Mission possible: what happened when a military intelligence analyst become a volunteer manager

Compare intelligence work to volunteer management (not counting all those spy movie clichés). Intelligence sounds so left-brained, so centered on data and analysis while volunteer management is people-oriented and relationship-driven. And while our work may require confidentiality, it’s rarely top secret.

For one Certified Volunteer Administrator (CVA), though, military intelligence turned out to be the best preparation possible for a second career in volunteer engagement.

Jerome Tennille, is the Manager of Volunteer Services for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), an Arlington, Virginia-based organization that provides comfort and care to military families who have lost a loved one serving in the Armed Forces. He came to TAPS straight from an eight-year career as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy.

Jerome Tennille, CVA, builds relationships AND systems in his volunteer program for TAPS.

“If you had mentioned volunteer management as a possible vocation six years ago, I would have said it was not within my scope,” Jerome reflected. “I always had a limited understanding and false sense of what nonprofit work entailed. It often times centered on activist groups or food banks where you’re stuffing beans and rice in a bag for those in need. And while those types of organizations exist for good reason, they’re not representative of the over 1 million nonprofits that exist.”

Jerome was also not certain that he could be as passionate about volunteer engagement as he had been about his working in military intelligence. He took on the role at TAPS because the mission was close to his heart and he the considered the work a challenge that would broaden his horizons.

What he found was that both professions engage his strengths in creating systems and processes that allow an organization to meet its mission.

Those strengths were important for the TAPS volunteer program, which engages over 2,000 volunteer annually but had little structure in place at the various stages of the volunteer management cycle.

Now, after five years under Jerome’s guidance, the program has processes in place at every stage – and highly accurate data to track those improvements.

“We know who’s volunteering, how often they volunteer, and how those hours impacted the program or department they served. We can also fashion up impact reports that attribute volunteer hours, showing input, output and outcomes. Being able to showcase outcomes can’t happen without data accuracy.”

Jerome sees three distinct reasons for his success at TAPS.

1. He gathered information from staff and volunteers before making any changes.

“When I was in the military, there were two important principles that guided our work: IPOE, Intelligence Preparation of the Operating Environment and IBP, Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield – before making decisions, you must understand your operating environment.”

Jerome applied those principles by conducting an extensive survey of the volunteers and by interviewing the staff who supervise the volunteers. He sees his role as an intermediary and wanted to make sure that he was fully supporting both volunteers and staff. He asked each group about what was working, what wasn’t, and t how the volunteer program might better meet their needs.

2. He took action to ensure that volunteer and staff voices were included in the changes.

Those changes included:

Expanding the onboarding process beyond an email and an application form to include greater relationship-building through phone calls, face-to-face interaction and aligning the type of outreach to the various types of volunteers (students, family members, active military, etc.)
Clarifying the time commitment expectations for volunteers, so they could make an informed decision before taking on a particular role.
Formalizing the volunteer request process for staff members.
Improving volunteer training with specialized trainings for mentors and mental health therapists, and sensitivity trainings to ensure that volunteers did not unintentionally offend the military families they served.
Streamlining the recognition process. For example, each volunteer receives a letter of appreciation in a timely fashion that is cloud-based and archived, allowing the volunteer to print as many copies of the letter as needed for their own use.

3. He committed to his own professional development.

In order to succeed, Jerome realized that he needed to treat volunteer engagement as more than a job. He sought out the support of colleagues, including Liza Dyer (the mastermind behind the recent hashtag campaign), who encouraged him to pursue his CVA. Jerome is now active in volunteer manager forums and on Twitter as a champion of volunteer management, often sharing the best practices that he has developed. The position that started out as a professional “challenge” has evolved into a long-term career.

There is one more thing drives that Jerome’s success and was inspired by military experience – his willingness to take the long view.

“Some of these changes have taken years to implement, but when I get impatient, I remember the advice I received from a supervisor here at TAPS. He had served in the U.S. Army and collaborated with his Iraqi counterparts during the reconstruction. When change was slow to occur, the Iraqi officers would use an Arabic phrase: “Shway Shway”, which translates to ‘slowly.’”

”You fight the battles that you can. Change happens little by little.”

Follow Jerome on Twitter and learn more about his volunteer management philosophy @JDTennille

This blog post was written by Elise Kosarin of Twenty Hats. www.twentyhats.com twentyhats@mail.com