When Staff Doesn’t ‘Like’ a Volunteer

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adult art conceptual dark

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Mimi talks. A lot. About herself, about her trips, and about her grandchildren. She talks about the cashier at the grocery store who had surgery last month and now is having some pain in her side. It’s all harmless chatter, but staff roll their eyes and avoid Mimi when she volunteers. They don’t want to be around her. They don’t really like her.

But Mimi does her work well. She inputs survey results accurately and efficiently. She’s dependable. She’s smart, and because she’s smart, she sees staff embracing other volunteers, and she wonders why staff seems to avoid her. After all, it’s about doing good work, isn’t it?

All volunteer managers face the challenge of a capable volunteer who is not liked by staff. Staff scatters when this volunteer arrives. Staff tries not to interact with this volunteer but warmly welcomes other volunteers they like.

Often the situation is no more than staff reluctantly putting up with the disliked volunteer. Staff may knowingly smile and say, “well, that’s just the nature of working with volunteers,” or may grumble to you in private. Or they may request that you not call  “volunteer Harvey, the one who complains a lot.” And sometimes, staff can push back and isolate the volunteer, lobby to get rid of the volunteer or find faults where none exist.

It begs these questions: What effect does a volunteer’s behavior and attitude have on their role? Is it different from employees’ roles? And, how far does this behavior scope reach?

We’ve all had to work with a fellow employee we dislike. But because that employee was on the payroll, we were forced to figure out how to work with him/her. We couldn’t just say, “hey, I don’t like Chenelle, so I’m not dealing with her.” Nope, Chenelle was going to be there, day in and day out so we were left to find a way to work with one another. Figuring out a way to work alongside fellow employees is expected behavior.

It’s different with volunteers. Volunteers are free to come and go and they’re not volunteering 40 hours a week. (if they are, that’s a whole separate bucket of trouble) They can quit, or take a leave of absence at any time. We, volunteer managers make this fact clear so we can advocate for good volunteer treatment as a retention strategy.

So, then it isn’t a stretch to take this idea (volunteers are transient and unfettered) a step further. If we expect staff to understand that volunteers will come and go as they please, why shouldn’t staff feel as though they can pick and choose whom they wish to work with because, “hey, you said volunteers come and go as they please?”

The plea that staff must accept volunteers, work with them and make their experience pleasant makes little sense to them when paired with the idea that volunteers are temporary or fleeting or unfettered by paid positions. The reality is, a staff member is stuck having to get along with a fellow annoying staff member. They’re not so stuck getting along with an annoying volunteer.

What does your organizational policy say about working with volunteers? Does it mirror policy on working with fellow staff? Most likely it does not. Maybe it says something broad like staff will respect volunteer help. It probably doesn’t make clear that staff will be held responsible for retaining volunteers. And so, disliked volunteers can and will be treated as a temporary nuisance because figuring out a way to work alonside volunteers is not expected behavior. Expected behavior is on the volunteer manager, who is expected to provide volunteers that don’t require any extra work from staff. 

Where does that leave us then? Back to recruiting volunteers over and over because personalities are intertwined with volunteer success and we must find “non-annoying” volunteers?

We can rant all we want about the unfairness of treating volunteers differently from staff, but we have to remember that we highlight volunteer uniqueness by reminding staff that volunteers are with us by choice. It’s a conundrum, one worth exploring later, but we need to deal with individual scenarios now. So what to do?

This is an area in which volunteer managers will utilize every mediation skill they possess. It can be as draining and nuanced as trying to make the haughty family cat “like” your grabby 4 year old niece.

The first step is to identify the behaviors making staff cringe. What is it about the volunteer that annoys the staff? For many, if not most cases, you, the volunteer manager will already know, because the offending behavior probably annoys you too. Some common offenses are:

  • talking too much
  • sharing or foisting political, religious or other world views on everyone
  • arrogance or criticisms in a patronizing way
  • inappropriate remarks
  • joking constantly
  • pushing to socialize outside the workplace or sharing personal problems
  • arriving late

Maybe you cringe too, when this volunteer arrives. Maybe you find yourself checking your watch when this volunteer is talking to you. Maybe you find it difficult to “sell” or defend this volunteer to staff.

But what if this volunteer does a really good job? What if they have mad skills or knowledge and potential? How do we mediate behavior so staff will respectfully work with this volunteer?

Our first step is to pinpoint the annoying behavior with concrete examples. We can and should include behavioral identification questions when gathering feedback from staff. In addition to questions crafted around the volunteer’s work, we also need to ferret out any potential problems due to behavior. Some behavior questions can include:

  • When volunteer Amy is working in your department, do you see any behaviors that inhibit her ability to get the job done? (she’s often late to the job)
  • When volunteer Juwan is here, does he exhibit any behaviors that impede your ability to get your job done? (He asks too many questions and I can’t concentrate on my work)
  • Does volunteer Stuart fit in with our culture? What behaviors does he exhibit that support your opinion? (He often talks about his religious beliefs) or.. (He always asks how he can help)

Behaviors are concrete actions and therefore much easier to identify, pinpoint and address than attitudes.

A volunteer’s attitude is inferred by his/her behavior. A volunteer who talks too much or jokes or complains may appear to think that staff time is not valuable or the work is not important. A volunteer who makes patronizing comments can be seen as someone who is arrogant and condescending. A volunteer who shares personal issues will appear to be “needy” and self-involved.

These perceived attitudes make the volunteer unlikable.  And that’s where we come in with all of our nuanced mediation skills.

How do you deal with a disliked volunteer?

Next time: Part 2, a success story and the volunteer manager toolbox.

-Meridian

 

 

 

Should Our Volunteer Ads Be More “Real?”

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Opening her laptop, Yvonne peered at a tiny picture in the daily feed. She studied the photograph of the child in a hospital bed and something inside of her clicked so she opened a new tab and searched for “hospital volunteers needed.” Numerous volunteer ads popped up.

“Volunteer with us, bring your caring heart.”

“The life you change may just be your own.”

“Our volunteers are priceless.”

“Take that first step and volunteer to help.”

