Enhancing Volunteer Engagement Using the Art of Hosting and Harvesting Meaningful Conversation

Terry Straub

I had never heard of The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) until becoming part of the University of Minnesota’s 2011 President’s Emerging Leaders Cohort (PEL). PEL brought 25 individuals from across the University system (including greater Minnesota campuses) to learn about various leadership topics. Some of the goals of this program were to articulate leadership competencies required at the University and demonstrate initial steps in developing them; and tap the talents and expertise of staff from a range of units and operations to support the University’s mission through collaborative leadership. To put theory into practice, each member was assigned to a team to work with on a project sponsored by a University department. While learning to work with five individuals we’d never before met, we also had to decide on a project that helped us in our leadership skill building, but was also of personal interest. While I had hoped to work on a project that I could relate back to my own work with volunteers, I did not expect to work on one that was so well suited to volunteer engagement.

It took our team several weeks to decide on a project—much later than many other teams in our co-hort. Part of our delay was trying to understand what the Art of Hosting was all about. Online searches offered some information, but often times we ran into jargon and confusing language. Even after we decided taking it on as a project, it still took a couple months to actually understand the practice. I don’t think any member of my team was comfortable with the topic until we attended an actual three-day Art of Hosting training. Then—wham!—things fell into place. By the end of our three-days, I was even brave enough to participate in a ProAction Café to gather ideas about how to incorporate Art of Hosting practices into our monthly volunteer leadership team meetings.

As a professional leader of volunteer programs, I find the Extension Master Gardener Program rather unique. Not only do volunteers pay $300 to receive their initial 50-hour training, but they also give 50 hours of community service and pursue an additional 12 hours of continuing education during their first year. Procedures and structures differ from county to county, but in more and more instances, volunteers are educating the public and leading other volunteers in the work done in the communities we serve. In 2012, 323 Master Gardener volunteers in Hennepin County provided 19,539 hours of service, equivalent of 9.3 full-time employees working 40 hours for 52 weeks. With only one full-time staff person to oversee the work done by this outstanding group, it is imperative that volunteers take leadership roles and help guide program activities.

Art of Hosting techniques are a great tool to engage volunteers in leadership roles. Employing these techniques in our monthly “business” meetings and other sessions has breathed new life into our program and how we interact with each other. The story that follows captures many of the ways I have incorporated Art of Hosting practices into our program and what has resulted.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Asking Powerful Questions as a Leadership Team

Our group is led by 10 volunteers who help oversee the spending of money raised by our volunteers, and provide guidance and feedback on projects and experiences with the program. We meet on a monthly basis, follow Robert’s Rules of Order, and use a traditional printed agenda to share information. There are typical agenda items that need to be covered, the most important being the report and discussion of our finances. Three years ago we created a strategic plan. We were challenged with trying to figure out how to discuss and implement goals and outcomes of the plan into our traditional structure. Through the use of powerful questions, we decided on a new format to our meetings, basically using the first 40 minutes of our time together for a meal (which we had always done) but with an added discussion of a topic related to the strategic plan. This has helped build community around the meal, but also ensures our plan is discussed and steps are taken to implement components of the plan. We then move into our traditional reports, but they are shorter, and focus on subjects that the entire team needs to know, or problems to be solved. There are other Art of Hosting practices that we may be able to incorporate over time, such as a check-out question to end the meeting and using a “flow” technique for agendas but, for now, the simple change of structure has enabled more meaningful work to occur.

