Volunteer Managers and Decision Fatigue


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Zack pushed back in his chair and stole a glance at his watch. 1:30. His lunch lay half eaten on his desk. A new volunteer, Karey was on hold, waiting for Zack’s decision on which volunteer would mentor her and what day she could start. Several new emails pinged on his screen. Task force volunteers needed an update on the choice of meeting spaces. In front of him, Nadia, the event coordinator was pointing to the unfilled volunteer slots at the Walk-a-thon this coming weekend.

Weariness blanketed Zack. He forgot what it was the new volunteer on hold wanted. The subject lines on the newest emails blurred in his vision. He snapped at Nadia, “I told you, I was working on the event. I haven’t heard back from the volunteers I called. I will figure out who else I can call, but I can’t just make volunteers magically appear.”

Decisions. Volunteer managers are faced with making hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions a day. Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s look at a simple request for a volunteer to fill a task and a sampling of the decisions involved.

  • Do I give this request priority?
  • Do I work on this now or put it in a queue?
  • What volunteers are best suited for this request?
  • Who should I call first?
  • How should I frame this request?
  • Do I ask for more information or do I have enough?
  • How much time should I spend on this?
  • What is the best time to call volunteers?
  • Should I also ask survey questions while I have them on the phone?
  • What points should I stress about the impact this task will have on our mission?
  • What is the best way to plead this case?
  • What recent activities has each volunteer I call been involved in and how can I acknowledge that?

That’s 12 decisions before even starting. All day long, volunteer managers make decisions that directly impact the success of their volunteer programs. Daily major decisions include:

  • How should I answer this email and get my point across?
  • What tactic should I use when asking for more time finding volunteers for a hard to fill task?
  • How can I better explain this task to a volunteer?
  • What methods should I use when mediating the brewing dispute between a volunteer and a staff member?
  • What questions can I ask on the upcoming survey?
  • What do I want to measure on the next volunteer evaluation?
  • What can I streamline in today’s training to save some time?

Decision fatigue occurs when the brain has made so many decisions that fatigue sets in, causing a breakdown in ability to make new decisions, or making snap decisions, or a lack of self-control and diminished willpower. It leads to poor decision-making.

Decision fatigue can show itself with an irritated voice or a curt answer. It can show itself with “giving in” instead of standing ground for principles you believe in. It can show itself with forgetfulness or shutting down. It can show itself when you finally go home and can’t decide what to make for dinner so you order something unhealthy from that expensive take out place down the road because it’s the easiest thing to do.

The 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama famously said:

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.

Beyond filling volunteer tasks, a volunteer manager’s day is fraught with other carefully considered decisions.

  • How do I best approach senior management regarding an issue?
  • How do I politely extract myself from a conversation that is going on too long?
  • How do I mediate between a staff and volunteer or a volunteer and another volunteer?
  • How do I politely answer snarky questions?
  • How do I show volunteer value?
  • How can I manage all my tasks?
  • How can I remember all the small things?
  • How can I find new volunteers?
  • How can I listen to volunteers, genuinely hear them and yet not spend too much of my day in what appears to others as chit-chat?

Volunteer management is the antithesis of assembly line work. There is no manual outlining each step because each step changes hourly. It involves careful people skills by leaders of volunteers with high emotional intelligence. Decisions are weighed and made in fractions of seconds. No wonder volunteer managers go home exhausted.

So what can we do?

Make the important decisions first thing: Before fatigue sets in and while your mind is clear, make your most important decisions early and stick to your decisions. Our minds are equipped to think more clearly and rationally before fatigue sets in so work on your most important projects or challenges when you first arrive. Do you have to counsel a volunteer? Do you have a yearly event? Do you have to give an important report? Work on those tasks first, set a deadline for your decisions and stick to them.

Limit your decisions: Lay out your work clothes the night before work. Prepare your lunch or decide where you will have lunch the night before. Decide your 5 goals for the next day the night before. Put off making major decisions when you feel yourself losing willpower. There is nothing wrong with telling people you have to think about something and get back with them.