Yvonne took in the photos of volunteers working together, triumphant smiles on their busy faces. She imagined how dynamic these volunteers must be, and here she was, shy, insecure, and full of doubts. She wasn’t like them. They were so…amazing and who was she kidding, she was just stumbling through life. With a wistful sigh, Yvonne closed the tab and moved on.

Social comparisons: How do we know if we’re good, or smart or accomplished? We compare. We look for people who are similar to us or are in a similar arena. We look at our lives and the lives of others around us and sometimes we win and sometimes we fail miserably. (all in our heads of course)

There are a huge variety of reasons folks don’t volunteer. Heck, volunteer managers twist into knots trying to make everything perfect to attract volunteers. Beyond the changing volunteer needs such as flexible schedules, meaningful experiences and episodic or virtual opportunities, is Yvonne’s reason another one to consider?

I remember a conversation I had a while back with a friend, Judy. I had been trying to get Judy to volunteer for years. She would be perfect, I always thought. Funny, no-nonsense, industrious, she would bring an air of authenticity.

“No,” she said emphatically. “I’m not volunteering. You guys are all so, I don’t know, smiley.” At the time I laughed, but Judy’s perception stayed in my head. And it made me wonder if there were others like Judy out there.

Do they think “That’s not me. I’m not that selfless, or happy or giving or whole. I look at volunteer pictures on websites, or Facebook and see volunteers, arms around each other as they pose in front of the playground they built or the building they painted or the kids they saved and I think, “I can’t be that. I’m flawed.”

Do they read the newspaper and see volunteers receiving awards and think, “Good for them. They must be perfect. It’s too hard for me.”

Does posting pictures of our photographic moments set up some people to fail at social comparison? Do we sometimes erroneously assume anyone who looks at the pictures will automatically want to be one of those volunteers? Maybe we could add in some other words or images to connect with hesitant prospective volunteers.

Today in advertising, real people have mostly replaced the old, stereotypical perfect people. Is there a way to re-imagine popular volunteer slogans to appeal to the “I’m not perfect like them” prospective volunteer?

  • Volunteering, a Work of Heart = Volunteering is not easy, it can be sad and frustrating and exhilarating all at the same time. Nothing is perfect, not the work, not the clients, not the organization, and we don’t expect you to be perfect either. That’s the real beauty of it. It’s real, just like you.
  • Help Others, Help Yourself or The Life You Change Might Be Your Own = We kinda think volunteering can be a great experience, but we can’t promise it. We can promise though, that we’ll work with you to make sure you get something pretty awesome from it. It’s sort of like a treasure hunt, we don’t exactly know what you’ll get out of it, but it could be pretty great like meeting some fascinating new people, finding out some neat stuff about yourself, or discovering how people, even thought they may seem vastly different are pretty much alike when you boil it all down. 
  • Volunteers are Priceless = Yeah, this is pretty meaningless, we know. We do pledge however, to not waste your time because your time is valuable and we want to make sure that you feel as though your time was spent wisely.
  • A Volunteer Journey Begins With a Single Step = Ok, this is true. We all took that first step. It wasn’t easy, we were scared, and didn’t know what to expect. But once we took that step, it got a little easier. You can bail out anytime, so keep that in mind. We’re not superhuman and don’t expect you to be either. Trust me, you’re not alone, we will take that first step with you. 
  • Just Bring a Caring Heart = Look, it’s a fallacy that all these volunteers are so perfect and love everybody all the time. We all do rotten things once in a while, have lousy thoughts, get mad and grumpy too. But together we can figure it out because we are humans, flawed and imperfect and maybe that’s the point.

I’d like to offer another ad here. This one isn’t based on some traditional volunteer slogan. It’s based on something I’ve observed over many years of on-boarding volunteers: The new volunteer who is hesitant, unsure, somewhat nervous about his/her abilities, the one who took a little longer to feel comfortable usually turned out to be an outstanding volunteer. So this “pitch” is for them.

Hello you. I’m speaking to you. You may see yourself as inadequate, unable and unworthy. What do we see? We see someone who is open and thoughtful and considerate.

You may imagine that you’ll fail at volunteering because there’s some magical skill you need and you don’t have it. What do we imagine? That you’ll bring a unique perspective to our mission, that you’ll fit in because all of us here are unique too. A lot of us are downright quirky and stumbling if you want the honest truth.

You may think we want you to be perfect. What do we want? We want to do some good in this crazy world and we don’t have all the answers. We’re not looking for perfection. We’re looking for you.  

So, should we now just post pictures of volunteers milling around looking lost and unhappy? (maybe snap a few pics of volunteers trying to find where they’re supposed to be stationed at the next big function)

No, but just as we don’t view ourselves as one-dimensional, prospective volunteers see themselves as complex too. And a few of them might need to know that volunteers aren’t these super human people who have it all together all the time.

There might just be a message for prospective volunteers like Yvonne: We want you-imperfect and quirky and full of potential.

Kinda like the rest of us.

-Meridian

This is an update from a post in 2015: Dieting, Models and Volunteering

Quiz: How to Tell if You’re Really a Volunteer Manager

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How to tell if you're really a volunteer manager

You know, there’s gotta be a bunch of people out there who falsely claim they are volunteer managers. Why? They want to be us. They want the glory that comes with our station in the non-profit world. Yeah, I figure they think they’ll skate through life if they pretend to have one of the most coveted titles in the non-profit world.

So, I decided to create a quiz that will identify a true, authentic volunteer manager. Believe me, it’s foolproof. Jump on over to Survey Monkey and see if you can get the right answers! (you can only take it once) -it’s the free version of course so it’s pretty basic, which is so typical of volunteer managers, right? We are masters at using the free stuff as best as we can…… ’cause, well, you know the reason.

How to Tell if You’re Really a Volunteer Manager

crossing my fingers that it works……

-Meridian

 

 

Volunteering and the Goldilocks Margins

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Volunteering and the Goldilocks Margins

photo courtesy of https://gratisography.com/

Do volunteers wander from organization to organization, sampling the volunteer porridge or sitting in different volunteering task chairs, looking for the opportunity that is “just right?”

