Nanette Collins On Volunteering: Lessons Learned from the Trenches

I have known Nanette Collins for the better part of two decades and was delighted when she took me up on my offer of a guest blog on volunteering and managing volunteers. She is the principal at Nanette V. Collins Marketing and PR with offices in Boston and San Francisco and one the web at

Working as a volunteer is the hardest job you’ll ever have, or so advised my officemate after she finished a phone call with the principal of her daughters’ parochial school. My friend and colleague had once again been bullied into a pro bono writing project that clients of our Public Relations firm would otherwise pay for … and dearly.

This long-ago memory came flooding back to me after Sean Murphy of SKMurphy asked me to write a guest post about volunteering. You see, I’ve just finished serving for many years as the volunteer Publicity Chair for the Design Automation Conference, an interesting, stressful, complex, demanding, but ultimately rewarding job.

As Sean points out, volunteerism is on the rise as new kinds of communities are built online or at face-to-face events. In my experience, good management skills are just as important to a volunteer corps as they are in a business setting, and perhaps even more so. As a result, the quality of the volunteer experience and the quality of the work performed depend on the management skills that volunteers are subjected to.

Throughout my career, the best managers have been the ones who have helped define my responsibilities, gave me the authority and allowed me to get the job done without much interference. They could be counted on to pave the way or remove obstacles when necessary, helping to make me a better, more productive employee. And, did I mention a happier employee? This management practice should be the way in which volunteers are managed as well.

Volunteers come in all varieties and motivations. Some want to burnish their own image, others want to give back or need to fill out their resume or curriculum vitae. And then there are some who are moving their employer’s agenda forward. Other volunteers thrive on the kudos. No matter, all need constant care and nurturing to make them productive participants. Open lines of communications help to keep everyone on track and enthusiastic. Volunteers should understand and be committed to the mutually stated goal, and the strategy and tactics to achieve it. Each volunteer should be recognized and thanked on a regular basis, along with continual and positive reinforcement.

It seems that volunteers often have more invested in the outcome than normal knowledge workers and, as a result, want to be far more involved in decision making. My advice to leaders of volunteer corps is to let them be as involved or uninvolved as they want to be. Inspiration and creatively can come from the unlikeliest of sources.

Of course, the quality of work produced by volunteers varies widely, from exceeding expectations to being barely passable. It can be inconsistent as workloads shift and situations change throughout the year. Micromanaging, discouraged in almost any business setting, doesn’t prompt loyalty or improve sub par or inconsistent work. Neither does second guessing because it wastes time and demotivates otherwise productive workers. My advice is to take the level of volunteerism you can get and quietly fill in the rest yourself, without micromanaging, criticizing or drawing attention.

A volunteer should not commit to a project or an assignment where they lack the training or expertise, or the time it takes to get it completed. Taking it on with the understanding that you’re learning a new skill or for professional development is fine and often encouraged — within reason, of course.

I sometimes think that the school principal had nothing on some of the volunteers I came across in my many years of service to DAC. It’s no different than working at a company — you can expect both excellent and not-so-great managers and colleagues. In my many years of service to DAC, I worked with both types with varying degrees of success. But then, I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. I walk away proud of the accomplishments of the Publicity Committee that recently included Peggy Aycinena, Annette Bley, Paul Cohen, Colleen Moran, Gabe Moretti, Emily Taylor and the team from MP Associates. All distinguish themselves with outstanding work, professionalism and a strong sense of community.

If you’re given a chance to volunteer for DAC, an online or face-to-face community or anything else, do it! You’ll be glad that you did. You may find, as I did, that the chance to give back is a thrill. The satisfaction that comes from a job well done and the opportunity to meet and work with some of the sharpest minds in our industry far exceed any perceived negatives.

1 thought on “Nanette Collins On Volunteering: Lessons Learned from the Trenches”

  1. Pingback: SKMurphy » Nanette Collins: Startup Culture is Critical

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