First, trust the instructions


The pop-up dental clinic is being set up in a high school in Memphis. Tarp laid and chairs set up.

One of my foodie friends enjoys reading the comment threads on recipes to read the responses from the recipe haters who swap out this for that and sub out a few more things they didn’t have on hand and angrily give a one star review to a recipe that bears no resemblance to the the one posted. A wiser person than me finally handed me the clear rule that I have now adopted, the first time you make something, just follow the instructions to have some idea of how it is supposed to go down.  Even respecting the instructions so much can change your outcome.  Using baking as an example, how hot is your oven really? How much moisture is in that flour that has been sitting in your dry as bone mid-winter house? You get the picture.

This was one of many lessons I had re-enforced when I went down to Memphis recently to fulfil a long held curiosity to help at a pop-up medical clinic put on by Remote Area Medical. I was in turn, fascinated and pushed to exhaustion by my minimal contribution to this clinic.

One of my firmly reenforced mantras was to first, seek to trust the instructions. What abetted this trust was understanding the reason behind the instructions and hearing it from such credible sources.

I was trained on-the-spot for a number of tasks in a clear, step-by-step fashion. These instructions might include things like the number of parts I was looking for and what order I would have to do them in. Perhaps most importantly, they would usually include the why behind the instructions. The job accurately billed as the worst of the day was to set-up 60 folding dental chairs. They were heavy and not entirely cooperative but could be made to stand just fine if you followed all the instructions. In one case we had to move the position of a central rod using a crank before we started other parts of the set up. If you did this in the wrong order, you’d have to redo the set up to correct. Horrors. In other cases we would sanitize an item and then leave some object in a particular place as a symbol that we had done all the required steps.

I generally follow rules and instructions so it wasn’t a hard sell to follow along and given that you have the background motivation that you want vulnerable people well served. That said, there were motivations to cut corners.  This work was exhausting with a small crew that had mostly been recruited to do actual medical work and it wasn’t the patient-facing work which many volunteers were likely hoping to do when they signed up.

What also helped was that I could fully and completely trust the source of the instructions.  My admiration for the RAM folks was very deep because it was evident that they had hammered out the design of the clinic thoughtfully and deliberately over time (they have done over 800 clinics).  Things are put away in a specific way so that they can be carried or hauled and so that it is clear what is in each bin. They tie off plastic bins to show that they are full with three complete settings for dental stations. No need to count, we can trust this.  Carrying cases are colour coded so they are directed to the right vehicles.

As a last observation, I can see now that I was also motivated to follow the instructions because I was continually surrounded by people who would help keep me on track if I was unsure as to how to go ahead- not choking micro-management but supportive access to supervision.  There was no need to wildly freelance to fill in the gaps.

Learn more about Remote Area Medical here.

See a 60 Minutes story on RAM here.


In praise of the ad hoc volunteer

It has been a busy week on the work front and and part of the success of the week was the ad hoc help from members of the team outside the core group who helped with ad hoc tasks including translation verifications.

In the same vein, some of my activities for the week include support volunteer events for which I have had no core or ongoing role at all. In one case, I will take photos at the event to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Plant Recreation Centre. They’ll be an activity to walk 10,000 steps around our lovely neighbourhood.

In another, I have offered to do some postering for the Community Cup. In both cases, the short-term commitment is exactly what I need given my existing commitments.

In my research for this piece I was wondering why there are not more ad hoc volunteering activities and why some public servants (many of whom who have a volunteer day in their collective agreements) struggle to use their day for actual volunteering if they have no existing commitment.

The logic is similar to why, I as a manager, sometimes struggle to hire coop or summer students – a short term commitment seems too difficult and even risky to manage with all else on my plate.

On the upside, planning and a willingness to adapt existing tools (such as job descriptions) can counter this kind of thinking as this guide outlines.  Engaging Ad Hoc Volunteers: A Guide for Non-profit Organizations was created by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre in Singapore.

The guide notes that the ad hoc volunteer can bring certain benefits not necessarily available to the usual volunteer workforce (including the ability to as for ad hoc support from specialized services.). I’d also add that the ad hoc volunteer can become an eventual longer term volunteer and will also be an ambassador for your organization after even a small involvement.

I’d love to see more organizations create and promote ad hoc volunteering.

Interview with Dan Dubeau – Part II – Boomer volunteers and the Community Cup

In an earlier blog post, I interviewed Dan Dubeau about the Ottawa Administrators for Volunteer Resources (OAVR).  In this last post, I discuss some of Dan’s views on how to cultivate a meaningful exchange between volunteers and the organizations they serve and some of the initiatives that Dan has spearheaded in his day job including the upcoming Community Cup.

In our discussion Dan talked about the important role of volunteers to an organization.  In particular,  he noted that finding a good fit for volunteers is important because they will ultimately be doing some of the marketing for the organization where they volunteer.  Volunteers are looking for a two-way street where they can reap some benefits as well as giving back to the organization.  He said that there is so much to appreciate in volunteers including their giving of their time, energy and knowledge.