Some volunteers do exactly that, while others might taste a cold volunteer encounter and walk away for good, equating all volunteering with their one, less-than-perfect experience. Some volunteers are undeterred and will continue searching for an opportunity that fits. The point is, the more we set a foundation for finding a “just right” volunteer experience, the more volunteers will at least try us out.

Our earth exists in the Goldilocks zone, the habitable area around the sun. In this zone, conditions are optimal to sustain life such as presence of liquid water, luminosity of the central star, gasses etc. In other words, there are variables, which when combined, create the optimal backdrop for life to form and thrive.

Can this be applied to volunteer engagement? Do we need more than a friendly face to recruit volunteers, and to sustain them?

Well, let’s examine these common statements about “getting volunteers”:

  • “Just ask.”
  • “There are lots of people out there with time on their hands.”
  • “You can’t tell me that a few hours on a Saturday is a big deal.”

What is so wrong with the above statements? For one thing, they are simplistic extremes (like hot and cold porridge) and do not take into consideration the conditions that must exist for volunteer engagement. Volunteering conditions, like the Goldilocks principle have to fall within certain margins in order to attract and sustain volunteers.

Just as distance from star, liquid water and atmosphere are the major conditions for a habitable planet, there are major conditions for engaging volunteers. When our volunteer programs fall within the optimal margins in the following three conditions, we have created a volunteering Goldilocks zone.

  1. Volunteering must be seamless. Not easy, but seamless: A prospective volunteer needs a response within 24 hours (48 on weekends) or else our “urgent need” is meaningless. Steps to volunteering must be clear, relatively simple and able to be completed in a timely manner. Any glitches, or unreasonably long waiting periods will dim a volunteer’s enthusiasm. This doesn’t mean we need to accept any person without reservation, vetting or orientation. It means the process must make sense to the volunteer and not fraught with unnecessary obstacles. If we proclaim we want volunteers, we have to show it by a seamless onboarding process. We must not advertise volunteer roles and then use bait and switch to get volunteers to fill roles we need to fill. We can’t over-onboard or under-onboard volunteers. We need a system that is practical, understandable and frankly adaptable.
  2. There must be meaning in the volunteer work: Volunteers want to make a difference. Every task or role needs a direct connection to the mission. Every task or role must be explained so volunteers clearly understand why their help is crucial, why their time is valuable and why we wanted them in the first place. Even less exciting volunteering roles support the mission. It is imperative we convey the impact roles and tasks have on furthering our work. Not enough conveying of meaning drives volunteers away, but so does gushing over them and treating them as though anything they do is the most amazing thing in the history of volunteering. Volunteers need meaning that focuses on the work and how they have contributed.
  3. Communication is crucial: This is probably the most basic condition. Volunteer communications must be clear and on point. Impact on mission, appreciation for their time, clear instructions, organizational policies, changes in org policies are all examples of the areas that volunteers need clear and direct communication. Obviously too little communication begets disaster but bombarding volunteers with too many emails, or phone calls also can turn them away.

These margins are only the beginning. Just as in the Goldilocks zone where other, more subtle influences determine if and how life can be supported, there are unique volunteering influences that can impact whether a volunteer decides to share his/her time with us. Some of these variables are:

  • Does the task fit within an acceptable time frame?
  • What skills are necessary to do the task?
  • How far away is the task site?
  • Is the task recurring, one time or sporadic?
  • What support can be expected?
  • How much training is involved?
  • What responsibility level is involved?

Each one of the above variables contributes to a volunteer’s commitment. When the “just right” foundation is in place, then the above variables can be adjusted for an optimal experience.

Volunteering needs a Goldilocks zone, one in which careful planning creates the favorable conditions for engagement. It’s not about luck, or happenstance or just asking anymore. It’s about the creation of an engaging atmosphere, followed by attention paid to all the other, unique conditions that might drive a volunteer away.

It takes a knowledgeable, experienced and fearless volunteer manager to push an organization into the volunteer Goldilocks zone. Optimal margins for volunteer engagement require the participation and buy in from the entire organization, not just the volunteer department.

So, as we consider the conditions in which volunteering engagement is optimal, we can begin to lay our Goldilocks foundation.

Let’s be a habitable volunteer planet. Let’s be just right.

-Meridian

Difficult Conversations with Staff or Volunteers

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full frame shot of text on wood

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Difficult conversations. We, volunteer managers don’t want to have them, but from time to time, we must. A complaint is lodged against a volunteer and we go numb. This shouldn’t be happening, because well, volunteers are selfless, caring souls who just want to help, right? Won’t we drive them away by reprimanding them?

To make matters worse, what about when a volunteer has an issue with staff and hopes that you will intervene?  Our hearts skip a beat. We’ve just spent hours recruiting and cultivating this volunteer, and now we imagine all that time evaporating.

It’s a part of our jobs we wish to avoid because initiating these conversations is uncomfortable. We exist in a world where we inspire and motivate, so correcting is somewhat foreign to us, a skill that needs to be dusted off once in a while.

But, in order to effectively lead a volunteer program, we have to embrace the difficult duties and look upon them as opportunities.

Let’s examine difficult conversations with volunteers and difficult conversations with staff. Are these two scenarios really much different from one another?

So, how do we start a difficult conversation with a volunteer (or staff) after a complaint has been made? And how do we prepare ourselves to have the confidence to do the right thing without melting down into mush? For what it’s worth, here are a few suggestions that I hope help you. Conversations with volunteers appear in non-italicized font and conversations with staff appear in italicized font.

Remember that you are the best person for this challenge:

You have spent countless hours recruiting and cultivating this volunteer. You care about them and will do what is necessary to see them succeed. And leaving them to fail is ultimately more cruel than helping them remain on track. No one will be as sensitive, understanding or able to guide this volunteer as you.

With staff, remember that you are the best person to speak and mediate for your volunteers. You don’t wish to see them quit because you are unable to act, but want to see them succeed and by mediating, you are furthering that goal.

Tip: Keep reminding yourself that by meeting challenges head-on, you are building excellence. You will get through this and be a stronger, more accomplished leader on the other side.

