Carrying the Flag: A Patriotic Lesson in Volunteer Management

I was fortunate to be on the field for opening day at Angels’ Stadium this past week for what turned out to be a patriotic lesson in volunteer management.  I was one of 350 enthusiastic volunteers who carried a 150×300 foot American flag weighing more than 1,100 pounds.  As I watched the volunteer coordinator—herself a volunteer, serving in honor of her friend—and the three staff people in charge of the flag, I realized that despite my years of volunteer administration, I still had a lot to learn from the rookies.

For pictures of the flag, click here.  I’m at the top in the center, the cute one.

Lesson #1:  Give clear directions

Many of this year’s 350 volunteers had never before participated in this event. Like I, they had to learn how to assemble, carry, and display the large flag. However, because of the event coordinators’ clear instructions, our lack of experience did not yield any handicap.

Before the event, we were emailed very simple, unmistakable instructions: show up by a certain time; wear tan pants and a red shirt with no writing on the back; and sign a waiver. During the event, the instructions were equally easy to understand. Through a bullhorn, a staff member told the volunteers what do and how to do it. These instructions were delivered in less than 15 minutes plus time for practice.

I’ve seen volunteer administrators get bogged down in a myriad of policies, procedures, what-if scenarios to the extent that volunteers get turned away. I can remember one nonprofit that instituted a new volunteer application so complex many volunteers stopped participating.

While policies and procedures are important, they are no substitute for clear, easy-to-understand directions.

Lesson #2: Expect the best but prepare for the worst

We’re human. We fall down while running backward carrying the massive weight of the flag. We get excited about being near star players like Weaver, Pujols and Trumbo. We try to take unauthorized photos. All of this is natural. It’s also against the rules. The volunteers were given clear directions about what to do if we fell down (don’t  get up and ruin the flag!) or the consequences of taking a camera onto the field (something about the sharks around Alcatraz). These boundaries were clearly articulated and, as a result, I didn’t see a single person deviate. We didn’t dare.

Volunteers, like children, need boundaries. Volunteers are coming into our territory. Much of what we take for granted (look, it’s Weaver!), they are seeing for the first time.

It’s okay to give very specific instructions to avoid a worst-case scenario.

Lesson #3: Remember why we’re here

One reason our simple instructions were sufficient is because the reason all 350 of us were volunteering was readily apparent: a giant American flag was right there at our feet while we awaited the pre-game show. Plus, as an added reminder, once we were out on the field a C-17 cruised dramatically overhead. (At least, I’m told it did. I was probably the only person of the 44,000+ in attendance who didn’t see the fly-by. My excuse? I was too busy concentrating on waving the flag.)

In my experience with volunteers, they are usually there because they want to be. There are exceptions (don’t you love court appointed volunteers?!), but overall, volunteers are already ‘sold’.

Regardless, it is important to find ways to remind them of value they bring to the experience.

For many years I coordinated teams of volunteers who provided free surgeries to children with physical deformities. Most volunteers had an opportunity to interact with patients and see firsthand the dramatic difference their service made. However, there was one volunteer position which wasn’t so glamorous: taking out the OR trash. These volunteers, mostly college students, would remove the trash from the operating rooms in between surgeries. They did not enter the OR during surgeries and rarely had an opportunity to interact with patients.

However, I found that if I was able to take the time and share with these volunteers the victories of the day (a new lip for a child with cleft lip, a redefined lip line for a child with a facial birthmark), the volunteers would return eagerly and sign up for the next opportunity.

The benefits of volunteering don’t have to be as dramatic as a C-17 fly-by, but we do need to help volunteers remember why they’re here.

Lesson #4: Don’t forget the cookies

In between our flag-carrying practice run and the time we went out onto the field, cookies and water were made available. This simple snack gave the volunteers enough energy to carry the 1,100lbs out onto the field and hold it for about 15 minutes during the pre-game opening ceremony.

I’ve worked with enough volunteers to know that no matter how much pre-event preparation you do, no matter how many details go perfectly, without food, the day will be a complete disaster. In fact, some of the most challenging volunteer administration experiences I’ve had involved issues with food access.

Whatever you do, do not forget the cookies!

An unexpected lesson

I showed up at the field last week expecting a patriotic ballpark experience. I did not expect to receive a lesson in volunteer administration.

Volunteer management is one of my absolute favorite aspects of nonprofit administration. It requires a comprehensive skill set: human resources, event management, public relations, program management, finance, and more. I’m a huge advocate of nonprofit Master’s programs and other forms of training. However, as my flag-carrying experience showed me, it all comes down to a few key  points: give clear directions, expect the best but prepare for the worst, remember why we’re here, and don’t forget the cookies. My hat is off to those who made this lesson possible.

What is your best tip in volunteer administration? Share it here!

P.S. I’m sitting in a Starbucks across from Angel’s stadium right now. The staff are talking about the fly-over by the C-17 which I missed. . . I guess it really did happen.

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4 responses to “Carrying the Flag: A Patriotic Lesson in Volunteer Management

  1. What a great piece of writing. I too work with volunteers every day in my position and can say that they are some of the most passionate folks I have ever met. I think the best management style with volunteers is to lay out exactly what is needed with a clear path of how to achieve the goal. Training must be provided and although in some cases it may be simple instruction, one must be careful to not belittle the volunteer. Remembering the volunteer is there on his/her own free will and willing to do a task without compensation says a ton for their character. As administrators, we too must realize what good character is and ensure that the volunteer is treated as a vital part of the organization.

    On another note, I too was part of that flag ceremony positioned near the third star from the top left corner. It was my second time doing this and I am amazed at the job we do and how excited everyone is to be a part of the pre-game ceremony.

  2. Okay perfect! I have to back out of volunteering for the 2nd Annual Stand Down in Orange County. The Stand Down is a 3 day event, helping to bring housing resources, showers, jobs, and medical care to homeless veterans . My volunteer position was to help organize medical care volunteers for Saturday. The event takes place in August and will be held in Costa Mesa at the National Guard building. I sure can use a good volunteer replacement. If you are interested, please contact me. You will be working with Veterans First. Thanks so much! Karin R

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