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Volunteer Power!

Volunteer Power News — Number 44
Author: Thomas W. McKee
"Volunteer Power News" Monthly Newsletter

© 2006 Advantage Point Systems Publishing

A warm welcome to all volunteer managers—those of you who recruit, motivate and mobilize volunteer workers.

In this Issue:

  1. Why Dan Taylor, Vice President of State Programs, Audubon, Is So Optimistic About Volunteerism
  2. Consider a Volunteer Power workshop for your organization

Why Dan Taylor, Vice President of State Programs, Audubon, Is So Optimistic About Volunteerism

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Dan Taylor who is the Vice President of State Programs for the National Audubon Society. Audubon’s mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity (www.audubon.org). Dan mentors, coaches, and supervises nine state directors and program directors in the Northwest, Rocky Mountains, Intermountain West, and Alaska. He spends about 50% of his time coaching the Audubon staff how to work with volunteers.

I found Dan to be very optimistic and was very excited and energized about the work that volunteers are doing. I want to share some of that interview with you. I left inspired. I trust you will also.

Dan was optimistic because he saw the power of volunteers in helping him accomplish his passion. In summary, Dan is optimistic because . . .

  • Volunteerism is on the rise.
  • The 21st century volunteers are very professional and bring a wealth of talent to the organization.
  • People want to get involved in changing the world—to tackle social issues.
  • People beyond the walls of Audubon are willing to join hands with them to work on projects that have a mutual concern.
  • There is a shift from the individualism of 2000 (Putnam, Bowling Alone) to joining communities that want to make a difference.
  • There is a shift from training volunteers to training the organization how to work with volunteers—and he loves that part of the job.
  • The internet is causing the 21st century organization to be transparent—and that is good.


Tom: How long have you been working for the Audubon Society?

Dan: I started with Audubon when I was 27, and I am now 55—so I’ve been with Audubon for 28 years.

Tom: How long have you been in your present position, vice president of State Programs?

Dan: Since 2002. Before that I was state director in California for six years.
I went from the position of being a player to the specific role of being a coach.

Tom: Audubon has been working with volunteers for over 100 years. How has Audubon changed in how you work with volunteers?

Has Audubon changed in how you work with volunteers?

Dan: We have gone through an evolution in Audubon. My own sense is that we went through a period about nine years ago when the volunteer aspect of Audubon was not as valued as it was before that and as much as it is now. I think it was a reaction to the fact that when you pitch your tent on volunteers it requires you to be a patient organization, and you have to be a transparent organization. At that point we were not a very patient organization—we wanted to go and we wanted to go quickly. And the volunteer aspect--while it provided talent--also required much more in the way of being patient before moving forward. There was some anxiety around that issue. I think that Audubon resolved it by first of all realizing patience is a good thing to have—this is a long term way to work your way up. Volunteerism is part of our organizational DNA. If you ignore it, you do so at the expense of great talent and leadership. I’m delighted to embrace it.

Tom: You spend most of your time on the road in nine states training your state directors. What percentage of your time in coaching the staff is spent on training how to work with volunteers?

Dan: Broadly I would say that about 50% of my time is spent helping the staff deal with this universe of people who will help make us successful. What we are learning when it comes to volunteers is that the need is not to train volunteers, but the need is to train organizations how to use volunteers. Volunteers come today with talents that we could not even hope to purchase if we could. Our job is to train our staff how to maximize that talent—how to affirm that, how to respect it and how to develop it.

Tom: That is good. I want to repeat it. What you have learned is that the role of Audubon staff is not to train volunteers, but to train the organization how to use the volunteers because today the volunteers you get are very professional and have so much to offer.

Dan: That’s it.

Tom: I want to remember that. Talk to me about how you train your staff to work with volunteers. When you train your staff, say in Alaska, do you run a workshop, meet face to face, use digital training systems?

Training Staff to Work with Volunteers

Dan: I do my best work face to face. I have to be there. I have to walk the ground and talk to the people and have that interaction. I probably do 25 to 30 itineraries a year—more travel than I would like to do. I stop short of having anything looking like a curriculum on the subject. What I usually say face to face is that since we can’t afford to hire everyone, how do we attract and manage this resource so we can grow in our capacity to build our program?

In addition we are moving into an internet training tool. We use WebEx to train people. We can bring 20 people together from all over the country for a three-hour session on leadership training. Using a web-based connection and WebEx. I haven’t been that involved, but what I am hearing is that it is pretty good and it is more efficient, time wise.