Practice your opening line:

“I wanted to sit down with you today and chat about how things are going,” is fine, but volunteers really need us to get to the point. The more you dance around the topic, the more uncomfortable it becomes for you and the volunteer. It’s better if you state the complaint up front. “Emma, I wanted to meet with you today, because one of the visitors to our museum called us to say that last Friday you were too busy to show their disabled son where the bathroom was located. You are one of our finest docents and have been for over five years now and I want to hear your side of the story. Do you recall this particular incident?”

It’s no different with staff. Add the longer you tiptoe around the subject, the more time is wasted and the more frustrated the staff member will feel. Get right to the point: “Alex, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today about our volunteer Gavin.” (Now, don’t stop here and list Gavin’s great qualities, but keep going and get it out.) “Gavin came to me and voiced a frustration.” (make frustration non-personal, it helps steer the discussion away from emotions and towards solutions ) “He said that he often misunderstands the instructions he’s given and doesn’t feel he can do the job as well as he’d like.” (emphasis is on getting the job done) “I’m here to help fix this so you get the help you need.” (focus on the work)

Tip: With a volunteer, tell yourself to use the exact words of the complaint-unless there are personal insults involved-don’t water the nature of the complaint down because the volunteer deserves the opportunity to respond to the exact charges that were brought.

With staff, you have to frame the complaint into mission specific goals such as “volunteer Deena needs more guidance in order to excel at her job, something she is really committed to doing,” versus “volunteer Deena says you never spend any time with her.”

Don’t apologize for the conversation:

Starting out with “I’m so sorry to call you in for this,” or “I hate that we have to talk about this” creates the impression that your organization’s ethical standards are meaningless.

Same thing with staff. Beginning with “I’m so sorry to take up your time, you know how it is with volunteers,” creates the impression that volunteers’ help is not valuable. Instead reiterate the volunteer’s sincere desire to lend support. “I’m here because volunteer Janus is concerned he is not being the help he wants to be.”

Tip: Remind yourself that being neutral, not apologetic helps the volunteer think and respond more clearly.

With staff, this is an incredible opportunity to stress that volunteers are there to support and further the mission.

Assure the volunteer or staff that you are open-minded and fair but don’t put words in their mouth:

“Emma, we want to hear your side of the story,” or, “Emma, let’s talk about what happened,” is better than saying, “I’m sure the complaint is unfounded,” or “this must be a misunderstanding.”

Same with staff. “I know that volunteers can be tricky,” or “I realize you don’t have time for this, but..” sends the message that engaging volunteers is not worth anyone’s time or effort. Instead, thank the staff member for making an effort to engage volunteers.

Tip: Tell yourself that if the complaint is indeed a misunderstanding, then it will surely become obvious and not to worry. If the complaint is well founded, then you have an amazing opportunity to help this volunteer regain their footing or help the staff member become better at cultivating volunteers.

Don’t diminish the person(s) who made the complaint:

Saying, “don’t worry, this person complains about everyone,” or “they probably just had a bad day,” negates the actual complaint.

It’s the same with staff, don’t diminish the volunteer role.

Tip: Tell yourself that bridging relationships is one of your strong skill sets and seeing both sides validated is a chance to bring both sides together. Ditto with staff.

Allow ample time for discussion:

Here is the area in which you will excel at nice-guy volunteer management. These conversations ebb and flow-but the savvy volunteer manager rides the spoken waves with the recurring message that the volunteer’s time and effort is invaluable and their concerns are worth hearing and discussing, even if their actions are in the wrong.

Same idea with staff-if they need to, let them express their frustrations with time management, heavy workloads etc. Then, seize the opportunity to sell volunteer help. Assure them that your job includes their satisfaction, that you will address and help with any issues concerning volunteer training, performance etc. This is a time to reassure them that you are on their side and are not dumping volunteers on them, but rather, working diligently to get them skilled, committed volunteers who will help and support them.

Tip: Trust your instincts to tell you when you know the volunteer or staff member is satisfied their feelings, opinions and aspirations are validated. That is when you can move forward with a resolution.

Follow up with diligence:

This step takes you from a manager to a leader. Speak with both parties after your initial conversation to ensure that the resolution works for both and that there are no lingering issues. Following up with volunteers and staff shows your commitment to a successful volunteer program, one in which you don’t take sides, but one dedicated to mission centric goals.

Tip: Use your best mediation skills to assure both parties that your goal is to provide the finest volunteer involvement possible and that you believe in each person. Reach beyond emotions and center on the good work being done by your organization. Refer to excellence often, while assuring each person that you believe in their abilities to work with one another. Keep following up periodically until you see the resolution has been met.

We can view difficult conversations in the same way we view traveling to a new place. We can tell ourselves that we will hate the new place by thinking things like “It’s going to be too hot,” “I will hate the food,” “the people are too strange,” etc. That usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, like the person who welcomes traveling somewhere out of the comfort zone,  we can entertain the idea that this new experience will help us grow, both as a manager and leader.

Choosing to grow and embrace challenging conversations will strengthen not only your program, but yourself as well. So, while it is perfectly normal to dread a difficult conversation, don’t let the opportunity to excel go to waste.

You’re not the bad guy, or the uncomfortable girl, you’re the leader of volunteering excellence.

-Meridian

This post originally appeared in 2016 as The Conversation We Dread: Pain or Opportunity

Volunteer Managers: Extroverts or Introverts?

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Are volunteer managers extroverts or introverts

Are most volunteer managers introverts or extroverts? Does it matter? Is an extrovert a better leader and better able to influence people? Is an introvert more empathetic and better able to get the best out of volunteers? Should we care?

Sometimes, we need to take an honest look at our personality tendencies in order to understand why we do what we do and how we can become better at our jobs. And by being better at our jobs, I mean not just better for volunteers and our organizations, but also better for our own emotional health so we don’t get stuck in an emotional rut. Understanding our own motivations or personalities can help us analyze our strengths while reviewing the areas that keep us from attaining our goals.

We are the hub of a complicated volunteer system, one swirling around us. How do we manage all the moving parts? Is it better to be an introvert? Or do we need to have an extrovert’s personality?

