Difficult Conversations with Staff or Volunteers

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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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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

 

 

 

Filling In for Volunteers: A Paradox

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Seth arrived at the office early Saturday morning. It was quiet among the empty desks, almost hushed. Only one other staff member showed up, carrying a large foam coffee cup. Volunteer Hannah was sick and could not come in to answer the phones that morning. Seth had called every volunteer he could think of, but since it was last-minute, very few volunteers were at home and those who were, had plans they couldn’t change. So, Seth went in and answered the phones. After all, it had to be done, right?

We’ve all done it. Sat with a patient. Drove a client to an appointment. Filled in at events. Pulled up a chair at a table and stuffed envelopes. Manned a kitchen. Answered phones. Took visitors on a guided tour. Filed records. Completed a project. Why? Would the organization dissolve if a volunteer role went unfilled one time? Or is this just an antiquated volunteer management holdover from thirty years ago?

Are we the only profession that supposedly manages human capital but then is expected to personally fill in for that human capital every time there is a shortage? How did we get here?

If an employee in a department is sick, does the manager of that department go sit in that employees’ chair for the day and do their work, completely setting aside their own duties as manager? No, rather, the absent employee’s work is set aside or other people in that department pick up the slack.

And what about fund-raising? If a donor stops giving, do we ask the fund-raising department to pony up the missing money? Ok, that may be a stretch, but if we think of volunteers as time donors, then why do we, volunteer managers have to make up the donated time, when fundraisers don’t have to make up the donated money?

Here’s the thing: Non-profits seem to want to have it both ways. On one hand, the volunteers’ duties are considered critical enough to warrant expecting the volunteer manager to fill in when the volunteer can’t make it. But on the other hand, the volunteers’ duties aren’t critical enough to warrant paying a staff member overtime to fill in. Which is it?

Volunteers typically work in established departments as support personnel. They support on-going, organizational areas that are made up of staff and management. Let’s examine what happens when staff is absent.  If a staff member is out for the day or week, then other departmental staff pick up the slack, or fill in or divide up the work, or the work is shelved until the staff member returns.

Not so much in volunteer management. In my experience, the prevailing thought was that, “hey there’s other volunteers so there should never be an interruption of volunteer support, no matter what.” It didn’t matter that not every volunteer was capable of filling in for certain duties, nor did it matter that some volunteers were not suited for specific duties, the expectation was that volunteers were an endless supply and always interchangeable. Really? Do we ask staff in data and records to fill in for a social worker when the social worker calls in sick or vice a versa?

And here’s the perceived message: If there aren’t enough extra volunteers to fill in for absent volunteers, then the volunteer manager must not be doing a good enough job, so they should stop complaining when they have to fill in. Huh, so in the volunteer sector, are we all just warm bodies then, volunteers and volunteer managers alike?

It circles back to expectations. Organizations expect volunteers to fill tasks. They expect volunteer managers to supply the volunteers to fill the tasks. So, if volunteers get sick or go on vacation, will any old volunteer body do, including the volunteer manager?

But let’s take this one step further. If the jobs that volunteers do are really able to be filled by anyone, then that renders the job non-critical, doesn’t it? So, if an organization wants all volunteer jobs to be kept filled at all times, then the jobs better be critical to the mission, don’t you think?

Did we do this to ourselves? Do we privately chastise ourselves for not having enough volunteers? Do we feed the perception that volunteer roles must never go unfilled? Do we buy into the idea that volunteers’ roles are so generic that anyone can fill them? And if that is true, then how can we advocate for treating our volunteers as highly skilled contributing members of the team?

Let’s go back to the idea that a data staff member doesn’t fill in for a social worker. It should be the same with volunteers. You only have a portion of your volunteer base who are trained in a particular area and are able to fill in for others when they are absent. You can’t really call all volunteers, only those trained and/or familiar with the task. Or rather, we shouldn’t call every volunteer because that just feeds the warm body theory.

Ok, maybe a really nice volunteer will say yes to coming in for a job they are not familiar with and that takes care of it for that moment. But what if this volunteer is someone who is highly skilled in another area, say working with clients and they quit because they were left to “figure it out” when answering the phones for an absent volunteer?

