people in. Community outreach manager Deandra Bieneman spends a lot of her time going to community events like Open Streets, or even dressing up as a papier-mâché vegetable for the MayDay Parade in South Minneapolis. The organization’s best method of drawing in volunteers is through word of mouth. “A huge part of volunteer outreach and recruitment has to do with building ambassadors,” Bieneman says. “Open Arms, like many organizations, is really fueled by the volunteers that we already have. They are the advocates out in the community bringing people in.”

Volunteers work with each other to bake, package and do general work at Open Arms // Photo by Amy Anderson

The experience volunteers have at Open Arms—whether it’s in the kitchen, delivering meals, or weeding one of the urban gardens—is what keeps them coming back. Volunteer Mari Yomota was drawn to Open Arms when she moved to the Twin Cities six years ago from Boston with her husband because she wanted to help people and she loves to cook. What keeps her coming back twice a week is the community she’s found at the organization. “When I started I really didn’t know anybody,” she says. “The new building is wonderful. People welcome you with a big smile.” Through Open Arms, Yomota has made good friends and it’s helped her get over her shyness. “Nothing’s better than a meaningful connection,” she says.

For Erica Mauter, who recently volunteered at Open Arms’ Cook-a-Thon, the organization creates an environment where volunteers feel welcomed and like their efforts are impactful. Plus, it was fun. “Open Arms’ mission is easy to connect to,” she says.

Meeting volunteers at their skill level and even how they are doing on a particular day is an approach that educational coordinator Stephanie Hankerson takes at Frogtown Farm. The organization, located on a 13-acre city park in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, is one of the largest organically certified urban farms within public space in the nation.

Stephanie Hankerson (right) demonstrates the proper weeding technique to several volunteers at Frog Town // Photo by Amy Anderson

Stephanie Hankerson (right) demonstrates the proper weeding technique to several volunteers at Frog Town // Photo by Harrison Barden

“I think it’s really key to be hyper-aware of where your volunteer is at,” Hankerson says. “That could mean physical disabilities, it could be fears, or perceptions.” In her work, sometimes she has to modify her goal for the day depending on who shows up and what their skill and interest is at.

Hankerson says for her work, she’s not looking for the “super volunteer,” but instead in engaging as many people as possible. “We are seeking inclusion,” she says. That’s especially true, but they are seeking volunteers from the geographic area they serve.

The farm doesn’t turn volunteers away that find out about opportunities from the website or word of mouth, but Frogtown Farm’s main focus is attracting its neighbors. “We don’t advertise this opportunity broadly because we know what will happen is that it will fill up from folks that live in Northeast Minneapolis, South Minneapolis, the suburbs, beyond, and that’s not what this is about. This is a hard-fought, hard-won new park for a part of St. Paul that was green space deprived.”

Volunteers at Frogtown Farm plant seeds, check on plant growth, and move flowers // Photos by Harrison Barden

Hankerson’s expertise in working with volunteers comes from 20 years of experience working at Frogtown and other organizations. For scottie hall, who does volunteer coordinating for In the Heart of the Beast’s MayDay Parade, wisdom is gained both from experience but also looking to mentors who passed along the tips and tricks of volunteer organizing.

Hall attributes the strong volunteer program at In the Heart of the Beast (HOTB) to Margery Otto, who passed away in 2016. Otto had been a part-time staffer who worked year-round, and over time nurtured deeply committed volunteers driven by love for the organization and the community around it.

“She was this extremely charismatic, wonderful human being,” hall says. “Part of the reason there is such a strong volunteer pool now is because she was so wonderful.” Otto had a way with words to make each volunteer feel valued and important, hall says. Whether it was an email or a thank you note, “the way she worded things was really inspiring.”

Otto was attentive to all volunteers, but she showed especial grace to HOBT’s Sentence to Serve program volunteers, hall says. Those are folks who had trouble with the law and can reduce their sentence by volunteering. “She was always adamant that we had to have really good snacks for them,” hall recalls. “They knew they were as important as any other volunteer.”

In addition to Otto’s passionate work, hall points to the relationships that director Sandy Spieler has nurtured over decades. Once, when hall was having trouble finding volunteers to serve as ushers for the theater’s holiday show, Spieler would only have to make a call to have old friends show up and be happy to be there.

Back from hall’s days working for BareBones, another puppet and community theater, hall remembers the motto “many hands makes light work,” meaning at certain times, getting sheer numbers is more important than anything. However, hall appreciates the volunteers who have a history with the organization and know what’s going on.

One volunteering couple, named Dick and Fran, who hall works with at Ted Mann Concert Hall “are elderly but they always bicycle to work an event,” hall says. “We usually put them on a door together.” In addition, for MayDay, there are certain positions that only require one or two people, so it helps that there are folks who know exactly what needs to be done.

The biggest challenge for any volunteer coordinator, hall says, is attrition. One of the messages hall hopes people remember is that if you sign up to volunteer, you actually show up. “If you’ve got five people signed up to work the T-shirt selling booth and half of them don’t show up, that puts a lot of stress on the few people that did,” hall explains.

A group of volunteers at Frogtown Farms after they finished their work // Photo by Amy Anderson

A group of volunteers at Frogtown Farms after they finished their work // Photo by Harrison Barden

Still, even when things happen like not having enough people, those are times when staff and other volunteers can join ranks to get things done. Pushing the work forward is a love that brings people together: the love of an organization’s mission, the love of a community of people doing good work, and a love for human beings. The work volunteer coordinators do—whether it’s putting out snacks, giving everybody a T-shirt, sending a kindly worded “thank you” note, or just being empathetic and attentive, makes a huge difference in creating an atmosphere where volunteers feel they are a part of something bigger than themselves.