See if this sounds like you:

  • You spend a lot of time carefully planning meaningful volunteer roles and carefully interviewing volunteers so you can skillfully place them where they will do the most good
  • You can easily stand back and let the volunteers shine. You feel proud when viewing their accomplishments
  • You spend a lot of time cheer-leading your volunteers so that they reap the enormous benefits from volunteering because you see the greatness in them
  • You don’t manipulate a volunteer meeting with directives; instead you prefer to encourage volunteers to share, to feel part of something awesome and you take to heart their suggestions and concerns
  • You don’t toot your own horn in front of others and usually try to deflect praise onto the volunteers
  • You make sure all the volunteers are acknowledged. You run from table to table at volunteer functions, chatting with every volunteer present
  • You can be lighthearted around the volunteers and enjoy joking with them and seeing them have a good time

Does this sound like you? Then you’re basically an introvert. But wait. You also exhibit extrovert behavior. So are you an extrovert? Well, more likely, you fall under the category,  ambivert or outgoing introvert.

The outgoing introvert (OI) is basically an introvert who is social when circumstances call for being social. They enjoy people, especially on a deeper level. For volunteer managers, this means being a terrific host at functions, feeling comfortable with the volunteers, letting small talk beget deeper conversations, wanting to get to know volunteers on a personal level and feeling exhausted from all the emotional attention you spend on others.

Sounds like a pretty great way to be, right?

Especially when you consider how the outgoing introvert (OI) takes the time to position volunteers and volunteer programs for the future. The OIs carefully analyzes situations in order to make the best decisions not only for the organization, but for clients and volunteers.

But since the OI is primarily an introvert, here is where the frustrations can mount up.

They get overlooked…. a lot…. and they can be perceived as not moving fast enough, when in reality they are spending the necessary time to craft solid programs, ones that don’t need retooling later.

Extroverts dominate meetings, dialogue and policies. Introverts struggle to be heard, thinking that their dedication, track record and accomplishments speak as loudly as the extrovert’s voice. Sadly, it doesn’t usually work this way. And since an OI is extroverted when comfortable with the surrounding people (such as volunteers), they may not be comfortable in a staff meeting and therefore, will be less inclined to speak up.

As an introvert with outgoing tendencies, the volunteer manager is more thoughtful and plans for volunteer staying power. The OI volunteer manager pays close attention to each volunteer’s story, questions and concerns. The OI volunteer manager quietly works to enact meaningful volunteer engagement. The OI volunteer manager listens carefully, in order to formulate intersecting paths benefiting clients, volunteers and the organization. The OI volunteer manager sometimes appears awkward and shy and sometimes bold and full of fun, depending upon the circumstance.

The frustrations come in when the introverted volunteer manager side thinks no one else sees what they see. After all, isn’t it obvious to everyone how amazing every volunteer is? Can’t everyone see the beauty in volunteering? How can they not see that time and effort must be taken to assure each volunteer is properly engaged?

Explaining volunteer management is an area where tapping into the outgoing side can help. Since complaining or directing attention to one’s self is not something the introvert is comfortable with, then how can an OI volunteer manager get their points across?

By shifting focus. Think of the passion you convey when approaching new volunteers. You believe in volunteerism, and the mission, right? You convey the power of volunteering without ever feeling like the focus is on you personally, right?

Use that same mindset when speaking in front of your peers. Focus on presenting your volunteer program in the exact same way you present volunteering to prospective volunteers. View yourself as the mouthpiece for a program you know is incredible, just as you know volunteering is incredible.

The introverted volunteer manager side has to feel comfortable in a situation for the outgoing side to emerge. You view volunteers as receptive to your message and perhaps you view staff and upper management as skeptical of your message. Your comfort level can diminish when speaking at staff meetings or with senior executives.

Imagine that your peers and senior management are actually receptive, just like new volunteers and they are looking for inspiring messages, positive steps and motivating presentations from you. Staff and upper management are people too, and just like volunteers, will respond to a persuasive argument, especially when those arguments showcase how it will benefit them and the mission. With emphasis on benefit, your message will be heard.

We, volunteer managers tend to hone our communication skills with volunteers in mind. Applying these same skills to interactions with staff and upper management is really not any different. It’s our comfort level that holds us back. We view staff and upper management in a separate category, one we may not feel empowered to engage.

Speaking confidently about volunteer issues can be a big step for the OI volunteer manager. It’s about removing the personal reluctance hindering our voices and tapping into the outgoing side we use so effectively on volunteers. It’s about focusing on the points we believe deeply in and communicating those points, just as we do with volunteers.

Confidence is infectious and it grows with each usage. The OI volunteer manager skills are already there, having been sharpened by interactions with volunteers. These skills are waiting to be fully unleashed.

We are who we are, personality, tendencies, foibles and all. But, when you start to analyze how each personality trait can aid in attaining your goals, then those traits will work for you, instead of holding you back.

Whether or not you’re an extrovert, introvert or an OI, your people skills bring out the best in your volunteers. These same skills can bring out the best in you, too.

-Meridian

 

 

 

 

 

Do Volunteers say ‘they’ or ‘we?’

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baseball bleachers chairs close up

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Niko looked down at her t-shirt that read “Children’s Zoo Volunteer.” She forgot that she still had it on. The older lady in front of her in the checkout line, had turned and smiled. “I like your shirt. Have long you volunteered there?

“Thank you.” Niko shyly replied. “It’s been about three years.”

“I take my grandkids there all the time,” the lady said as she put her groceries on the conveyor belt. “They especially love the polar bear habitat. I’m excited about the new interactive childrens’ corner. Do you know when that opens?”

Niko moved up. “I think they’ve scheduled it for this fall.”

“Maybe we’ll see you there sometime.” The lady pushed her carton of orange juice forward. “It really is a wonderful zoo.”

“It is.” Niko returned. “They do a great job, don’t they?”

Do our volunteers use the term “we” when referring to our organizations? Do they include themselves when speaking of organizational accomplishments, or fielding praise and questions? Or do these words come out of them? “I’m just a volunteer.”