This illustrates why categorizing volunteers by their training, skills, desirability and availability is crucial to dispelling the warm body myth. Not all volunteers are appropriate for and ready to fill in answering phone calls, or running out to get something or taking a client to an appointment. Too many of these warm body experiences will drive volunteers away.

But back to volunteer managers filling in for absent volunteers. Have you discussed this aspect of your job with anyone? Discussing the fill-in expectations portion of your job might just yield some wiggle room for you if you point out that your job is to provide skilled, appropriate volunteers for organizational tasks and that every time you have to fill in for an absent volunteer means you have less time to do your job.  It becomes cumulative. The more you fill in, the more you will have to fill in because you are not able to train and recruit volunteers. So, what can we do?

  • Point out that just like staff, volunteers will occasionally be absent and there needs to be contingent plans for those instances. This involves the staff in the department picking up the slack.
  • Provide a categorized list of volunteers for every task with emphasis on the volunteers’ training and experience.
  • Begin the cross train the volunteers who are willing. Volunteers who are willing to “float” shows your commitment to filling absentee roles when possible.
  • Gather feedback from volunteers on their fill-in experiences.
  • Advocate for moving on from the warm body theory.

Elevating volunteers and volunteer management is not an easy path. This paradox that volunteer roles are important enough to be kept filled, but not important enough to be filled with capable volunteers or staff and not just any body is frankly, ridiculous.  Volunteer roles must be viewed as just as diversified and skills based as every staff role.

We have to stop buying into the notion that as long as a breathing human being is sitting in the volunteer’s seat, we’ve done our job. We have to change the perception that volunteers are interchangeable tools and that we have to fill in when there are no volunteers available.

In order to progress in volunteer management, we need to present ourselves as the leaders of volunteers, not volunteers ourselves and show that our duties do not include filling in every time a volunteer is absent.

But, first, we have to convince ourselves.

-Meridian

 

Velp or Vichelin Stars, Whichever

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Do you clap on Medium or use Yelp or TripAdvisor or any of the rating systems? Do they influence your reading habits or purchases?

What if we were to institute ratings for volunteer organizations? “Yipes, are you nuts,” comes to mind. But, in reading Jayne Cravens’ excellent post, Volunteers should be talking about their experience online, on volunteers and social media experience sharing, it reminded me of something I posted a few years back.

In my post entitled, Of Tires, Stars and Volunteer Organizations, I argued that we should adopt a sort of Michelin Star rating system for volunteer organizations, one in which a central volunteer agency awards Volunteer Centric Stars based on attaining specific volunteer centric goals. Points of Light already does offer a path to becoming a service enterprise organization through their program. I’d love to see an expansion on that idea, one that has visual impact (stars) and levels of deeper commitment to volunteer engagement so that volunteers, donors and the community can easily see how much effort is placed on volunteerism.

Why would that visual make a difference? Well, why do we stop at hotels that have 5 stars, or why do we aspire to eat at a 3 star Michelin restaurant? Because there is accountability involved, whether it is through public rating or through an organization that creates standards.

At this point, volunteers have little to go on when choosing a volunteer organization, unless they have been a recipient of services. And with little to no rating system, why should any organization try to do better?

And what is the purpose of rating anyway, at least in theory? It’s feedback for entities being rated and guides for people looking for the best place to spend money or time. Let’s look at this example of the power of feedback:

Ben owns a small, upscale restaurant. Traffic has been down lately. He thinks, it’s got to be the quality of the food, so he sits down with his chef, Alisha and tells her that the diners are not happy. He sends Alisha to scope out other restaurants in the area so that she can mimic their menu. Alisha dutifully does as Ben asks, but there is no increase in traffic. Frustrated, Ben looks for another chef and replaces Alisha with Jorge. Together,  Ben and Jorge revamp the menu. Ben advertises a grand re-opening and for a few short weeks, traffic increases, but it falls to a level that is lower than before the re-opening. Perplexed, Ben finally joins a review site and to his amazement, the overwhelming complaints shared by his patrons are the rude wait staff, charging for water and the dirty bathroom. Ben had blamed Alisha and her food for the drop in customers, but it was other areas of his restaurant that drove them away. Ben had forgotten that dining is an experience and that every person and area in his restaurant contributes to that experience.