Realize decisions will not all be perfect ones: Volunteer managers tend to hold themselves to a pretty impossible perfection standard, thinking that every decision must be the optimal one. This unrealistic standard creates paralysis when making decisions, slows down productivity and increases fatigue. Major decisions need time, but lesser decisions can be made more quickly and efficiently. Remember, after mulling over option upon option, we can still make an imperfect decision, so it’s best to leave the agonizing to major decisions.

Carve out quiet time: Ideally, find an isolated space to work on projects. If you don’t have one, turn your computer monitor to the wall, turn the volume down, let the answering system pick up phone calls and work on your “need to do” list. One hour disconnected from the chaos will reap enormous benefits in not only making better decisions, but in your overall mental health. Two hours would be even better.

Become a by-appointment office: It’s hard to do when you have an open door policy, but you can slowly begin to change that. Hang signs on your door that keep people from dropping in with questions or information that can wait. Signs that indicate “volunteer interview in progress,” or “volunteer strategy meeting in progress,” clearly announces that you must focus on the crucial task at hand. Having to make a major decision while constantly being interrupted with having to make smaller, snap decisions wears you down. It creates decision fatigue and robs you of any ability to make a good decision. If you find yourself continually putting off big projects, it’s a good sign that you suffer from decision fatigue and probably the effects of a chaotic office.

Pare down the upfront work and utilize volunteer brains: For projects needing research, input from volunteers etc., ask volunteers to help you by completing the research or polling the volunteers. They can even assist by presenting you with decision options and their recommendations for best choices.

What’s frustrating about decision fatigue is how it silently chips away at willpower. And a worn down volunteer manager will be ineffective when presenting volunteer contributions or advocating for better volunteer engagement practices.

People who love us will tell us to take care of ourselves. They’re right. We need to take care of ourselves mentally and physically if we truly wish to create a successful volunteer program.

So, please, while your brain is fresh and unencumbered, make a commitment to limiting the effects of decision fatigue.








Just What is the Value of a Volunteer?


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Just what is the value of a volunteer

Do organizations value volunteer Luis because he has this rare ability to look into the eyes of someone and open his being to receiving their pain? Do organizations value volunteer Mary because she drops everything and comes in when there’s an immediate need? Are all volunteers valued strictly for their volunteering? Or, do you sometimes get the uncomfortable feeling that certain volunteers are more highly thought of than others in your organization?

It’s kinda true that some volunteers are more likable than others and volunteer managers have a challenge to overcome when staff doesn’t like a volunteer (see When Staff Doesn’t “Like” a Volunteer). But, besides likability, are there other reasons some volunteers are regarded more highly behind the closed wooden doors of organizational structure?

Does a senior manager get all giddy when a volunteer bequeaths money to the organization (and then stands at your desk with a big smile spreading across her amazed face and says something like, “well, we would have gone to his funeral, but we didn’t know, why didn’t you tell us he died,”) or when a volunteer pays for that new tech equipment or that fridge for the employee lunch room?  Does the board go all a-twitter when they find out one of your volunteers is the mother-in-law of a famous actor and they are high-fiving each other because they just know your volunteer will use her mother-in-law powers to badger this actor into endorsing the organization? (I always kept this type of information buried deep in the secret compartment of my brain, it’s the one where I picture myself as the first officer aboard the star ship Enterprise, ooops – what I mean is they couldn’t pry it out of me if they tried)

What if a volunteer is married to a prominent lawyer or a politician, or someone who owns the swanky hotel where they have that fabulous banquet hall? Or what if a volunteer has loads of money? Does that volunteer suddenly get the VIP treatment?

Maybe it’s subtle, but it’s there. Does the volunteer who is an absolute master at soothing clients’ hearts rate the same status or visibility as the volunteer who donates substantial money?

Ok, ok, I’m being critical, and this is really all about human nature anyway, aka, the “what can you do for me,” expectations we all have. So, if volunteers who donate or bequeath or have connections seem to get better treatment, why don’t we, volunteer managers just use that to our advantage?