We, volunteer managers often say, “we want our volunteers to feel included.” This is a little bit like saying, “I want my child to think I love him.” Creating an atmosphere in which someone feels something does not guarantee those feelings are based on something tangible. Rather, those feelings could be based on surface ideas and token gestures instead of deeply ingrained truths.

Maybe instead, we should state, “we want our volunteers to know they are included,” or “we want our volunteers to be included.” It’s a subtle, but important difference.

Perpetuating outdated ways of thinking will not move volunteer engagement forward. Inclusion is not about the emotions involved and whether or not we imagine that volunteers feel included. It’s about knowing they are included. It’s about stepping up and putting words into action and creating a foundation of inclusion versus symbolic gestures.

It’s about a commitment to shifting our paradigm.  It’s about going beyond the appearances of inclusion that typically include:

  • Yearly volunteer thank you luncheons (as a separate group)
  • Volunteer mentions in the newsletter (as a separate group)
  • Volunteer awards (as a separate group)

If volunteers are part of the “team,” then we have to ask: Why are they always referred to as an aside? Just for the heck of it, let’s look at a different kind of team and consider this recap of a baseball game.

The Otters beat the Pelicans 5-4 in a wild game on Saturday. Addison (Shortstop) and Javier (Second Base) turned an incredible double play with the bases loaded, robbing the Pelicans of a chance to take the lead in the 9th inning. Two of the Otters’ starting lineup hit home runs in the 5th: Jason (Right Field) and Billy (Left Field). In the 7th, Ron (Third Base) dove headfirst ahead of the tag into home plate on Ernie’s (First Base) perfectly placed bunt. The pitcher, Fergie had 11 strikeouts and credited his catcher, Wilson for calling a great game. Afterwards, manager Leo said of his team, “We got the job done. I’m proud of the way the team worked together.”

So, what does this baseball analogy have to do with volunteering? Well, what if each position on a baseball team was treated as a separate entity? The reporting would look like this:

  • In shortstop news, Addison made an incredible play.
  • In second base news, Javier made a great play.
  • In Right Field news, Jason hit a home run in the 5th.
  • In Left Field news, Billy hit a home run in the 5th.
  • In Third Base news, Ron scored a run.
  • In First Base news, Ernie executed a perfect bunt.
  • In Pitching news, Fergie had 11 strikeouts.
  • In Catching news, Wilson called a great game.

Doesn’t sound so much like a team effort anymore, does it?

Truly integrating volunteers into the team means including them as partners in our accomplishments. Sure, we can identify them as volunteers, just as we identify a baseball player’s position. And including them in our accomplishments in no way detracts from the accomplishments of hard-working staff.

It simply indicates that our organization is a team, working together. It shows we are generous with our credit and that we want to expand our support in the ongoing effort to accomplish our goals. It shows that outcomes are the objective, not ownership or martyrdom or personal praise. Inclusion shows potential volunteers, staff members, board members, clients and even donors that we are the very essence of charitable.

When we send out our glossy newsletters, is there a volunteer spotlight within or are the volunteers incorporated into the meaty stories about how the team has made inroads into stopping illiteracy, or providing meals to vulnerable populations? Do volunteers’ names appear in the same sentence as staff members or donors?

We can plead that “our volunteers should feel included,” until we are hoarse, but until our volunteers are included, we will be stuck with balloons and t-shirts and volunteers who say “they.”

-Meridan

 

 

Mono or Multi? Voluntasking is the Answer

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Greta’s hand was shaking. Three recent volunteer requests needed her attention. One of her volunteers, Serena, was on the phone with a major problem. End of month reports were due at 5pm and Greta hadn’t gotten the chance to record all the available volunteer hours. Matt, a recent graduate of the latest volunteer orientation was standing in her doorway. He needed a dose of her encouragement. She could feel her heart racing. How would she be able to do it all?

Multi-tasking vs. single or mono-tasking. A 2009 study of heavy media multitaskers versus light media multitaskers from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America revealed that heavy media multitaskers are more likely to be affected by random, non-essential stimuli. And here’s the surprising results. Heavy media multitaskers performed worse than light media multitaskers on a task-switching ability test, instead of performing better as expected. It seems as though multi-tasking actually hinders our ability to concentrate.

There is one tremendous benefit we seldom speak of in describing volunteer contributions. Volunteers are more able to focus on a single task than harried staff who are juggling multiple duties at one time. We, volunteer managers know this from experience. Take Greta in the example above. Can she possibly bring her best to each task in front of her? Will she be able to give her undivided attention to Matt, or to Serena? Will she find the concentration necessary to fill the volunteer tasks? Can she actually clear her mind to gather and record the volunteer hours for her report, not to mention adding the additional stats and stories she knows will make her report more impactful? Or will her attention dart back and forth, splitting her cognitive abilities into tiny, unusable pieces?

No, not with all the external stimuli that fractures her attention. This inability to do superhuman multitasking is one of the reasons we, volunteer managers ask for volunteer help with our workload. We realize that a competent volunteer can do a job that might take us ten times as long to do, because we are in a constant state of being distracted.

We’ve seen it so many times. Give a volunteer a desk and a light and they will power through an assignment. Volunteers possess the trifecta of task accomplishment:

  • The will or passion
  • The time
  • The focus

We need to highlight this overlooked asset and properly showcase it as a benefit derived from embracing volunteer help . We can start by asking staff and senior management these questions:

  • If you had two hours a day to focus on one task without interruption, what could you accomplish?
  • Do you often feel like you are being pulled in multiple directions and you can’t concentrate?
  • What would it mean to you if you could offload a portion of your work so that you could give your attention to the tasks you feel are critical to your job and our mission?
  • Do you feel that being pulled in so many directions actually helps or hinders your ability to reach your goals?

And here’s the kicker question:

Do you really think that someone who is passionate about helping, can sit and actually focus on the task at hand and is willing to devote the time to getting it done will do a much poorer job than the person who is continuously pulled in every direction?

If you want to have some fun, at the next staff meeting, ask staff to take out a piece of paper. Announce a phrase, such as “volunteers are great.” Ask staff to spell the phrase out loud while writing their names and addresses on their piece of paper. You’ll get laughs and groans, but it will take a good chunk of time as their brains switch back and forth between tasks. And it won’t help that they are being distracted by the reactions of their fellow staff members around them.