As an organization, Catholic Centre for Immigrants (CCI) treats volunteer intakes like a job interview – treating each person as a unique contributor to the organization.  Part of the exploration of volunteer activities is to find out what someone is looking for and where they seem themselves in five years.  If a match can’t be found, a referral can be made.  CCI aims to serve volunteers by helping them build their networks and helping them build their professional development skills through speakers and training at regular meetings. If he had the chance ask something of a volunteer he would ask them to be flexible, to communicate their needs, and not just sit back because they are not sure what to do – volunteers are an investment in time (including training) so retention is key.

Dan also spoke about two specific projects he has worked on in his capacity as a manager of volunteers.

He spoke about spearheading Renaissance 50+  specifically to engage the baby boomers in volunteering.  Through his work at the CCI, he developed a guide for social service agencies who want to recruit boomers as volunteers.  In general, boomers have lots to offer an organization because they tend to be well educated and experienced.  In return, they want project based work which will show some impacts right away.

Lastly, Dan spoke about gearing up for the Community Cup, a soccer tournament which will happen in Ottawa at the end of this month.  This event is to integrate newcomers though sport and volunteerism.   The day’s events will include a citizenship ceremony.  This event has grown from an Ottawa only event to an event hosted in eight cities. Mark your calendars, the annual soccer tournament will happen on June 28th this year.

Managing Volunteers – A chat with Dan Dubeau



As I have written about before on the blog, I am always keen on learning more about the field of volunteer management.  For the moment I am a keen volunteer and very appreciative of the respectful way I am treated as a volunteer.

Realizing that the strategies to supervise volunteers are a bit different than those for supervising paid employees, I was pleased to get connected to Dan Dubeau earlier this year to talk about the skills to manage volunteers.

Dan is the Program Manager for the Community Cup Program at the Catholic Centre for Immigrants. For over 10 years, Dan has been dedicated to helping newcomers integrate and settle into Ottawa. Dan is also the chair of the Ottawa Administrators for Volunteer Resources (OAVR) and believes strongly that a good volunteer experience can open up many doors for individuals and the community.

He generously agreed to be interviewed for the blog.

The interview appears in multiple parts.  The first part is about Dan’s affiliation with the OAVR.

What is the Ottawa Administrators for Volunteer Resources (OAVR)?

The mandate of the group is to:

  • To promote professionalism in volunteer resources management
  • To support our members in the pursuit of their goals as managers of volunteers
  • To provide a forum to share information and resources
  • To network with peers

Who can join the organization?

  • Individuals whose work (paid or unpaid) includes managing/coordinating volunteer resources
  • Managers/coordinators of volunteer resources not currently working in the field
  • Students in a degree or certificate program in management of volunteer resources

Why should mangers of volunteers join the OAVR?

First, the membership fee is modest – only $30 a year – for the benefits that you get from membership.   Members can network and participate in professional development.  Prospective members should also know that there is a bursary available to further professional development or research related to volunteer management or volunteerism.

The group functions as a community of practice which is great as the professional recognition of the profession increases.   We can discuss thorny issues such as the difficult matter of asking a volunteer to discontinue their involvement in an organization.

There is also definite strength in numbers – for instance, we were able to lobby the Ottawa Police to invest in bringing down the processing wait times  for police checks for the vulnerable sectors.

What are some recent developments of interest to Managers of volunteer resources?

In 2012, the National Occupational Standards for Managers of Volunteer Resources were published by the HR council for the Non-profit sector.

These standards show that  this specialization has grown into more of a profession  in the past decade.  The standards list out the main task categories and the expected tasks for each.  These range from developing volunteer services and recruitment to maintaining records, managing performance and recognizing contribution.  They also include the need for volunteer managers to look after their own professional development.

With your work in the OAVR coming to a close, what would you consider your accomplishments over the past few years?

I’ve worked to promote the existence of the network and to grow the membership.  We’ve expanded the range of volunteer managers involved in the group including making stronger links to sports-related areas. I’ve also supported the group to expand the use of technology and social media.


Reflections II

(c) ecotist

Here is the second part of my reflections on leaving my leadership role with a Departmental Middle Managers’ Network.  Part I is found here.

Keep the lows in perspective: Though all the work we are doing matters, you can lose perspective when you are legitimately worn down. One of the supports to my own resilience is taking the long term view on the crisis of the moment.  An article made the rounds recently about the 10/10/10 rule, which suggests that you to ask yourself if your current crisis will matter in 10 minutes, 10 months or 10 years.  By the time you reach the last question, you’ll have a good sense of whether the situation has the potential to leave a permanent scar or take the train off its tracks or is just part of the necessary dip on your way to a goal.