It’s no different with volunteers. Every person and area in an organization contributes to the volunteer’s experience, including the volunteer manager and other volunteers, ease of getting started, scope of work, etc.

The question, then becomes: What would volunteers say? It might be a frightening thought at first. But, how do we fix what we don’t know? How do we back up the idea that keeping volunteers motivated is everyone’s job? How do we illustrate our assertion that volunteers are looking for flexibility, or projects or skills based volunteering opportunities?

Until there is a volunteer rating system, if ever, can we just cut and paste one? Yes, we can and do. It’s our surveys or exit interviews, our conversations with volunteers and as Jayne Cravens so brilliantly points out, our monitoring of volunteer comments on social media.

Anonymous surveys can give volunteers a chance to be honest with us and provide the feedback that supports our assertions. If you do send out a survey, there are some feedback by-products that you might want to utilize:

  • At the bottom of the survey, give an option to include the volunteer’s name with the promise that anything that needs to be addressed, will be done in confidence. Follow-up with the volunteer.
  • Indicate on the survey that quotes will be utilized for recruitment purposes. Then, use the positive quotes as testimonials on your recruitment information, even if they are anonymous.
  • Share the positive and negative responses with upper management as an instructive way to show what is working and what is not working. If volunteers indicate that certain departments are not utilizing them or taking too long to contact them, then upper management needs to know that. Prepare a report based on the feedback you receive. Do it in a professional, instructive way, not in an emotional, “see, you guys are mean, and I’m frustrated,” way. Based on feedback, come up with recommendations to fix the negatives such as enhanced training for staff, better software to capture data, a review of jobs and positions, etc.

Scour social media sites for any comments on your volunteer program. Add those to your feedback report.

Even though there is not yet a Velp or Vichelin Stars, there is still organic rating going on in the form of word of mouth, social media and surveys. Feedback helps us cement the things we know, while we discover the things we don’t know. Think of the ways to use it to your benefit and encourage volunteers to give their feedback.

We can preach all we want about the path to meaningful volunteer engagement. But, if we really want things to change, it’s time to back it up with concrete evidence.

-Meridian

 

 

 

 

Expecting Different Volunteering Results is Organizational Insanity

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Expecting Different Volunteering Results is Organizational Insanity

Albert Einstein is widely credited with this quote:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Vern sat down and dropped his notepad on the desk. The meeting had not gone as planned, but then, Vern knew it wouldn’t. He’d gathered his volunteers, served them coffee and donuts and explained the new task to them. He mustered up the enthusiasm to pitch the task and at times, came close to begging. He used phrases like, “we really need,” and “if you could just,” but the words were vinegar on his tongue.

Asking his volunteers to give more of their time to a task he knew they had no interest in, felt like he was betraying them. A few of the volunteers felt sorry for Vern and even though they were already giving a good chunk of time to client related volunteering, they promised to give the task a try. They told Vern that the only reason they agreed to try was because they wanted to support him. They appreciated how Vern had always treated them with respect, how he shared impact with them and how he matched them to assignments that utilized their skill-sets.  The volunteers knew that if they did not say yes, Vern would get into trouble.

Vern put his head in his hands. It wasn’t fair to treat the volunteers like pawns in a chess game. It wasn’t fair to ask them to do something they weren’t invested in. It wasn’t fair to the clients, because now, those volunteers were devoting their time to a meaningless task which kept them from their mission centric volunteering.

This scenario, the one that Vern endured, plays out day after day in organizations everywhere. It is the scenario in which organizational upper management, without the input of the volunteer manager, decides to enlist volunteer help in a task that either a) staff involvement has decreased or b) a new initiative has been created and the “grunt work” needs to be completed or c) a staff member or department has complained that they are overworked and they want to offload the minutia on volunteers.

So, what is so wrong with that? After all, that’s what volunteers are here for, to do our bidding, right?