Now point out that this is their reality. Ask them (in all seriousness) why they wouldn’t want a volunteer, one who is capable, and has the will, time and focus to accomplish tasks more quickly and efficiently, helping them.

Non-profits are notoriously understaffed and overburdened. The reluctance to seek volunteers’ help is holding missions back from great accomplishments. The mind-destroying multi-tasking world in which non-profit staff find themselves can be alleviated by the help of focused volunteers.

We can encourage our organizations to take advantage of volunteer help for many reasons, all of them sound. One simple, but overlooked reason is voluntasking: the passion and ability of volunteers to devote the time it takes to focus on one task, thus accomplishing it faster and with more accuracy and freeing up staff to concentrate on mission centric goals.

Or, we can all continue to cling to our workloads and keep multitasking. But, if we do, we’d better learn to love mediocrity and burnout.

-Meridian

 

Horrors! Can a Volunteer Manager Say No?

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Carlos took a deep breath and regarded Marty, a long term volunteer who stood before him. “Mr. Jansen really wants to visit his son in Philadelphia.” Marty said. “It’s only a four hour trip from here and I don’t mind taking him. We can do it in a day.”

Carlos thought about the organizational policies, trying to recall one that forbid volunteers from driving clients on long trips. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Marty,” he said. “I really don’t know if we should do this.”

Leadership is about doing the right thing, even if it is the hardest thing to do personally and even if it puts you on the spot. As leaders of volunteers, we are faced with doing the right thing every day. We must weigh the right thing for our organizations, for our volunteers, for our vulnerable clients, for our communities and for us.

Being able to say no is sometimes the right thing to do. While our jobs pretty much paint us as the folks who always say “yes,” we must take into consideration the times we are obligated to say “no.” Some obvious examples are:

  • when a volunteer wants to break policy and jeopardize the safety of himself or a client
  • when a request for a volunteer puts the volunteer at risk
  • when a community service volunteer wants you to sign off on hours not spent volunteering
  • when anyone asks you to embellish volunteer hours

It’s easier to say no when strict policies back you up, or risk factors are obvious. But sometimes we have to say no, when policy is not a factor and the area is gray. Examples might include:

  • When someone requests a volunteer for a task that volunteers have strongly objected to
  • When a volunteer wants to initiate a project that will take precious time from mission related work
  • When you are asked to fill in for a volunteer on your day off and you already have plans

How do we artfully say ‘no?’ If we feel pressured to say ‘yes,’ or are backed into a corner, we might stutter and say something like, “I’m not sure.” A weak ‘no’ is really just a soft ‘yes.’ When saying no, you have to actually say no and not want to immediately take it back.

If you need to, ask for time to think on it. Say, “Let me get back with you on that,” so that you can formulate your response. Getting caught off guard seldom gives you the advantage of putting together a well thought out answer. Remember though, if you don’t get back to the person in a timely matter, they will assume your answer is yes.

Think of all the reasons you have to say no. It’s not because you just feel like being oppositional, it’s because you know there is a better alternative, or you have information the person asking the question does not have. Listen to your intuition and find all the whys that force you to say no, then explain the whys in decisive terms.

Present a suitable alternative. Explain why you are saying no, and offer an alternative. If say, a volunteer wants to bring a friend with them on assignment into a client’s home, you can say, “I’m sorry, but that is against our policy. The reason it is against our policy is because no one who has not been background checked and officially entered into our organization can enter the home of our client. (the why you’re saying no) This applies to staff and volunteers alike. I can offer your friend a path to becoming a volunteer so that he can accompany you on assignments. (the alternative) Let’s talk about how to make that happen.”

Steer the person towards the alternative. If a staff member wants you to find a volunteer for a task the volunteers have repeatedly said no to, you can say, “I will try, but our volunteers have said no in the past so I’m not likely to be able to fill this request. But, we do have volunteers willing to help you in other ways. Let’s discuss the ways they want to be of service and how they can support you.”

Be clear that a no is not personal. Leadership is about the mission and the team. Point out the mission centric reasons you must say no. “I understand that things change rapidly and that now you are asking for five additional volunteers for tomorrow. I will ask one of our experienced volunteers to make last minute calls and I know that every one of our volunteers who can commit, will commit, so you are in good hands. I however, must continue to work on the annual gala which is next week because volunteers are heavily involved and the gala is extremely important to our organization’s outreach.”

There’s a reason these responses sound an awful lot like “professional speak.” It’s because they are. Using professional speak is the way to stop others from viewing you as a lightweight, a yes person, a go-fer. Using professional speak forces others to communicate with you on a mission-related level and not on emotional or personal terms.

Feeling like you can never say no resides on emotional levels. Being able to say no in a professional way resides on logical, thoughtful levels. In order to take control of the conversation, use professional speak that centers on mission centric goals and steer the person away from trying to emotionally manipulate you.

You can put off a conversation until later when you have the time and energy to discuss it with focus. Take the volunteer who wants to initiate a program that takes time from mission related goals. You can say to that volunteer, “that sounds like an interesting proposal and one that you’ve given considerable thought to. I really want to give you my full attention, so can we set aside a time to discuss it when we can really focus on what you are offering?” Then set aside a time when you are not being bombarded from all directions and can thoughtfully discuss any ideas.

Saying no is not a failure on our part. It is actually an opportunity to control the direction of our programs and a chance to steer people towards a better way of engaging volunteers by offering more viable alternatives. When done with tact and professionalism, saying “no” can open doors to a better “yes.

A strong leader is able to say no in a way that assures everyone that the no means listening carefully, then a negotiation, or a revamping or an alternative.  Above all, it indicates a striving for excellence. And that already describes every volunteer manager.

-Meridian

 

Helicopter Volunteer Management

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Yvonne looked at her watch. “Oh my gosh, it’s 12:30, I have to get up there.” She hastily threw the rest of her lunch away, closed her office door and headed upstairs to the workroom. Her volunteer, Angie was just settling in for her Thursday afternoon work recording client surveys. Angie picked up the rubber banded stack and opened the computer program on the aging desktop.

