The Tortured Volunteer Manager Syndrome

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Do we, leaders of volunteers suffer from a tortured volunteer manager syndrome? Or, are all our frustrations something we made up?

The tortured artist syndrome loosely refers to an artistic person who becomes frustrated at the lack of understanding and appreciation for what they deem important-i.e., their art. And I’m convinced that what we, leaders of volunteers do is an art.

Does this syndrome sound like us? Are we frustrated because others don’t understand or appreciate volunteerism and all its beauty and complexities the way we do?

Here’s the crazy thing. All the volunteer managers I’ve worked with or spoken to are super creative people. We have to be. No, seriously, we have to be incredibly, artistically creative in order to succeed at our jobs. Sure, we need to be organized. Sure, we need to multi-task. Sure, we need to keep good records. But the bulk of our jobs takes an artist’s touch.

As volunteer engagement artists, our frustrations come from the perception of our jobs. Our jobs are generally viewed as desk jobs, as coordination jobs, as simply making a phone call to a willing volunteer who agrees to do organizational bidding. It’s like saying a teacher just grades papers.

And you know what? We most likely went into our jobs expecting them to be coordination jobs, because that’s what we were told. That’s what the job description said. That’s what everyone assumed. We were told that our jobs consisted of scheduling and keeping track of volunteers. In my first volunteer coordinator interview, I was asked if I could “get along with senior citizens.”

I was never asked if I could create complex programs, or if I understood deep motivations. I was never asked if I could inspire a person who was lonely or discouraged because they’d lost a loved one or a job or a place to be. I was never asked if I could listen intently to hear what was behind the desire to help someone else. I was never asked if I had the skills to match a person to a sensitive position. I was never asked if I could diffuse a potentially ugly situation between a volunteer and our organization. I was never asked if I could diplomatically introduce change to a seasoned volunteer team. I was never asked if I could explain the deep impact each volunteer role had on the mission. I was never asked if I could convince a volunteer that they were truly appreciated when it wasn’t overtly obvious. I was never asked if I could diplomatically answer probing questions or if I could balance organizational policies with volunteer needs. Nope, it was more like, “can you relay information and keep a schedule?”

“Sure,” I thought, “I can do that.” But then, once I got into my job, I was struck by how much creativity and engagement skills the job required. I found that to do the job, I had to dig deep into every people skill I possessed while mastering new skills. I discovered that my job description (like keeping stats, scheduling and getting along with seniors) took up less than 10% of my day and the other 90% was the art of volunteer engagement. I discovered that my job was nothing like the job description.

Most of us volunteer managers were on our own to figure it out. Our jobs literally forced us into this tortured syndrome as we began to see the skills and talents our volunteers brought to our organizations, how complex engaging volunteers could be and how vast were the possibilities for volunteer contributions. We came to understand that engaging volunteers was about as much a desk job as composing a symphony is a transcribing job. We figured out that volunteer engagement is its own art form.

We discovered, through hard work and the desire to produce something great, that volunteers and volunteering is a complex ecosystem. It is naturally miraculous. But it needs the right combination of elements so that it can thrive. It needs a skilled and creative hand (that’s us) to put all those factors into place and when all elements sync, wondrous things happen. Just like art.

And in the process of discovering this artistic ecosystem, we naturally get excited and want to share it with others. When others don’t quite see the complex beauty of it all, we get frustrated. We want everyone to appreciate this wondrous art we’ve discovered.

How could they not see it? Well, I look back and realize that even with 40-60 hours a week, it took me a while to fully get volunteering. So, how could I expect someone who spends the majority of their time away from volunteers to automatically get it? I wondered, “how could they look at this art form and just see a bunch of random colors?” Because volunteer engagement and impact is complex, understanding it is complex. It takes time and a willingness to really see it.

That’s where we come in. Being tortured and frustrated isn’t going to change anything (except burn us out). We have to adapt new strategies or else the 2030 volunteer conferences will be the “Time for Change” conferences again.

We need to take a step back and assess where we can grow stronger. Is it in our communication and the way we frame volunteering? Is it forging a united front? Is it in creating a strong alliance of volunteer managers locally so there are unified voices advocating for volunteerism? Is it in showcasing our successes and then using the capital gained from those successes to advocate for change? Is it in altering our approach and stopping the attempts to “educate” others and instead, trying to forge symbiotic relationships within organizations?

I believe each of us can create change within our own organizations by shedding the “tortured volunteer manager syndrome” and adopting the leader of volunteers mantel. Rooted, permanent change doesn’t happen overnight. But, it can happen with consistent messaging and by showcasing results. It can happen when we successfully show how the art of volunteer engagement is necessary to vibrant organizations and to communities in general. It can happen when we demonstrate how everybody wins through the impact our volunteers have on mission goals.

Then we can look forward to real systemic change when we are not frustrated any longer because everywhere we look, the art of volunteer engagement and the impact of volunteer contributions are celebrated.

Yes, it’s time for change. It’s time we made volunteer engagement and impact understood.

-Meridian