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Beyond the Basics

Beyond the Basics of VISTA Supervision


VISTA Supervision/Management

My VISTA has done an excellent, commendable job of organizing a community response to serious poverty problem. I know I can't reward my VISTA with a raise, or cash bonus, what are some examples of ways that I can show my appreciation?

Specific praise goes an incredibly long way. Think about what it is your VISTA has done well and tell them about it, over lunch -your treat. Let them know they can count on you for a letter of recommendation, and help networking with community nonprofit leaders once they're ending their term. I bet your VISTA would appreciate it if your organization paid a month of their rent, or more. Remember, this needs to be an arrangement directly between you and the landlord or rental company.

My VISTA is doing pretty well, but was expecting that they would have more ownership over the project. What can I do?

Meet immediately with your VISTA and outline your expectations in clear, concise terms. Explain the extent to which you are happy letting them have control of the project. Explain the current state of the project's resources (dollars, volunteers, meeting space, a vehicle, sponsor commitment, etc.) Sometimes, for a person to feel like he or she truly is part of the work, they need to know they are trusted, and furthermore, what exactly they have at their disposal. Ask yourself "What would I need to do the job I'm asking my VISTA to do?" If the answer is quite a lot that your VISTA currently doesn't have, see what you can do to address it. Remember, every job has a learning curve. Intentional training, patience and support go a long way in this business.

My VISTA doesn't seem to be much of a self-starter, and after a couple of months, I'm expending more time assigning tasks than I'd ever anticipated. How do I build my VISTA's capacity to self-motivate and self-direct his or herself?

This is a tricky question, and there's no simple answer. Like lots of things in life, building people's capacity to do more, and do it better is a process and not a quick fix. I suggest:

  • Starting with a frank, well-thought-through dialogue about expectations, both yours and your VISTA's. Discuss what you both ultimately envision your role as supervisor looking like, and very clearly, and with examples, raise the issue that you would like your VISTA to take a lead role in the project's direction. To accomplish that, your VISTA will need to assume greater responsibility. . 

Can I fire my VISTA?

No, but you can request that your VISTA immediately discontinue their service with your site. Please let the PRC know well before any problem escalates to that point, please. Ultimately the only person in Montana who can release a VISTA from service is CNCS' director.

VISTA and Supervisor Roles

We're just planning to use our VISTA to write grants, is that alright?

No, it's not alright. Not usually. VISTAs can, and should, help communities implement their strategic plans, and fundraising through all sorts of means, including grants, is absolutely encouraged. However, all communities need to have developed a strategic plan first. If a community group has existed for a long time prior to the VISTA joining the work, and a well supported strategic plan has already been created, make sure the VISTA is thoroughly oriented to that work. It is very frustrating to lack the background of a community project. Make sure your VISTA gets all copies of past minutes, copies of any publications that have been created, all past grant proposals, and make sure they get a chance to meet, both as a group and individually with group members.

If the community has not yet engaged in the community building process, you are in that wonderful place called the beginning, and luckily, you have a great resource in the form of your VISTA who receives training and support about what to do. You can start fresh and do things correctly by using the community building process.

Start at the beginning and don't jump the proverbial gun and assume that you've already got community support for your project if you don't. There will be some heated debate about what the problem is and what to do about the problem, and if there hasn't been that dialogue yet, then you have no business implementing a strategy like grant writing.

The great example that CNCS (VISTA's sponsoring agency) uses is the community that "needs" a teen center, but that has not involved a single teenager or parent of a teenager in the planning or decision making process leading up to that strategy. When the teen center finally opens, attendance is low and the place shuts down in a few months due to little community support. Community building is methodical, time consuming work. VISTAs have historically proved themselves invaluable in organizing community responses to problems. Make use of your VISTA to clearly define community needs, and help raise awareness, gather support and ultimately determine a plan of action for working to address those needs. Strategies should be dynamic, and look for resources both inside and outside your community. VISTAs can lead community mapping exercises that help outline many of the resources that exist in your community, as well as potential resources such as partnerships waiting to be tapped.