I still like the one on one. I remember some time ago the commercial—I think it was American Air Lines-- with the business manager who handed the air line tickets to everyone in the room and said to reconnect with the customers. I like that and believe in it.

I say this to the directors of Audubon—I don’t care if they are the director of Wyoming, Alaska or Colorado—they need to have strong, durable, deep relationships with twelve people. If they have strong relationships with twelve people who are their disciples, they will either succeed or fail. They don’t need to have relationships with a hundred people. Twelve people will either make or break the success of the program. And most of us can manage relationships with twelve people.

Tom: Interesting. It sounds Biblical. You are so optimistic and it is contagious. With so much negativity in the news and in society, why are you optimistic?

Why are you so optimistic?

Dan: There is a lot of negativity in the world. I was in Alaska and there are gangs in Alaska. I thought it was too cold to have gangs in Alaska. But no, there are drugs and gangs in Alaska just like everywhere else, and we could get discouraged about all of that.

But I am optimistic--optimistic about the world because I think there is a desire to address social problems today and I am encouraged. You can’t run away from them, and I feel that people are more open today than in the past.

Something interesting is happening out there. It is only anecdotal, but it is pretty widely believed from 2000 on that we were seeing a dearth of volunteerism. I’m sure you have read Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone and how the post war generation seemed to not join lodges and civic organizations. We experienced that. Our chapters were having a hard time recruiting leadership. But at the same time we saw that we were able to get volunteers for special projects. We could get volunteers to plant trees or the pick up trash or lead a bird watch. We couldn’t get people to run an organization. Nobody wanted to be treasurer, but they would go out and plant trees. And what we learned is that the more specific time limit that it was, the more successful we were in getting people to go along and join us. Someone was more willing to give three hours on a Saturday to go plant trees. That was the end of their commitment. They don’t have to go to a meeting the fourth Thursday of the month to sit there for three hours and listen to things that may not be interesting to them.

But the interesting thing is that we are seeing an uptick, even in the organizational response to volunteering. I haven’t figured out what is going on—why that is, but I am seeing that more people are willing to step forward and become community leaders through our own organization. We have really haven’t been able to measure it, but I am fascinated by what I am seeing out there.

Tom: So you think that in the seven short years since Putnam’s Bowling Alone, we are already seeing the pendulum shift from individual volunteering (like planting trees) back to organizational volunteering and communities are back in vogue.

The shift from individual volunteering to organizational volunteering

Dan: I think the key word is “community.” I am seeing a small shift from individualism to community. I love Seattle. Last time I was there I went into a coffee shop—an independent one—not a Starbucks. It was a Saturday afternoon at 2:30 and there must have been about 150 people there. I would say that about half of them were looking at a computer. And I thought, “how odd.” They had chosen to be in a room of people, but at the same time they had also chosen to be looking at a very narrow, small screen. There wasn’t a lot of conversation going on, but they had chosen to be in a community or sorts. Rather than stay home and work on their computer, they were in a community of other people just like them focused on a tiny little screen.

Tom: Are you seeing people more willing to join Audubon, organizationally, to accomplish your mission?

Dan: Again Tom, I can’t back this up with facts, it is only anecdotal. But yes. For example, I just got back from Seattle where we are opening an Audubon center in Seward Park. Seward Park is 300 acres of forest land within the Seattle city limits. It is home to eagles' nests, old growth forest, a 2.4 mile bike and walking path, an amphitheater, a native plant garden, an art studio, miles of hiking trails and more. But the community around Seward Park is a very diverse community—70 languages (Latino, Asian, African) all living together. We have raised $3 million to restore a nature center. A large part of the success is the community buy in. We are getting people to volunteer—young professionals who are choosing to live in these communities. They haven’t run off into the suburbs. They are living in these communities because they want the urban life style, and they want their children to have these experiences living in this community. They are stepping up, chairing committees and accepting the task to raise the money to build this community. It is wonderful. The reason that we have been successful is because we are offering volunteers opportunities that mean something to them. We are not saying, “Join with us so that we can save Africa.” We are saying, “Join with us so that we can save Seattle.” The Africa cause is great too. That is a different argument. But we are finding people who want to change their community. Again it gets back to this whole community aspect. What is going to make Seattle work? Strong communities. We can counteract the unhealthy aspects of communities like gangs, drugs, and those sorts of things.