Well, let’s just count the ways this is the perfect example of organizational insanity:

  1. It sends a message to volunteers. Volunteers are not easily duped. Every action an organization takes sends volunteers a message. How many messages that say, “you are nothing more than tools to be used at our discretion” are sent before volunteers leave? Oh, and tell their friends?
  2. It puts the volunteer manager in a terrible position. It reduces the VM to selling a task to volunteers instead of engaging them in ways that excite their passion for the work. It undermines the VM and all the effort in laying a foundation of volunteer trust. Poof! Out the window goes everything the VM has told the volunteers about how the organization is committed to integrating volunteers into mission critical work.
  3. It robs clients of the help we promise them on our slick brochures. Let’s do the math on this. 50 mission centric volunteers – 20 volunteers diverted to meaningless tasks = not 50 mission centric volunteers, that’s for sure. Oh, and let’s do complicated math while we’re at it. 50 mission centric volunteers – 20 volunteers diverted to meaningless tasks x number of volunteers who don’t like the bait and switch thing happening = not many mission centric volunteers at all.
  4. It moves us away from the mission. What are we in existence for? To perpetuate and grow? To pad our coffers? To increase our influence? Growing, padding the coffers and increasing influence are not wrong, in and of themselves, but when they become goals instead of secondary goals for supporting the mission, then we’ve become something unrecognizable to our volunteers. And don’t forget, volunteers are not easily duped.
  5. It establishes a self-defeating pattern. When volunteers say yes out of a sense that the volunteer manager will suffer consequences instead of because they want to do the task, a self-defeating pattern is set. If a few volunteers reluctantly say yes, then more meaningless requests will follow, because it appears that volunteers are happily agreeing to do anything. It becomes much more difficult to explain volunteer objections if volunteers agree to assignments they feel pressured to accept.
  6. It keeps us frozen in outmoded models. When we engage volunteers in the same tired manner from years ago, we will see our volunteer numbers drop.
  7. It wastes everyone’s’ time. Volunteer managers have limited time. Volunteers give limited time. Why are we wasting it with tasks that drive volunteers away?
  8. It sends a message to the volunteer manager. The message from upper management says, “you are nothing more than a mouthpiece, a carnival barker, a conduit for our demands. The skills and time you invest in our volunteers mean little to us.”

What can a volunteer manager do? Besides quit?

  • Don’t beg volunteers. Offer any task or request as an option. Check your emotions at the door. After all, it is up to the volunteers and we’ve all been surprised by volunteers who are willing to do something we never imagined them wanting to do. But, on the flip side, don’t buy into the “get them to do it” nonsense and don’t share your frustrations with the volunteers. They will say yes because they like you and don’t want to see you get in trouble. And then, the self-defeating pattern is set.
  • Capture volunteers’ objections. Write them down to give to those requesting the task. “that’s not something I’m interested in,” or “it doesn’t fit my needs, or time-frame or skills,” are phrases that show the reason a volunteer is declining the task.
  • Ask the person(s) requesting the task to present it to the volunteers. Take yourself out of the middle.
  • Remind senior management that you are there to engage volunteers, not use them. Share engagement successes and failures in order to support your theories and illustrate the difference between mission centric volunteering and tasks.

Organizations thrive with engaged volunteers and while it may seem harmless to organizational senior management to ask volunteers to do whatever we want them to do, it actually sends a message. And not a very good one.

We must take two additional and crucial things into consideration when creating volunteer tasks. How does it impact the mission and how does it impact the volunteer? Without mission centric volunteering, tasks are meaningless chores that sap the volunteer soul. And wear them out. And drive them away.

What’s the definition of organizational insanity?

Not listening to nor respecting the insight of the volunteer manager.

-Meridian

 

Volunteer Chaos Theory: If a butterfly flaps its wings, will Jeremy volunteer?

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I’m on a short vacation this week, so I’m revisiting a post I wrote in 2015 and tweaking it just a bit.

Volunteering needs to have its own chaos theory:  You know, the one that starts with “if a butterfly flaps it’s wings in Brazil, will it spawn a tornado in Texas…”  because engaging volunteers can be quite chaotic.
Have you noticed that a lot of really smart people look at volunteerism in a very linear way? Their volunteering theory in no way takes into account any chaotic variables that affect whether a potential volunteer follows through, or an existing volunteer stays. Instead, it all depends upon how well volunteer managers “sell” the program.
Their linear theory  goes something like this:
Volunteer Manager (VM) sitting at desk. A long line of prospective volunteers stand outside the door patiently waiting for their turn to do good.