So, that brings us to our original question about grant writing. It's fine if a VISTA writes grants to help fund a truly well-supported community plan. However if your community isn't ready to implement strategies, because it hasn't done the proper background work, grant writing is a very frustrating endeavor. In fact, this is one of the main reasons that VISTAs have become disgruntled and quit projects.

What are some acceptable activities for VISTAs during their terms of service?

Great question, and one with hundreds of answers. Essentially, as long as the activity is moving a community toward a sustainable change that will meaningfully address a poverty problem (related to hunger, housing and mentoring) you should be alright. VISTAs should do their work as often as possible through advisory boards and groups. VISTA facilitate community change, they don't drive it.

We're having our VISTA help us with our publications, putting on our fundraising event and coordination of volunteers. That's okay, right?

A. No. If those alone are the responsibilities of your VISTA this year, that is not alright. You in fact run the risk of having your VISTA moved to a site where they will be placed in a position where they help to build new capacity.

The reason we're so direct about this, is because VISTAs can not displace staff members, and these are all 'ongoing' responsibilities that should ultimately be handled by staff members or a fundraising committee of your board. If you don't have a board, then voila, there is the work that your VISTA should be doing. Rallying community members to support the work of your organization, and helping develop new funding so you can afford the staff member to develop a newsletter is capacity building. Writing the newsletter is not.

We have historically been flexible about all of these tasks, and certainly will continue to be somewhat flexible; however, it is our job to see that you do what you proposed when you asked for your VISTA. So: this is the question I'd like you to ask next time you consider assigning a task like creating a publication to your VISTA. How will this publication directly benefit the low income community? If the answer is somewhat hard to come up with, I think you may see where we're coming from. VISTAs need to spend their years getting your organization better equipped to serve more low-income people, or to better meet their needs. While publications are nice, and they do help raise community awareness, your VISTA's time is better spent interviewing board members, and facilitating them as they work to define what sustainability means to your organization.

We run a program that's based largely on a federal/state/private grant. We plan to use our VISTA to help us fine tune the program, recruit some volunteers and operate more smoothly. Is that okay?

If you run an anti-poverty program that is based to a very large degree (90% or more) on a grant, you have no business using your VISTA do any of the above. Everyone knows that grants come and go, and somehow, over the years many poverty problems have stayed with us or gotten worse. Common wisdom tells us that putting all of our eggs in one basket is a bad decision. Why do it with antipoverty work? Research suggests that grants should only account for between 30 and 40% of any healthy organization's budget. The remaining revenue sources should be a diverse mix of sponsorships, local support, fees for service, memberships, fundraisers and waived expenses.

Only those communities that have truly come together to work on their poverty problems have effected meaningful change. Your VISTA needs to help your program to sustain itself and diversify the support and funding for this program. Any other use of their time is wasteful.

Both you and your VISTA need to be working with community members from all walks of life, including the low-income community, business, government, nonprofit, etc. Those people ultimately need to be brought in deeply to the work you are doing, so that once your seed money has ended, the program doesn't end as well.


What exactly does "sustainability" mean to the VISTA program? Furthermore, these projects are partnerships where at least two entities have a stake in the outcome. Which, if either, is the priority? Are there competing 'sustainability' priorities?

Easy does it, that sounded like about fifteen questions rolled somehow into one! I guess when you open up that faucet, a lot of water comes out... That's par for the course with issues that are this central to our work. Now, let's see if we can't sort through all of this.

Sustainability is the act of being sustained. Some synonyms, or parts of the definition are:

  • Supported by a community – you have a community board which includes members of the low-income community;
  • Effective in providing services deemed necessary by the community;
  • Economically solvent (able to pay costs and function);
  • Making use of a variety of funding and operational support;
  • Transparently governed;
  • Managed with accountability;
  • Dynamic, or able to adjust to changing needs and new challenges.