Small successes may reap large rewards: It snuck up on me that many after small efforts, the visibility and credibility of the organization began to rise.  After negotiating how to send out regular communications to our group (many that were forwards from our National Managers’ Community), and hosting a couple of events which were topical and well attended, the flywheel started turning.  I was caught off guard. People started saying sentences with words that I understood, arranged in ways that made no sense to my ears.  By this I mean they were positive and enthusiastic: “You have quite a high profile committee.” “How do I get on that committee?”   I hope that I can take forward the importance of the small act as I go forward.

Meet people where they are.  If you hear crickets when you ask for help, keep asking and get others to ask on your behalf:  As a manager, I take the job of helping my team develop and stretch into new skills to heart and I expected this philosophy to serve me well leading this committee.  Frankly, it didn’t.  Committee members have demanding day jobs and this work is carried out on the side.  In time. I learned to rely heavily on the literature around managing volunteers for support. The main thing I learned is that it would generally be best to meet people where they are.

Trying to cajole people to lead activities that they don’t want to, and that aren’t technically part of their job descriptions, is like telling an adult that they have to eat the creamed corn even if it makes them gag.

In the earliest days we asked (and expected) our committee members to be active enough to carry out all the elements of the agreed upon strategic plan. When this did not turn out to be possible, we were peeved and frustrated  moved on.

We always had success eventually in a few different strategies: 1) Asking someone more senior to ask on our behalf 2) Offering specific help.  For example, “Would it help you if I called to block David’s schedule?”  People can often keep moving their items along with small bits of assistance. 3) Finding help by going as broadly as possible in your call out.  We might call out to all middle managers or even aspiring middle managers.  4) Partnering with another already established, well respected network in our Department.  Bottom line, stop with the woulda, coulda, shouldas and do what you need to do the land the plane.

Avocation may bring greater joy than vocation:  For the number of days that I said to myself over the past two years that I could do so much better if I just had more time to devote to this role, on reflection, I don’t honestly know if I could have enjoyed it as much, if I had done it as a full time gig. In my role, I was spared the, the day-to-day work of finding rooms for events, prepping meeting folders and landing large scale contracts were ably handled by a group in our learning section.  Thanks to Larry L for this insight.


(c) Arthur Davison


In November 2010, my younger brother died suddenly but not expectedly.  Around that time my Department was looking for a manager to be the co-champion of its middle managers network.  For the fledgling network, I was a seemingly obvious choice to put my hand up based on my keen involvement in the network in its earliest days, but, after my brother died, as brilliantly described in the film, “A Single Man,” it hurt to get up in the morning.

So, I presented to work on autopilot for a few months and was laid even more low by my slow uptake of complex subject matter in a new position.  It didn’t seem the right time to take on additional duties to my bread and butter work as a policy manager in a busy shop under a busy Minister who is rumored to take a day off a month.

The call out for a new manager came and went.  None of the approximately 800 managers in the Department wanted the job. I eventually got up off the couch and was was acclaimed to the position.

I am currently on a period of personal leave from work and have decided that this would be a good time to take stock of what I learned in those two years. This is the first of two parts.

The first is that, I now understand that you have to present when you are ready to serve and there is a good chance the universe will wait for this to occur.  In addition:

Embrace the contractions and do your best to run them up the middle:  In the book The Opposable Mind by Roger Martin, explores our capacity as humans to hold opposing ideas in our minds and to find integrative solutions to both elements which are better than honoring one or the other.

For me, I had to embrace the contraction that I wanted to support a group that was both highly respected, highly committed to the mandate of the Department and its own development as managers while teetering on burnout.  In addition, while our managers’ committee was a formally recognized in the Departmental reporting structure, it had a lingering volunteer or even extracurricular status.

We embraced these contradictions by hacking back our strategic plan to a minimal and manageable set of activities that we were able to deliver with whoever was available.  The adage of asking a busy person to do something if you want it done proved true.  A few key middle managers with lots on their busy plates, squeezed out another one or two activities in support of the committee.  While our perceptions of having “junior” committee status may linger, our having received the participation of senior executives at many of our early events helped lift us a bit more.

Give it a minute.  I attended a cooking class recently when the chef said that he wanted us to sear the tofu for a minute.  He then went on to say that in his experience that the average person would start poking the darn thing at about 23 seconds.  For me, the slow start-up of our committee was as if the second hand on the clock had gotten stuck in place, trying to move but unable to advance.  For someone impatient by nature, this was my own private version of being waterboarded. But, taking the long view, the progress was not unreasonable by any means.  We got a respectable number of activities executed over two years with the stalwart support of key players in our learning section and senior executive champion.

Perhaps most importantly on a personal level, I realized the need to stay a credible amount of time to try to get something off the ground.  I have no formula for this, but for this enterprise, two years was reasonable.  One year to get through an entire cycle of events and another year to figure out if worked by fluke the first time and if not, to do it again with lessons learned.