VM: Who’s next? May I help you?

New Volunteer Jeremy (J): Hi, I’m answering your ad for volunteer help. Can you tell me more about it? I really want to do good and I can’t do good on my own so I came here.

VM: Why yes, we need someone to do good by helping put up supplies.

J: Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable, I have a Master’s Degree in putting up supplies! I’ve put up supplies for most of my life. I love nothing more than to put up supplies! When can I start to do some good?

VM: Well, you first have to go through some orientation and training. There’s four sessions starting tomorrow. That might be a bit last-minute.

J: Tomorrow, huh? Well I had some important surgery scheduled for tomorrow, but I think I’ll reschedule that. To do good by putting up supplies is far more important. I can take the pain a little longer for the chance to volunteer here.

VM: Wonderful. After that we need to do a background check. It needs to be done before you come to training. That just gives you this afternoon to get it done.

J: This afternoon, huh? I actually have an interview for the job of my dreams this afternoon. It’s a job in putting up supplies, but hey, I’ll bet they’ll understand if I don’t come. I’m sure another job of my dreams will come along in another decade or so. After we speak, I will go to the police station and do the background check. I’ll pay for that myself. While I’m there, do you want me to pay for some other volunteers?

VM: No, that’s not necessary, thank you. Let me check the schedule for the all-important supply put-uppers. Are you available to work on Tuesdays?

J: Wow, Tuesdays, huh? That’s the only day I have to take my elderly Mother out of the nursing home. She really loves our outings, but hey, what the heck, putting up supplies for you guys is so much more important. I can maybe write my mom some letters. I’ll be here every Tuesday doing good! By the way, what kind of supplies are we talking about?

VM: Well, our organization gets shipments of office paper supplies on Tuesdays. No one here is willing to do that work.

J: Office paper supplies, huh? I’m violently allergic to office paper, but you know, my college thesis was on the body mechanics of putting up office paper supplies! That’s where I learned I was allergic. But, I’ll just go to my doctor after the background check and get some stronger medication. Is there an emergency room close by here, just in case the medicine doesn’t work?

VM: There’s a hospital about five miles from here.

J: That’s fine, I’m sure they have ambulances.

VM: You do know, Jeremy that you will have to work alone in a hallway closet. There’s not much light or air, but that’s where the supplies are kept. Is that all right?

J: I do have a fear of the dark, but what the heck! My minor in college was working alone in a closet, where I learned I had a fear of the dark, but I’ll just bring my own flashlight.

VM: Great, we will see you tomorrow. Thanks so much for volunteering. Next!

So, in this linear theory, volunteers pretty much show up, then set aside and overcome any and all barriers to volunteering, because nothing will stand in their way. But, in reality, even the most well-intentioned and eager volunteer can be thwarted by outside factors.

Have you ever recruited the most promising, amazing human being, only to have a change in job status, unexpected move or family circumstance steal them from you before they even get started? It can shake you and make you feel that all your hard work has been wasted.

Chaos surrounds volunteerism. Unlike a paid position, any extenuating circumstance can interfere with a volunteer’s commitment to follow through. The tenuous bond volunteers establish with us can fray at any moment due to events beyond our control.

It happens to all of us and when it does, it feels like that chaos butterfly is slapping us in the face with their wings. There’s no point in obsessing over the stories of “the volunteers that got away,” so we dust ourselves off and continue on, hoping that chaos will smile on us and allow the next eager volunteer to actually get a chance to become a valued member of our team.

We keep that potential volunteer’s information in a drawer. Sometimes we get lucky and the butterfly wings flap in our direction. When the volunteer is able to return, they will, because we didn’t guilt them about a family member falling ill or a child of theirs needing help and instead, made them feel as though we understood that circumstances kept them from us.

It’s those nuanced moments that can affect the direction our chaos takes us. Treating volunteers as more than bodies to fill tasks leaves a lasting impression on them. And even if circumstance never permits them to return, they will spread the message to others that our program cares about volunteers as people with real lives.

Maybe we have to endure more chaos than most. And maybe it’s difficult explaining the variables that keep volunteers from following through.

But maybe, in this chaotic world, the next great volunteer is waiting for us to find them.

-Meridian