Here’s what I propose:

Let’s equip every volunteer with a name badge that teases their potential value beyond the amazing volunteer work they are doing.  For example:


“Oh Mary,” a fund-raising specialist would say after reading the name tag, “I heard you just had a birthday. If you don’t mind me asking, I mean, you look so wonderful, how old are you again? Eighty-seven? Perfect.”

or maybe this one…


“Oh, Jamal,” the social media expert would say as he stopped Jamal in the hallway,” tell me about your family. That’s nice that you have an older brother…. what does he do? Really? In Hollywood? I mean, your last name is, and well, you couldn’t be related to…oh, what, really you’re HIS brother? Bam! I knew it! I mean, how nice…”

or even this one…


“Kameko,” the harried chief financial officer would coo after going over the financial report, “what adorable shoes you have on. From Italy, oh? You bought them the last time you went there? You travel extensively, I see… and your lovely engagement ring, it is so, so enormous…”

or maybe a general one might just do:


I remember the day my organization got a sizable donation from the best friend of the recipient of our help. It turned out that the best friend was a well-known celebrity. Everyone was surprised at the gift and then a bit relieved that we all had done a good job. I mean any one of us, volunteers included, could have blown receiving that donation.

There was the usual, “you never know, the person you are serving just might turn out to be someone famous,” talk as if the result of good work is not the work itself, but what it can produce.

Organizations might get more excited when volunteers have a little extra something to give. Do they donate? Do they have influential contacts?  Will they leave money when they die?

We, volunteer managers need to remind everyone that volunteers are there to further the mission, whether or not that volunteer has money or influence.

But the takeaway is this: Volunteers who experience meaningful volunteer engagement and feel integrated into the organization always give more than their volunteer hours. Always.

That means treating all volunteers as if they have money or influence lest they go elsewhere. And organizations might not want to take that chance.



This is an update from a 2016 post: Eureka, I’ve discovered the value of a Volunteer!


Volunteers: The Ultimate in Recycling


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You know, typically, when we think of recycling, we picture a bulldozer scooping mountains of trash to process for reuse and hmm, this is a really demeaning way to picture volunteers. But the word recycling also has nuanced meanings that have nothing to do with trash and maybe everything to do with the incredible potential volunteerism brings. For instance, some of those nuanced words are:

reclaim: Think of working or retired teachers, nurses, executives, web designers and every skilled human being out there including social workers, advocates, and parents. Think of the wealth of experience and practiced skills they bring. Reclaiming those skills and putting them to work helping organizations achieve goals is reclaiming at its best.

restore: Giving volunteers the opportunity to restore and hone their skills after any change in status is one of the things we do best.  Think of the student who is unsure about her potential. Think about the worker who lost his job and confidence. It’s one of those life win-wins that we live for.

re-purpose: Volunteer skills take many forms and often, volunteers find new uses for their skills by volunteering. Think of the accountant who privately loves to draw and how they added hand-drawn figures to the volunteer stats report that illustrate impact.  Re-purposing talents infuses fresh ideas into our organizations and helps volunteers see their skills in a new light.

re-imagine: Finding that hidden volunteer talent is one of the greatest feelings of accomplishment for any volunteer manager. By delving into a volunteer’s skills and interests, we can often pair them with a role that brings out that buried talent. Think of the stay at home mom who has mad organizational skills or the retired law enforcement officer who has this incredible ability to get at the heart of things when talking with people.

There are so many ways in which volunteers contribute their knowledge, skills, talents and ideas. But what about our organizations? How do they reap the rewards from this ultimate in recycling?

Let’s flip those recycle meanings and apply them to our organizations and see how they benefit.

reclaim: As organizations grow and adapt to the changing landscape, they can easily lose the original passion for the mission. Competition for donors, risk management, reporting and HR functions all contribute to the more business-like atmosphere. Tapping into volunteer enthusiasm is an organic way to reclaim and keep the passion alive. Volunteers can speak at staff meetings and bring their inspiring message to overburdened employees. We can pass along the praise volunteers share with us about hard-working staff members and infuse some new energy into their work.

restore: Everywhere organizations are doing more with less. Overburdened staff need help. By offloading projects onto volunteer task forces, organizations can restore staff workloads to a more manageable state. Holding on to every task and function when there are capable volunteers willing to step up keeps organizations mired in minutia and stuck in the last century. We can pilot volunteer programs that take tasks away from staff. We can lead up and out by offering expert volunteer help on projects.

