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Considering adding Americorps talent to your team? Get a phenomenal manager first.

Ahh, summer—the time for flowers, vacations…and thoughts about big picture things that often get pushed off during the rest of the year, like your strategic staffing plan.  Did the four year anniversary of the Serve America Act inspire you to build Americorps talent into your org chart?  If so, we’ve got some recommendations for you.

Americorps positions, if used strategically, can be a great way to expand your capacity—provided that your organization devotes the necessary resources needed for Americorps members to succeed.  Each position should be considered as carefully as a new staff position, and its purpose should be thoughtfully aligned with organizational mission and goals.  As we wrote about last month, volunteers are people too, so one of the biggest mistakes a nonprofit can make is to add new Americorps positions without providing the necessary support for the people filling those positions to become impactful additions to your team. 

In fact, Rick Cohen, in a recent Blue Avocado column about the potentially hurtful effects of public policy programs on volunteering,  voices some legitimate concerns that some nonprofits might use Americorps positions in ways that will be ultimately detrimental to the sector.  To combat this, he argues, it’s important that nonprofits ensure that they leverage Americorps volunteers in an impactful way, and “structure their jobs as first steps in nonprofit careers.” 

So how can you ensure that your organization can leverage the talent provided by the Serve America Act? Assign a phenomenal manager to oversee the work of your Americorps volunteers. A dedicated resource with phenomenal management skills to manage your Americorps positions is important for several reasons:

1) Americorps positions are time bound, with built-in high turnover.  The time-bound nature of the Americorps program means that turnover is guaranteed to be high, as many Americorps members serve for only one year.  Much can be learned and accomplished in one year, but if there is no “bridge” from one year to the next, many of the gains will be lost after each member exits, leaving the next Americorps member to “reinvent the wheel.”  Without a permanent and involved manager to make sure that institutional knowledge and external relationships are carried over from one year to the next, each year can become a repeat of the last—your own personal version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”  A manager can ensure continuity and continuous improvement from year to year, so your impact can continue to grow and improve.

2) Americorps volunteers need appropriate training and guidance to be effective.  Like all employees, Americorps members need to learn how your organization works, your theory of change, and how they can contribute to accomplishing your mission.  Since the backgrounds and previous experiences of Americorps members are diverse, a manager who works with Amercorps volunteers needs to be able to assess, on an individual level, what support and training each person will need to be successful in their role.  Without appropriate training, Americorps volunteers will either be overwhelmed or bored, and, as a result, your effectiveness will suffer.  Great managers “get” people—they have an ability to understand what makes different people tick, what motivates them, and what challenges them.  With so many people stepping into and out of these roles on a regular basis, a skilled manager who can tailor their approach to the unique talents and challenges of each individual will ensure that each Americorps volunteer can contribute to their full potential.

3) Americorps volunteers, even more so than other employees, are at risk of burn-out.  Americorps volunteers are willing to work for very little pay in exchange for an education award and the chance to do something meaningful.  Many of them are willing to work above and beyond the hours required of them, and the nature of the work in the nonprofit sector ensures that there is always more work that could be done.  Newcomers to the nonprofit sector may have a hard time setting boundaries and creating manageable workloads.  A great manager can help passionate volunteers find balance, modify their workloads, and, of course, tell them to go home when they begin to work themselves into the ground.  The last thing you want your organization to do is to convince your would-be future executive director to leave the sector because they perceive nonprofit positions to be unsustainable.

4) Your Americorps members need to be developed as nonprofit professionals to become a key element of your talent pipeline. Americorps service is rapidly becoming the first step for many young people (and more experienced sector switchers as well) to beginning a nonprofit career (Want to know more? Check out our article, “The New Entry Level: Hiring from Leadership Development Programs”).  Hosting Americorps corps members in your organization is an opportunity to win a life-long champion for your organization and to develop a strong pipeline of talent.  To make sure this potential is realized, it is important that Americorps members are exposed to many different facets of your organization and your mission, and shown the ropes of nonprofit careers, both within your organization and without.  If you do it right, when you need to hire for a new position, you will have many passionate and qualified Americorps alumni ready to join your team—making your biggest problem which one you should choose.  A manager with a responsibility to make this happen can help facilitate professional development opportunities for Americorps members, serve as a mentor and guide for them in their next steps, and be a continuous point of contact between them and the organization until they are ready to return as full-time staff members.

So enjoy this summer: think big, think strategically, and think about making the next addition to your organization a phenomenal manager.

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