How To Catch Flies (and Other Lessons in Not-for-Profit Management) | By Allyson Seeney

Allyson Seeney is a student at the University of Alberta, entering her final semester of her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science. Ally started volunteering at the Campus Food Bank in September of 2010, and became the Assistant Executive Director and Volunteer Coordinator in May of 2012 to April of 2013. At the same time she became involved in the Political Science Undergraduate Association in the capacity of the VP Events & Director of Finance from April of 2011-12 and then went on to become the President between April 2012-13. Currently, she is the Research and Fundraising Assistant for Women’s Empowerment International Foundation. This is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to eliminating social injustice and supporting women and families in the most marginalized and poverty-stricken areas of central and south Asia. Allyson’s dedication to the not-for-profit sector and passionate involvement on and off of the university campus have made her an exemplary Edmontonian whose invaluable work has contributed immensely to the community. This guest essay offers us a look at the lessons to be learned from successful volunteer and organization management.

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Most families that I’ve encountered in my lifetime have at least one oddball, or a black sheep. In my family, that eccentric individual is my crazy Uncle Paul – notable for being a proud American, a practical jokester and speaking almost exclusively in clichés and idioms. When I was approximately ten years old, crazy Uncle Paul said something that left a lasting impression in my mind. He said “Remember Ally, that you will always catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” My ten-year-old self was perplexed and mildly disgusted by his suggestion. “Why would anyone want to catch flies? That’s so gross,” I thought. However, as I’ve grown older, I have come to understand the deeper meaning behind this phrase. Having worked as a Fundraising Assistant, a Volunteer Coordinator and an Assistant Executive Director, “catching flies” perfectly summarizes the secret behind my success in the not-for-profit sector.  The golden rule of managing a not-for-profit organization is that you must always treat others with kindness, compassion and authenticity.

It’s important to note that I have been educated primarily as a political scientist. Simply put, this means that I study power dynamics and socio-political relationships between individuals, institutions, nations, governments and societies. It is from this background (and with this prospective lens) that I became interested in working within the not-for-profit sector. Most charitable organizations have a mandate to address social injustice and marginalization. Although they are classified as ‘businesses’, not-for-profit organizations often examine power imbalances and try to inspire change through meaningful action (political or otherwise). After a particularly difficult year in which I found myself creating a new path in life, I decided to start volunteering in support of a cause that was personally significant. Volunteering was my way of overcoming adversity and positively contributing to my community.

As a general rule of thumb, it is always wise to be involved with something that you are passionate about. Sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what that is, but if you think back on your lived experiences, you will likely remember a few things that have sparked your interest or concern.  In our contemporary society, students are often encouraged to “go out there” and build a “network” and “make a name for themselves.” While I would agree that this is great advice, I would caution students against building a network in an ineffective and dishonest way. It would appear to me that sometimes “networking” is just another word for “shameless self-promotion.” People can often see through self-serving intentions. I have found that before you begin working or get involved in your community, you must make sure you’re doing something that you genuinely care about.

The importance of being passionate is especially significant when working for a not-for-profit organization.  Often times, you find yourself spreading awareness for the organization, convincing others of your cause and asking people for their support. Ask yourself – why should anyone listen to what I have to say? How can I convince people to pay attention to what I value? The answer is simple: be passionate and knowledgeable. From my experiences building partnerships with corporate and governmental organizations and fundraising in the greater Edmonton community, I’ve realized that if you can let your enthusiasm shine through to others, then you can create a reputation for yourself as someone that others would like to conduct business with. Metaphorically speaking, the ability to build trust and meaningful relationships is most effectively achieved with a bottle of honey in your hand and passion in your heart.

As a former volunteer coordinator, I was responsible for recruiting volunteers, hiring volunteers and training volunteers. In total, 145 volunteers were ‘accountable’ to me… but I always strived to be 100 percent accountable to the volunteers as well. I also held my position as a volunteer coordinator while acting as the president of a student organization that represents over 350 individuals. While I was able to raise lots of money, host successful events and do a lot of great things, I can wholeheartedly say that the most important thing I ever did as a not-for-profit manager was appreciate those individuals that worked so hard on my behalf. I wrote countless numbers of reference letters and thank-you cards because I recognized that NONE of what I accomplished would have been possible without the people working in my corner. On occasion, I would be approached by individuals that worked for other groups. They would look at the organizations I worked for as a model example of building a strong volunteer base. I always responded to these people the same way: “My volunteers are my friends. They stay as my volunteers because they truly believe in the work that we do, and they believe in themselves.”

Oddly enough, people are a little bit like flies. If you treat a person with kindness and show them that they are worthwhile, then they are more likely to respond to you in a positive way. I am not a business student (nor do I have any formal training pertaining to the multiple and immeasurable topics of ‘Business’).  All of the knowledge that I have acquired about conducting business with others and acting as a not-for-profit executive has been learned solely through my working, volunteering and personal experiences.  What I’ve learned from managing a not-for-profit organization is that your demeanor and ability to motivate, encourage and empathize with others will determine your success. You’re more likely to catch flies with honey than with vinegar.

Cover photograph courtesy of  Tom Seal on Flickr

Profile photograph by Wanderer editor, Skye Oleson-Cormack

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