Helping Parents and (Other Potential Volunteers) Say: “Sign Me Up!”

sign me up

My parents have had the same hairstyles for over 50 years. They’re incredibly immune to cultural pressure to change and phenomenal at ignoring (or diplomatically refusing) public and personal requests. Yet, somehow, one winter they parked their cars outside – in the Syracuse snow – so our garage could become an Indian River grapefruit distribution center, benefiting a marching band fundraiser. Just how this transformation occurred remains one of the great mysteries of my childhood.

As an adult music educator, I have worked to find ways to leverage the principles I think were at play in the “fruit mystery” to encourage even the most passive and resistant parents to step up. 

Something Bigger than Ourselves

In “Leaders Eat Last,” Simon Sinek says, “This is what it means to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. That we are part of a movement that will live on beyond the goals we set or the lives of the people who set them. It’s the camaraderie and shared purpose, as much as the milestones we set, that give our lives meaning.” 

I think my parents signed up because Dr. Jeff Renshaw, my high school marching band director, started with “Why.” My parents responded to a cause extending beyond themselves because it benefited their kids in ways they valued. 

Music educators always need volunteers, right?! Over the years I’ve experienced success assembling volunteer teams for a variety of events, but it wasn’t until I attended a seminar with leadership guru Marcus Buckingham that I realized what contributed to this success. A portion of his presentation focused on what makes a great team. Buckingham recognized that great teams share common characteristics. 

Common Characteristics of Great Teams

Not surprisingly, members of high-performing teams self identify as being enthusiastic about the mission of their companies. They clearly understand what is expected of them individually, indicating they understand the purpose. Team members feel they have the chance to use their strengths every day and feel surrounded by people who share their values, and are committed to working with them in the pursuit of excellence. They are confident they will be recognized for excellent individual work, and will be supported by their teammates. These individuals also feel challenged to grow and have confidence in their company’s future. 

While these elements were pretty much what I expected, I was shocked by the unexpected column headings of “we” and “me” in the Marcus Buckingham chart below: 

“We” “Me”
Purpose I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company. At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.
Excellence In my team, I’m surrounded by people who share my values. I have a chance to use my strengths everyday at work.
Support My teammates have my back. I know I will be recognized for excellent work.
Future I have great confidence in my company’s future. in my work, I am always challenged to grow.

I hadn’t realized until I saw this chart that I’d instinctively always built simultaneously on two platforms; one which benefited the individual (the “me”) and one which benefited the group (the “we”). Just like any top-performing enterprise, music ensembles are at their best when both the individual and the group are growing. It’s this combination of feeling good about contributing to something greater AND feeling good about personal growth that was the unexpected component for me, and it’s a vital one.

Check out the chart above, and think about the culture you create every day in both your ensemble rehearsals and in all your volunteer teams. Think about the way you run your rehearsals. How do you keep stretching your musicians to grow personally AND as an ensemble? Think about how you could extend that vibe to your volunteer teams. We and Me. Lightbulb, right?!

Building Community by Creating a “Why”

As music educators, we can sometimes feel isolated from other departments in our academic settings. How would it look if we were able to find ways to tear down our silos and instead foster community? How would this play out in a practical setting? What are some ways to create the “why” that transforms the reluctant into contributors? 

See if you can apply the following example from my role as church choral director to your situation.

One of my craziest volunteer challenges yet was to host a Christmas dinner for over 300 international students at a nearby university. We had a budget of zero dollars, couldn’t charge admission, didn’t have any volunteers, and had only one person on the leadership team. Since I’d forgotten to look at my toes during that part of the staff meeting, that one person was me! 

As I thought about how to begin the “ask,” I realized I’d been blessed with the girders for a “why” bridge as the sermon series that fall was all about generosity. The series talked about generosity of time, talent, touch, truth and treasure. This would be the perfect opportunity to give people the chance to practice these types of generosity. 

My “up-front pitch” during a morning service described the leadership’s vision for a dinner where we would model the generosity of our community to create a special evening for hundreds of international students. I explained how we needed people to give an hour or two of “Time” to work behind the scenes in ways they could select online. I pulled together a “Talent” team driven by our choir with a surprising number of extras who came to rehearse some a cappella Christmas carols over several weeks of rehearsals. Our “Touch” team members helped serve the food in the buffet lines, the “Truth” team helped lead ice breaker questions at the tables and the “Treasure” people contributed our funds. I created this simple sign up sheet (template for your personalization is available here) so that I could collect contact information and begin building the database to use for online sign-ups and communication. 

Sign-Up Genius offers a great FREE way to break down big tasks into bite-size chunks so that your volunteers can choose how and when they’d like to help. If you don’t have an account you should check it out.

Because I’d been able to hitch this volunteer wagon to the current leadership vision and help our community see a way in which they could use their unique skills in a meaningful way, this evening was a special night for the guests and hosts.

What are the vision phrases being tossed around in your professional arena? How could you use those ideas to accomplish growth for your program and greater awareness and involvement that reaches beyond your program while helping your leadership to accomplish their objectives?

Magic Words

As you lead, don’t forget to use your “magic words.” In my experience “please” and “thank you” play a surprisingly large role in anyone’s ability to retain volunteers. I work hard to pay attention to what each volunteer is contributing to the whole. I often take the opportunity to recognize their efforts either by thanking them directly or by “gossiping” the praise to someone else. 

Don’t discount the power of direct and indirect praise. For example, in my epic dinner adventure, I had neglected to make a category for chopping up the over 100 lbs of chicken. Oops! This oversight was brought to my attention as I was profusely thanking our volunteer who delivered the meat. I’m convinced it was my “thanks” that prompted him to both ask who was going to cut the meat and then as he realized my oversight, to grab a buddy of his and spend over an hour chopping together. Problem solved! Remember, feeling appreciated is on the Buckingham chart and gratitude greases the skids of teamwork. Exercise your thankfulness and you’ll find yourself in the enviable position of leading a team who watches their leader’s back! 

After any such event, consider sending an email blast to help everyone recognize ways in which their individual efforts contributed to the whole. I use MailChimp to create personalized email newsletters to communicate with my teams. This free program makes it easy to email a large group while protecting the privacy of people’s contact information and you can share photos of your event too.

Sometimes the actual “event” is crazy busy and a team may be so focused on managing their “corner” that they lose track of the whole and a picture really can be worth a thousand words. A program like MailChimp is a great way to help spotlight what’s been accomplished and sharing successes encourages future success.

So, start thinking about how you could create the “why,” pitch a vision in a compelling way, and help your volunteers recognize what they’ve accomplished and feel appreciated. With these simple tools, it’s likely you’ll be able to accomplish goals far beyond what you’d thought possible when you began. 

Marjie Danielson Brake serves as choral director at Trinity Baptist Church in Fairfield and conducts the Kingsmen Singers Chamber Choir at Christian Heritage School in Trumbull, CT. She oversees the Young Musicians Piano Festival of the Schubert Club of Fairfield County, teaches piano, studies, performs and writes. Marjie holds a B.S. in music education from the Crane School of Music (SUNY Potsdam), a master’s degree in music education from the Hartt School of Music, and is pursuing a masters in biblical and theological studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. Her husband and kids agree that her ongoing love of learning is contagious, inspiring her students, ensembles, and the many volunteers who serve with her.

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