Gathering Mentor Wisdom

New volunteers, called “interns,” are assigned a mentor to assist them during their first year with our program. Before mentors and interns start working together, we hold training for mentors so they are aware of current program expectations and best practices for mentor/intern relationships. We use the traditional “talking head” model where someone would stand in front of the room, review expectations, and then a panel of experienced mentors would share best practices and tips for a successful mentor/intern relationship. While this model has worked, through Art of Hosting I realized that using the World Café-style model with Powerful Questions could make the experience more meaningful for volunteers and tap the knowledge about mentoring within the room. With an overall question of “What does it mean to be a Hennepin County Master Gardener mentor?” and three deeper, clarifying questions—“What are you hoping to get from this year’s Mentor experience?” “What has worked for you in the past as a mentor? Share a best practice.” and “Is there anything you fear or have questions about for the coming year’s Mentor experience?”—we were able to develop a list of best practices for the year. Feedback from mentors, both new and long-term, was overwhelmingly positive.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Celebrating Our New Members

The first year for a new volunteer in our program can be challenging. To become a “certified Master Gardener Volunteer,” new members must attend a 50-hour “core course” in horticulture, provide 50 hours of community service, and pursue 12 hours of continuing education in horticulture. Surprisingly, most new members achieve this, with many going above and beyond those expectations (in 2012, the average number of volunteer service hours contributed by our new members was 81–30% more than the requirement). Obviously, we like to celebrate intern achievements at the end of the year.

These celebrations usually involved food, a cake, and a focus group discussion where we collected feedback. While we received useful feedback using this model, not all were comfortable with providing feedback in a large group setting, especially with the program coordinator leading the discussion. In 2012, I started using Art of Hosting techniques, including starting and ending the session with check-in/check-out questions, a visual flow and a World Café technique. Leadership Team volunteers acted as table hosts, recording the conversations that came from our Powerful Questions. Conversations and photos from the event were collected into a document and then were shared with participants. Changes were made to the 2013 intern experience based on the conversations that occurred during this celebration.

Learning from Each Other

In February 2013, the University of MN Landscape Arboretum sponsored a Schoolyard Garden Conference. Several volunteers from our program attended this one-day event, which consisted of numerous PowerPoint presentations and panel discussions. Discussions were held during the lunch hour, so there was little time for our volunteers to connect and discuss what they were learning. There were so many ideas presented that it was hard for me, the program coordinator, to synthesize the information and format an implementation plan. It was time to bring in the Art of Hosting techniques! We gathered on a night when as many of the volunteers who attended the conference were available as possible. Using a visual flow, check-in/check-out, and World Café, we were able to gather what was learned at the conference, and then develop a plan to begin best schoolyard gardens practices in the county.

Recruiting New Volunteers

We’ve even been able to utilize Art of Hosting techniques in recruiting new volunteers to our program. We discovered that one of the barriers for entry is our application process. In addition to questions about life experiences, the application has five horticultural dilemmas for applicants to solve. Many applicants do not realize that in our county, applying to our program is highly competitive, and these questions are used to weed people out. So we get a variety of applications, some handwritten with very brief answers. These individuals usually do not even get a personal interview, despite having skills we could use in the program.

In 2012, we used Art of Hosting techniques at volunteer outreach sessions. Community members interested in applying to our program were invited to attend one of these sessions. Each session started with a check-in question, a short overview of the program, and small group format where current volunteers covered five topics in seven minutes, with participants moving from topic to topic in small groups. Topics included how to complete our application, a discussion of what Master Gardener volunteers actually do, a description of what our core course training, and a “Stump the Master Gardener” session where participants could ask a volunteer anything they wanted. In addition to potential volunteers getting more information about the program, current volunteers were able to share their knowledge in a nontraditional way. This process also allowed a chance for potential volunteers to “opt out,” deciding that our program was not a good fit for them.

The Art of Hosting techniques are ideal for use with today’s volunteers. Our aging Baby Boomers and generations of volunteers that follow, are interested in sharing their skills. While generational research has been done by numerous organizations nationally, our local Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) conducted focus groups with their members from across the State of MN. These focus groups, along with other research, helped develop a list of “12 Best Practices of Engaging Boomers and New Generations of Volunteers”. These Best Practices are a shift from the way things have been traditionally done in volunteer programs, and actually have elements of Art of Hosting. Using Art of Hosting techniques to accomplish all 12 Best Practices will lead to a better engaged volunteer pool, not only enriching the experience of the volunteer, but ultimately leading to better service in our communities.