“Hey, Yvonne, how are you?” Angie asked. This corner of the workroom, designated for volunteers was quiet, a bit dark, since the clouds outside threatened rain.

“Great, now that you’re here.” Yvonne turned on the lamp a few feet from the desk. Do you have everything you need?”

“I think so,” Angie said, looking around. “I’m not sure if all the new surveys are here, but I can work with these.”

“Oh,” Yvonne put her hand on Angie’s shoulder. “I’ll go find out where the new ones are and bring them to you.” She headed back to her office. After several phone calls, Yvonne tracked Garth in compliance down and was able to retrieve the latest pack of surveys and bring them to Angie.

Helicopter volunteer management. When does making sure that volunteers are engaged border on hovering and intrusion?  When does the desire to give volunteers a meaningful experience devolve into swaddling them in bubble wrap?

We, volunteer managers can often walk an emotional tightrope when we “hand over” a volunteer to a department. We can feel like the typical proud parent, especially when we have spent precious emotional time cultivating a volunteer. We recruit with an impassioned plea. We interview with laser focus, zeroing in on the volunteer’s strengths and desires. We train with patience, allowing enough time and questions to ready the volunteer for greatness. We instill in them what a great experience they will have.

And unfortunately, we carry scars, too. We’ve turned over excellent and ready volunteers, only to see them leave due to being under utilized or given confusing directions or not contacted quickly enough. We see all our upfront work wasted, our emotional investment dashed and we think of “what could have been.”

Sometimes, we just want to pick our battles. We know that if we complain that certain staff members don’t take working with volunteers seriously, we will be rebuffed, or labeled “negative” by senior management. And so, we pick up the slack, or follow a volunteer about, making sure that he has everything he needs. And maybe it’s not even that. Maybe we realize that departments are just not going to cuddle our volunteers and that scares us a bit.

While we have the best interests of the volunteer and organization at heart, does helicopter volunteer management have its drawbacks? What might they be?

  • We perpetuate the stereotype that volunteers are low-skilled. By running around making everything ok, we send a message to the staff working with them that volunteers are not capable of doing the job without our help.
  • We create volunteer dependence. When we subtly say to our volunteers, “you need me in order to succeed,” we create a dependence on us and rob the volunteers of using their common sense and being able to forge a relationship with the departments they work for.
  • We use precious time better spent elsewhere. When we follow volunteers around, we miss opportunities to recruit other volunteers, or create new programs.

So, how can we let go of helicoptering?

  • Pull a new volunteer if a department doesn’t reach out to them within 3 days. Re-assign that volunteer to another department, or better yet, keep that volunteer and ask them to help you with your projects. Don’t chase a department, begging them to call the new volunteer. And don’t be so quick to get them another one, but explain that if they cannot contact new volunteers in a timely manner, then volunteers won’t wait.
  • Prepare volunteers as well as you can and give them instructions to call you if they need you.
  • Praise staff who work well with volunteers. Create awards for key staff, Trust the time it takes for them to forge relationships with volunteers.
  • Expect some amount of failure. Unfortunately, failures will occur. It’s important to not blame yourself, or to fall back into the helicopter mode.
  • Appoint seasoned volunteers as mentors. Ask them to take new volunteers under their wing and to check in with new volunteers often at first.
  • Gather feedback, especially from new volunteers. Prepare a “new volunteer report,” and include their comments, both positive and negative. Share with senior management.
  • Prepare departments individually to work with volunteers through a “new volunteer integration plan.”
  • Continue to educate staff. Create training through in-person, video, manuals, posted tips or cheat sheets. Help staff learn how to work with volunteers.

Our desire to hover over our volunteers is understandable since it is most often based on experiences we’ve had when helplessly watching volunteers leave due to being under utilized or due to the amount of effort we put into cultivating and readying new volunteers.

Instead of hovering, which simply band-aids any problems, we can begin to work on fixing our tendency to helicopter by addressing the underlying issue: What do we think happens to volunteers once they leave our cocoon of cultivation?

  • Do we assume they will be mistreated?
  • Do we assume they are not capable of handling themselves?
  • Do we think that once volunteers ask questions, or need something, they will be labeled “difficult?”
  • Do we secretly desire to be the only person who can get the best out of the volunteer?
  • Is it more than just doing our jobs for us?

We have to be careful in how we view volunteers and our role. If we operate in an “us vs. the rest of the organizational staff” bubble, then we are going to helicopter our volunteers. And we’re going to take any shortcomings by staff personally. Stress will follow us everywhere.

If, instead, we open up and begin to work within the system, (good and bad) we can start to clearly see where challenges lie and then, in a professional way, find solutions.

One of the areas that may need tweaking is in that zone where a new volunteer joins a department. Before a new volunteer is assigned, help your organization’s departments answer these questions and formulate a “new volunteer integration plan:”

  • Does my department have a plan in place for new volunteers?
  • Do we have a departmental staff member to mentor new volunteers?
  • Do we have someone designated to answer questions?
  • What is our course of action should the volunteer need more help than we can give or is not working out?
  • How do we help the new volunteer succeed, but continue to get our work done?

Once these questions are adequately addressed, a new volunteer should fit into a department more comfortably, thus removing a lot of the anxiety felt by the volunteer manager who placed the volunteer in good faith.

Cultivating volunteers is a highly emotional experience. We get caught up in the volunteers’ passion and desire and sometimes their issues. We want to help them. While noble, this desire to see them flourish can take an emotional toll on us.

Can we set aside our emotional investment and let them fly? Can we forcefully, yet professionally advocate for top-down respect for volunteers and their time? Can we partner with other departments to set up a system for integrating new volunteers? Can we meet out consequences in a solution-related manner when departments fail our volunteers?

We, volunteer managers invest heavily in our volunteers with our time, energy, mentoring, and passion. It’s time we also invest in our own emotional health by setting our organizations up to successfully integrate new volunteers so that we can refrain from helicoptering and move forward to recruiting and creating innovative programs.

-Meridian