re-purpose: How many organizational functions are outmoded? Skilled volunteers with fresh ideas can transform stale programs into current and relevant campaigns designed to move organizations forward. We can showcase volunteer accomplishments and if need be, add a dollar value to the volunteer’s expertise, as in “if you paid a consultant in this area of expertise, you would be paying $175 an hour. Our volunteer is willing to weigh in with proven methods and years of experience for free.”

re-imagine: Volunteers bring fresh perspectives, world experience and have the latest in trends and programs at their disposal. Our organizations can be kept abreast of changing trends by inviting volunteers to serve on task forces, the board and campaigns. By listening to the diverse voices within the volunteer base, an organization can re-imagine policies, direction and focus so that they are positioned for the future. Instead of looking in all directions to find expert voices on marketing or finance, organizations can look within to find expert volunteer voices, ones who already know and believe in the mission.

The perception of volunteering has to change globally. The outdated notion that volunteers are timid souls that just want to fill whatever mundane role we offer them is gone. Let’s bury it.

We, volunteer managers are managing the ultimate force in reclaiming, restoring, re-purposing and re-imagining. We have talent, knowledge, skills and passion at our fingertips. We have mission success in our reach.

We, leaders of the volunteer movement must recreate the perception of volunteerism, from one of volunteers as tools to one of volunteers as the ultimate way for organizations to refresh, to reinvigorate, and to rejuvenate our goals. Ignoring the wealth of recycling volunteer gold organizations have in hand is short-sighted and backward.

And, in order to cultivate all that potential, organizations must re-invest in volunteer management leadership.

Let’s get to work and re-frame the image.




Is Making Volunteers Likable Our Objective?


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I remember my first days as a volunteer coordinator. There was this one volunteer, Addie. She was a tiny, fit ball of northeastern, direct confrontation, piercing eyed judgmental “I’ve been here since the forefront” terror. Staff couldn’t stand her. But she roamed the halls wielding her trusty sword “Gotcha,” slicing apart our ineptness. She was your crusty grandmother, your 87-year-old history teacher and your noisy neighbor all rolled into one, and oh, with a grip of steel. I know because she would grab my arm to make a point. Yep, I still have phantom bruises there.

I danced lightly around her. Although staff didn’t like her, she was, I thought, untouchable. They didn’t ask that I do anything about her, so I figured their eye-rolling was the way we dealt with disliked volunteers. After all, she’d earned her right to be a disruption, to be tolerated, to interpret our policies as anything that suited her purpose. She was, (da da daaaaahhhh) emeritus!

So, what crippling reasons cause us to hide under our desks instead of addressing volunteer behaviors?

  • Lack of specific policy indicators? (for example, policy states theft or inappropriate language is an offense. Policy doesn’t include arrogance or chatty-ness as an official offense)
  • Fear that delivering feedback to a volunteer will be misinterpreted as criticism and the volunteer will quit?
  • Our general fear of confrontation?
  • Volunteer status, such as emeritus? Or staff seems to “put up” with volunteers?
  • Our belief that volunteers are giving of their time, so we should be more accepting of their behavior?
  • The perception that a volunteer is older, wiser, more accomplished, more educated or skilled than we are?
  • Our belief that our jobs are no more than coordination?

The above reasons hold power over us, power that cripples us and prevents us from truly leading volunteers. How can we then make adjustments so we don’t simply going to continue to sidestep situations that can be remedied?

The first step is to prioritize the why. Why is this volunteer here? We know there are multiple underlying and nuanced reasons, all of which we take into consideration when matching volunteers to assignments.

But what is the primary, down to basics reason a volunteer shows up? To complete a task, or fill a role that furthers the mission they believe in. How is this being accomplished?

Taking the focus off of staff’s and volunteer’s personalities allows us to examine the work being done and by doing so we can analyze how behaviors are affecting work quality.

Communicating mission focus to everyone, staff and volunteers alike, lays the groundwork for intervention. How do we do that?

