Volunteer managers from nine churches and organizations in the St. Louis area took the opportunity to participate in a pilot learning cohort offered by Send Me St. Louis in 2022, and the overwhelming response was all are so glad they did.
Whether they were “new” to their volunteer management role or a veteran wanting a “refresh,” follow-up surveys and connections indicate many agreed it was immensely beneficial to both them and their church or organization.
Because they ended the cohort experience with solid “takeaways” to support their volunteers, participants agreed they would not hesitate to encourage others to apply and participate in the next one offered.
What a Gift
“The CULTIVATE Learning Cohort created the opportunity for me and a small group of volunteer managers to dive deeper into our work and ourselves. What a gift it was!” said Karen Zelle with Shepherd’s Center of Webster/Kirkwood.
“Over the weeks, trust and relationships were built as we reflected on how we function as volunteer managers,” Zelle added. “Excellent facilitators connected us with many resources, training, and exciting community partners that enhanced and energized our work.”
A Unique Lens
Matt Miller, Executive Director of Send Me St. Louis, and Rebekah Miller, Senior Program Officer with The Lutheran Foundation of St. Louis, guide the cohort throughout the gatherings designed to focus on “deeper topics” related to volunteer management.
“While there are plenty of nuts and bolts to learn, we felt Send Me St. Louis could create a unique space with this cohort because of our Gospel-focused lens,” said Executive Director Miller, explaining how the cohort came to be.
In addition to offering gatherings throughout the year that line up with Send Me’s lens and expertise, the cohort experience offers access to area volunteer management training, including the tremendous volunteer management resources of organizations such as the Metropolitan Volunteer Management Association, Network for Strong Communities, and United Way of Greater St. Louis.
Zelle said she appreciated how the cohort allowed her to interact with other volunteer professionals and facilitators. “I was able to discuss program issues and many useful solutions were offered. In addition, the training sessions were filled with helpful information, creative ideas, and many resources to add to my toolbox.”
Impact on Projects and Programs
Several participants have shared examples of a project, program, or effort to which they applied a cohort “takeaway” and found it contributed to the success of their volunteers.
For Zelle, Shepherd’s Center grocery shopping service created during the pandemic lockdown era needed an update.
“Thanks to what I learned, especially from the Leading and Managing Change workshop, I brought the grocery assistants (volunteers) together to discuss what needed to be changed and how to change it,” explained Zelle. “The volunteers made wonderful suggestions that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of as my perspective is different working in the office. They appreciated being brought into the discussion. Today, the service is running effectively due to the input from our volunteers.”
For another participant, Melody Perkins with Grace and Peace Fellowship, the cohort helped her with understanding people at various places in their volunteering journey and with her networking among other Christians who also manage volunteers and reach out to the St. Louis community.
Perkins said a session about multi-generational volunteer management also “opened my eyes” to the perspective of much younger people and what they may be hearing and filtering when “us older” folks are communicating about plans and needs.
Not Just for the Newbie
While the cohort loosely defines “new” as those who have been in their role for less than a year, it is also beneficial for those who feel like they need to hit the reset button.
“As a 25-plus-year volunteer manager, my experiences with the cohort stand out in my mind and heart as refreshing and encouraging!” said Perkins. “The series of meetings, both teaching and networking-oriented, were refreshing because they were primarily Christ-centered, full of practical and structural instruction, and I was able to learn a great deal from others as I was also able to share in some small ways that I hope were helpful to others.”
Moving Beyond the Pilot
Feedback to Send Me St. Louis indicated the pilot cohort experience was well-planned, friendly, and focused – a refreshing opportunity for making new friends with like-minded volunteer managers who are working both within churches and outside the church toward engaging neighbors and building community.
To build upon the successful pilot in 2022, Send Me St. Louis recently announced the return of the CULTIVATE Learning Cohort for 2024, with the addition of a new component, a Capstone Project. Applications for the 2024 cohort are open through Jan. 15, 2024.
Perkins, who said she felt blessed to meet and get to know new colleagues and friends, which is not always very easy “when the need is so high in our line of work,” nicely summarized the cohort series as “wonderful little windows of time to step away from working so hard to be filled up!”