10 Keys to Great Management, learned from an inner-city mission worker


When my family and I volunteered at an inner-city agency, I thought I would learn about showing compassion, embracing diversity, and being grateful. The last thing I thought I would learn were 10 keys to great management, especially from the mid-life, hippie-ish mission worker known as Miss Vickie.

Now, I hope you have had better bosses than I've had. A boss at a summer job (let's call her Mrs. X) was so bad that when I took Organizational Behavior in the fall semester, I aced every test by considering each question, determining what Mrs. X would do, and stating the polar opposite. My experience in the corporate world after graduation never seemed to land me with a superb organization and exceptionally functional managers. So I was glad to find, finally, that there are people (like Miss Vickie) who know how to manage.

Miss Vickie is the leader of the mission agency or what she calls a community. She lives in the upstairs of a grand (older) home in a transitional-to-dangerous neighborhood, where the poverty rate is twice the national average; downstairs, she and her teams of volunteers hold scout meetings, tutoring sessions, Bible studies, play sessions, dinners, and worship services. Community members (there are no formal membership rules but those who participate become part of this small community) are Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic; in their homes, there are adults who are struggling due to a variety of ills including racial and social class prejudice, mental and physical disabilities, and substance abuse.

When Miss Vickie pitches for volunteers and donations to members of area churches, she makes dramatic pleas that make me think of her as an actress. But seeing her in action at her workplace shows me that, really, she is a competent manager.  

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Define your mission: The agency provides a sense of community and offers social, academic, and spiritual development activities to neighborhood children and families; it does not offer crisis services to the general population.

2. Define your target audience: Community members come from families who are not properly functioning and have experienced abuse or neglect in their homes.

3. Determine your capacity and serve only that amount so that you can maintain your quality: The capacity is typically defined as space in the house and volunteer force needed to support activities. (If 20 children need tutoring but only 15 people will commit to sessions, then 15 children are served.)

4. Accept all people but set boundaries and standards for behavior: Community members and volunteers are welcome just as they are, but they don’t just drop by: they come for specific activities or by special arrangement at designated times. Middle of the night, spur of the moment requests are not honored. Volunteer groups, such as mine, who play with kids and provide a simple meal, need to have enough adults so that Miss Vickie feels comfortable with the adult/child ratio. Other rules: teen volunteers are to participate with, rather than serve, their peers; tutors must commit for a full semester.

5. Educate your staff and not just on a need-to-know basis: Volunteers attend briefings before community members arrive for activities. They are told about the goals of the session and informed of any unusual circumstances that may affect interactions with community members.

6. Give job descriptions and make assignments: During the briefing, volunteer duties are explained and specific assignments are given to individual or groups of volunteers (for example, one adult will be assigned to watch over an 18-month-old child while groups of adults can interact with older children).

7. Give people general guidelines but let them make decisions: The guideline given to my group for meal preparation was “no lasagna.” Actually, we were advised that the kids didn't like lasagna; we then made the "no lasagna" rule. Everything for the dinner was up to us including menu selection and meal preparation, serving, and clean-up.

8. Be accountable: Miss Vickie takes accountability for all that happens in her community. Volunteers are there to help.

9. Maximize all resources: All services are provided, the household is run, and Miss Vickie’s salary is paid on an annual budget of approximately $60,000.

10. Show appreciation: Donations and volunteer hours are promptly and cheerfully acknowledged in writing.

So, my volunteer experience has morphed into Management 101. Seeing a competent, responsible manager in action has been gratifying.

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Guest's picture

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Guest's picture

You're absolutely bang-on with these 10 principles. You implied another important managerial talent that I thought was worth highlighting: "Miss Vickie pitches for volunteers and donations to members of area churches . . ." In other words, she not only has to do a great job managing in the challenging environment of minimal resources and volunteer workers, but she also is responsible for robust external relationships on which her work totally depends.

Besides making Miss Vickie even more eligible for recognition and honor, it suggests an additional principle for good management:

11. Recognize the necessity of managing important external relationships as well as internal ones. If you aren't talented in both areas, find a partner to help.

A really good manager provides "air cover" for his/her people. So even if your external constituencies don't provide your funding or volunteer workers, keeping your folks from unnecessary static from outside or above enables them to focus on what's important.


Julie Rains's picture

You're right that relationships matter, and are critical to success. The contrast in her styles, though consistent with her values, separated them to me, so that I didn't necessarily tie the external (donors) with the internal (volunteers).

In this particular case, many donors become volunteers and volunteers become donors or even more committed donors. So providing a good experience to volunteers and preserving your quality can drive long-term success.