In volunteer orientation or onboarding, emphasize the expectation of excellence. While creating a welcoming atmosphere, stress the importance of volunteers being able to fit within a busy organization. Illustrate the enormous workloads put upon staff. Make clear that while staff appreciates volunteers, the work is most important. Ask your most productive volunteers to speak to and hopefully mentor new volunteers.

Create policy that gives you an opportunity to mediate. Although we obviously can’t write policy for every little behavior, especially if behavior is opinion based. (one staff member believes a volunteer chats too much) We can, however include six month probationary periods, infractions for inappropriate behavior and the specific understanding that it is in the power of the volunteer manager to determine fit. Fit means that a volunteer’s performance will be evaluated on fit within a specific department and the volunteer can be moved to another position. (This is a two-way street; it also protects the volunteer from being stuck with very demanding or uncooperative staff)

Communicate your commitment to supporting staff. Before placing a volunteer, speak with staff about your readiness to intervene if a volunteer is behaving in ways that hinder production. Get the idea out in the open that your focus is on helping staff be more productive and you are leading volunteers, not simply placing them.

Ditch the idea that volunteers will stay because we are nice to them. Instead, remind yourself that volunteers will stay because they are doing work that is meaningful and in order to engage in meaningful work, behavior must align with mission centric goals.

Bravely follow-up and be willing to intervene. Feedback is not always criticisms that will drive a volunteer away. Mediation means taking into consideration the needs of both sides and finding solutions that best benefit the organization. Being on top of situations ensures that volunteers are valued, not tolerated. Ask both sides questions that direct them towards accomplishments, such as “what path do you envision us adapting to increase our survey input results,” or “what small thing right now will help us improve our client satisfaction?”

Be willing to be a leader who can do the hard stuff. Just because a volunteer is emeritus, or wiser, or more accomplished does not mean that you are their subordinate. Your volunteer program is a reflection on you. In your organization, are volunteers valued or are they simply considered a necessary nuisance? Are volunteers given juicy tasks or are they relegated to boring minutia? With courageous leadership comes respect for the program.

Educate staff on working with volunteers. Humanize the volunteers. Stress their character and commitment to the mission. Emphasize their desire to help staff, not hinder them. Highlight volunteer accomplishments with a caveat to staff who embraced them. The more we make staff feel as though they “have to accept volunteers,” the less they will actually accept them. Instead, as leaders, we need staff buy-in and it takes some staff ego massaging to get that buy-in.

Listen to other volunteers. If volunteers are complaining about a volunteer’s behavior, or worse, quitting because of behavior, there’s a clear problem. How many good volunteers are we willing to lose because we would rather not engage in mediating destructive behavior?

And most importantly, act quickly. Intercepting a problem before it becomes messy and unmanageable will keep those sleepless nights at bay. Regularly surveying staff and volunteers can unearth budding challenges. Following up on those challenges early gives a higher rate of successful mediation versus allowing patterns of behavior to cement. And, by showing your commitment to creating an excellent program, your leadership value will exponentially rise.

By focusing on mission goals, we can more clearly see the big picture. Mediating and creating volunteer fit has the following tremendous potentials for a huge return on that investment.

  • More satisfied and engaged volunteers
  • Staff who will champion volunteer engagement
  • Openings to more volunteer roles
  • More recognition for volunteers
  • Respect for the volunteer manager voice
  • More leverage for negotiating new programs, ways to integrate volunteers or eliminating outdated volunteer roles

While confronting behavioral disputes is down right hard and uncomfortable, we will reap enormous results by bravely tackling this challenge. Each successful attempt at mediation will move the needle closer to a professional and more respected volunteer program.

Leading is doing the challenging stuff well. It gets easier once you burst that tension bubble and see how satisfying it is to get results.

After all, we’re not volunteer coordinators who shrug because staff doesn’t seem to like volunteer Addie. We are leaders of vibrant, contributing volunteer programs.








When Staff Doesn’t Like a Volunteer Part 2: A Success Story


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What happens when staff doesn’t like a volunteer? Does the volunteer quietly quit because they never get called or do staff begrudgingly put up with a volunteer they dislike and work suffers? What can we, the volunteer program leader do in these situations?