We view each VISTA project (the individual work site, e.g. Big Brothers/Big Sisters or a local school district) as "a community initiative." Essentially a good idea looking to find community energy and support. VISTAs, working with their site supervisors and community members, help to catalyze support around that initiative to the point where it has its own momentum. VISTA go about that by employing the 6 step community building process from which each VISTA project work plan is built.

So, where does that leave us? Well, I get a little worried dealing strictly in the theoretical here, so let me see if we can't find a suitable anecdote that illustrates 'sustainability' nicely: The UM-Helena College of Technology started by recognizing several community needs (mentoring, nonprofit volunteer recruitment, low-cost technical support for nonprofits) and placing a VISTA with their campus so they could, in three years time, actively respond to those needs. Ultimately, sustainability at the UM-H will mean having an office that promotes service-learning as a response to community needs, organizes service projects and a staff person to promote community partnerships.

The UM-Helena College of Technology has moved, in three years time, from having no official locus for service-learning and civic engagement  to hosting an Office of Community Involvement and a small budget to operate.

At the state and Federal levels, VISTA requires that we, as a program (which defaults to you, the individual projects that comprise our program) show improvements to specific poverty problems within one of our three focus areas (housing, hunger and mentoring) in a maximum of three years time, per project. So, if you have started by demonstrating that there is a 16 ton annual deficit in the demand for emergency food resources in a community, in three years time, VISTA expects sustainability to mean that at the end of the project that you have either eliminated, or reduced that need substantially.

We got to the stage in the community building process where we got a community advisory group together and then after the VISTA left, the project kind lost a lot of its steam. What happened? What can we do?

Unfortunately, this is a regular occurrence. The best way to ensure that once the VISTA leaves, the work of the project continues is to follow the community building process closely, to delegate responsibilities effectively and move at the speed your community moves. It may take you 5 meetings to determine exactly what problem you are going to address. It may take 15. Let this happen at its own pace, and let people feel like they are not only part of the solution, but involved deeply in defining the scope of the work that will happen. Once you are at a stage where your community board will develop a strategic plan, let them develop position descriptions.

There's kind of a break-even point that you will need to use to determine when enough time has been spent making sure that your participants level of ownership is high,  and that too much time isn't spent so that people begin to drop out because they get frustrated. This takes active facilitation, and it isn't easy. You and your VISTA should share facilitation responsibilities until your VISTA is comfortable making requests of your community board, holding them accountable to their timelines, etc.

What can you do? The best thing to do, is to anticipate this problem, and utilize your VISTA to build community infrastructure to support the initiative until it develops its own 'legs,' so to speak. After the fact, the best you can do is regroup, get the board together, assess their exact level of commitment, delegate tasks and move on from there.

We're an organization that's been in existence for several years. We've essentially already sustained the organization, but we need help with a new initiative. We've requested a VISTA to help us streamline and improve our programming. How do we show improvement?

Existing organizations are well-placed to address to poverty problems, and we certainly don't want you to reinvent the wheel, so make it clear to your VISTA that the organization is in good shape, but there is a community need which you would like to begin to address. You will show improvement just like any other project. At the end of three years, the maximum time allowable for any VISTA project, you need to have brought about substantial change to a poverty problem. This can be done partially by starting a new program within your organization, or strengthening an existing one, beginning a new partnership or collaboration.

It can be confusing to be a VISTA placed with an organization like yours, and they often:

  • struggle to understand the nature of their project,
  • feel as though their work is not important,
  • and end up working on projects not specifically related to a poverty problem.

Please don't let any of those things happen. Go out of your way to explain what the poverty problem you will address is, in the clearest terms possible, and make sure the VISTA is aware that this problem is one that your organization is not currently able to deal with effectively, and they are expected to help you change that.

What are some websites that are good resources in the community building business?