project: Marah

project management for the things that really matter

volunteering and fast food, unlikely bedfellows

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Last week, like many others, I was on the road, travelling to see family for Thanksgiving. Like many others, I found myself in traffic, running late, at a rest stop, and participating in the great American ritual of fast food.

As I stood there, surveying the multitudes, I was asked “ Would you like fries with that ?” – the classic upsell.  ( I flipped burgers in high school and know all the tricks ) Well, I didn’t want any fries, but I did get an insight into a recent conversation with my friend Becky about her involvement with her community out in Des Moines.  She became more active after someone asked her to bring snacks to the next meeting.  Five years later and she’s the head of hospitality for their annual convention.  She was basically upsold into volunteerism.

A report called “Reimagining Service” says that “People volunteer for many reasons, but mostly because they want to make a difference,” and that as leaders, “We must value their time by ensuring it is used to make the greatest difference possible.”

The excerpt by goes on to state that organizations too often focus on what the volunteers want to do instead of developing good management systems to mobilize them to solve pressing social problems.

I read all of this with great interest because I often coordinate large volunteer populations.  I find that for events there are two kinds of volunteers, the ones who have helped before the event, say on the planning committees, and then there are those who show up during the event who want to help.

A good example of this may be volunteering at a soup kitchen, or for a beach cleanup, or to build a house.  Here, there’s a plan already in place, and the day-of or ad hoc volunteers are given exact instructions on what to do. The “what to do” is also generally easy to do, and easy to explain, so one volunteer can train another. 

While I disagree that all volunteers should be provided solely with a narrow menu of choice on how to serve an organization, I do believe that knowing your volunteer organization, their goals, and the project’s intent can help to provide a much needed framework for on-boarding volunteers and providing opportunities for growth.

So, what can those managing volunteer populations can learn from the fast food industry? 

Silhouette of cheese burger and summer garden vegetables

The fast food industry in this country can trace its roots back to White Castle in the 20s, and McDonalds in the 40s.  Some basic innovations we now take for granted provide insight into reimaging the volunteer population in your organization.

First, White Castle, demystifying the hamburger. When White Castle was founded the hamburger was not seen as a gourmet item.  It was country fair or carnival food, and often given a bad reputation for being unclean, or the dregs of meat.  White Castle made the kitchen visible to the customer creating a transparency inside the process.

Transparency inside of volunteer organizations is incredibly important, as it provides individuals giving their time to see how they fit into the larger picture.  Sometimes you can see immediate results – from swinging a hammer and building a house, but other times, like stuffing envelopes or creating care packages, it can be a bit harder to understand how this all fits in.   Reporting to the volunteers on the final outcome or next phase of the project is essential in letting them know they’ve made a difference, and that the work provided matters.  Providing transparency into other phases and parts of the project can also provide an opportunity for additional involvement and enrollment.

McDonald’s has many innovations – from envisioning a faster way to serve customers, to the classic “Would you like fries with that?” up-sell.  The history of the upsell is disputed, but what’s important is that there is so much opportunity to easily upsell in the McDonald’s experience.

What this means in practical terms for managing a volunteer population is that, as a leader, you provide the opportunity to immediately participate like serving food as well as a well defined way to take it up a notch – planning menus, developing the kitchen budget, etc.   

In Project Management parlance, there are five process groups/phases of a project – Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling and Monitoring, and Closing.   In each of these lies an opportunity for immediate involvement as well as a longer term relationship.

Another study by the National Conference on Citizenship indicates that due to the recession, a large majority of Americans have reduced the amount of time they spend volunteering.

By the contrary McDonalds has demonstrated year-over-year growth, opening 600 stores in 2008.  Admittedly McDonalds achieved its growth through several measures, but it does give a whole new meaning to “would you like fries”.  Slate sums it up nicely in saying that “McDonald’s success can be chalked up to a combination of luck—which is the residue of smart planning—and savvy moves.”

As leaders in our community, we can create our own luck through smart planning and savvy moves.  When embarking on a new project for your organization, check the project goals against the goals of the organization – are they a fit?  If you’re unclear about the connection, think twice before pursuing planning.  In the plan phase, remember we always remember the big tasks. In this phase it’s useful to brainstorm the additional “nice to have” parts of the project, and during project execution you can look toward volunteers who want to take on more.  In monitoring the project or event, be clear on the project and organizational priorities, and don’t let a nice-to-have hijack your resources or take precedence over the project and organizational key goals.   In closing out a project, be sure to recognize the contributions of your volunteers, as well as illustrate how it all fits into the larger picture – the goal of the charity and the next steps possible in the interaction.   

All this can help good organizations be even better, with or without volunteers!  As a volunteer, there are plenty of ways online and off to look for opportunities… a good place to start is


Written by marahrosenberg

30 November 2009 at 9:29 pm

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