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The Stretch

Karen Baker

Chief Service Officer for CaliforniaVolunteers

Karen Baker 

Q: How do you handle the relationship between unpaid volunteers and paid employees?

A: I think the most forward-thinking 21st century nonprofits and government agencies that are smart about leveraging volunteers absolutely see it as a seamless relationship. The public that seeks "service" from government doesn't care whether the person assisting them is paid or not. The service is simply needed. However, nonprofits and government entities often don't train volunteers to be successful. That translates into everything from "onboarding" to how the organization refers to its volunteers. They're all part of your team. It's all about getting them trained to do the job and having people understand what each person's value is to the organization. The American Red Cross is actually famous for doing this correctly. They have both paid employees and unpaid volunteers and they refer to all of them as "staff". It doesn't really matter if, or what, they're paid.

Q: Have you ever had a difficult experience supervising someone?

A: One of my first big jobs was running a nonprofit homeless agency in Los Angeles called Chrysalis. I was about 28 years old, and I was committed to listening to my employees and trying to support their ideas. I had a member of my team who was 22 years old tell me he should be running a significant department. He'd only been there about four months and he wanted to run the place. I continued to listen to him. But I needed to really listen, not to what he was saying, but what his intention was. He wanted to advance. He didn't ask how to advance. He just thought he knew the path, which was to insist on it.

Q: How would you handle that differently?

A: I should have said, "What I'm really hearing you say is that you're ambitious. So let's get you on a career ladder where you work in this position, and then we'll have you go up in your skill levels and your steps." By providing a pathway, people know that you care and are concerned about them. You also need to know what you can truly and honestly offer. I was not in a position to offer this man a directorship. But what I didn't do is offer him the pathway. In hindsight, that's what I should have done.

Q: How do you approach mentoring young people?

A: My style is very direct and intense. When I attend a meeting with a mentee, I want that person to ask me a bunch of questions. 'What didn't you understand? Do you want to understand why we went in this direction?' I want to see that hunger to understand. I want someone who knows it's safe to tell me exactly what they don't know and to tell me exactly what they're curious about. Then I'm going to give you opportunities to lead a project that you're not supposed to do until you're more experienced. Those are the kinds of opportunities I was given. That's what stretched me. It wasn't climbing a traditional ladder. It was landing opportunities because someone trusted me. As a leader, one other quality you need to have besides listening is that you have to trust people. You have to trust them with tasks that are actually a little out of their reach because it's that stretch, just like working out, that makes them stronger and better skilled. Good management is about caring about your employees' career pathway, providing the challenges that stretch them and providing a safe environment for them to ask those "why" questions. That brings understanding to the employee.

This interview with Karen Baker was conducted on December 19, 2012 and has been edited and condensed. When this interview was conducted, Karen Baker was CaliforniaVolunteers Secretary of Service and Volunteering.

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