There is an interesting book by Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Tom: Wait a minute—Nature-Deficit Disorder? You mean like Attention-Deficit Disorder?

Dan: Yes—he coined that phase for his thesis that children don’t go outside anymore. It’s risky. Parents are afraid that they will fall, they will get bitten by a snake, they’ll break a leg or they’ll be abused. Their life is regimented: music lessons, soccer, swimming, homework and bed. They don’t have a field that they play at that is safe. We at Audubon are responding to that and trying to get communities to fill this need.

Tom: Are the volunteers that are responding to this need beyond the walls of Audubon?

Dan: Absolutely. They are different people. This is a challenge for us. When they respond to the community need, they don’t know us. They don’t even know who we are. Then when they get to know us, and they like us. But at first they are not buying into Audubon. They are buying into their community. Then that allows us to let them know who we are and what we are doing. They are responding to that.

Tom: Sounds like relational marketing. First, they join a project that answers a need in their lives, and then they find out about you, like you and then join.

Virtual volunteering

Tom: Do you have a virtual volunteer program?

Dan: I think we probably are not the best organization that is using the digital world. I think the better ones are the younger ones that were created with that in mind. It is not our core business model, but we are adapting to it. Our business model is that we are living, breathing human beings who affiliate for a common mission. And I live with that. We are using the digital tool with living, breathing people who have physically made themselves available to help us do what we do. I’ll accept that. But the groups who have made it a core part of their strategy are probably doing it a lot better than we are. They have probably much more robust, muscular ways to use the technology.

Tom: In what ways has the digital world affected Audubon?

Dan: The digital world is forcing us to be more transparent. I think that the web and the digital universe has democratized our society even far more than perhaps anyone initially expected. You can learn almost anything you want. You can learn how much the president-elect makes. For volunteers that actually puts far more information out than they have ever had before. It requires the entire organization to be far more prudent as they make decisions. In this flattening and democratization of the organization, I believe that my job is to make the organization transparent to the staff, and their job is to make the organization transparent to their volunteer core—to let people know what is going on--to shine the light on and let the people know. Because you can’t keep anything secret anymore. In this digital world there are no secrets. Get over it. You don’t have to be a hacker to learn what goes on today—to learn how much you paid for your house. Thirty years ago things that would have seemed unavailable—now it’s all out there.

Percentage of volunteer ratio to membership

Tom: In your nine states, how many members do you have?

Dan: Oh, not many because most of the states are rural areas. I would say we have about 50,000.

Tom: And what percentage of those are active volunteers?

Dan: The rule of thumb, those who are active volunteers—going to meetings, leading a group, doing something that actually involves their physical presence, I would say no more than 5%.

Tom: And that is your rule of thumb. When you are able to get 5% of your membership to volunteer, then you can make things happen. You can accomplish your mission.

Dan: Yes. For example, In California—California is not one of my states--we have 45,000 members, and we have 2500 active volunteers max. That number would capture all of our chapter leaders, all of our group leaders and all of those who are giving us $500 and more a year.

Tom: In your contact with other organizations, is 5% a general rule of thumb?

Dan: I would say for a national organization, yes. But in a local organization you need a lot more than 5%. If you had a church of 200, you certainly need more than 10 volunteers. And we have found that the more local our organization is—the local chapters—the more that percentage grows. And we work hard to make that happen.

Tom: Thank you, Dan, for your time. Many people will benefit from your expertise and experience.

Note: To see the many programs that Audubon has, visit their website.

Consider a Volunteer Power workshop for your organization

Volunteer Management Workshop
Mobilizing the Power and Passion of 21 Century Volunteers Who Want to Do It Their Way

Objectives: At the end of this hands-on workshop participants will know the following:

  • Passion: How to awaken the passion for the organization, board, committee or project
  • Retention: How to increase volunteer retention
  • Recruiting: How to recruit the new volunteer—the 21st knowledge worker
  • Managing: How to empower the busy volunteer without dropping the ball

Mobilizing the Power and Passion of the 21st Century Volunteer is a volunteer management, full-day, half-day, two-hour workshop or one-hour keynote. We will design the workshop for your group


Tom McKee is a leading volunteer management speaker, trainer and consultant. You can reach Tom at (916) 987-0359 or e-mail him at tom@advantagepoint.com. Other articles and free resources are available at www.volunteerpower.com.