A leader of volunteers, who is a good friend and colleague recently shared this experience with me:

I remember one of our volunteers, Steven. Staff would run the other way when Steven came in because Steven always had an idea or a plan to improve our organization and the way we operated. It would frustrate already overworked staff to listen to all these critical ideas.

But what they didn’t know about Steven was he would take the assignments other volunteers wouldn’t take. He actually volunteered for a lot of shifts, ones that needed filling. He was both annoying and indispensable at the same time.

It was exhausting, knowing how dependable Steven was and yet being frustrated at his frequent sharing of plans to improve our organization. But then one day, a solution came in a most unexpected way.

A staff member, Allie who was in charge of a large project involving the creation of a detailed cataloging system needed volunteer help. The assignment meant working in a basement on a very cranky machine. Most volunteers wouldn’t want to tackle such a cumbersome project in a dingy basement so I thought of Steven. I asked my boss if I could approach him with the proposal and fortunately, she agreed.

The staff member in charge of the project was willing to give Steven a try so I approached him, saying, “look, Steven, saying no is ok. I’m asking you to work on a temperamental machine in a basement here, but it is crucial work that needs to be done.”

To my surprise, Steven replied, “I would love to do that.” And the interesting thing that happened, was Steven got to see behind the scenes at our organization and by working directly with staff, began to realize how little time they had for all these ideas and projects he had been pushing on them.

I knew that pairing Steven with this assignment was a success when all on his own, he recruited another one of our volunteers to help with the project. I even overheard him one day pipe up when hearing a group of volunteers grouse about how slow it was taking to get an answer to a question and say, “you don’t realize how busy the staff is here.”

With Steven I knew that I could either sit back and just let him drive me crazy or I could understand how much he cared about the mission. I realized his complaints and ideas came from his desire to support our mission, not from some need to complain.

I remembered something I heard from a very wise peer that stuck with me: “That one unhappy worker might be the lone voice in the wilderness telling us something we need to hear. We need to ask: Why are they miserable? Maybe, they have a point.”

When dealing with complaining volunteers, we have to examine whether or not it is the message or the way it is presented that irks us. And staff must realize that a volunteer’s role is not to make staff happy.

Just as every staff member needs direction from their supervisors, volunteers need direction from the person supervising them. We can’t expect volunteers to read our minds, so as leaders of volunteer programs, we need to train staff and show them that volunteering is a two-way street. That’s where the successes lie.

So, from this experience, we know we can salvage a staff/volunteer relationship that has soured. Let’s look at the volunteer manager toolbox and pick out some tools that work in these types of situations:

Mediation: One of the most important tools a volunteer manager possesses. Stepping back and thinking about three basic things helps us to mediate.

  1. What is the best outcome for our mission?
  2. How will volunteer A satisfactorily arrive at the outcome?
  3. How will staff member B satisfactorily arrive at the outcome?

By focusing on outcome, (a capable volunteer and a reasonable staff member will find a way to work together to further mission goals) we can then create a mediation plan.

Look for the interests of each party. For a volunteer, it may be they believe they have good ideas and need to be heard. For a staff member, it may simply be they need quiet time to get their work done. How then, can these two interests be addressed to the satisfaction of each party?

Picture a continuum: On one end the staff member would give the volunteer complete attention at all times. On the other end the volunteer would work in silence at all times. Begin to move the ends toward the middle-what would that look like? Maybe staff could spend 5 minutes with the volunteer when they arrive and update the volunteer while listening to any new thoughts. Maybe the volunteer could be instructed to bring all new ideas to the volunteer manager who would present the ideas in official ways.

The point is to craft the movement of the two sides towards one another, keeping the mission as the goal.

Story crafting: A skill that serves volunteer managers well. In the above Steven story, our volunteer manager deftly created a story. By thinking of volunteers and staff members as stars of a story, we can more clearly ‘write’ the ending in our heads. We can envision ‘reading’ that volunteer Steven was paired with staff member Allie which resulted in a mutually beneficial relationship. It helps us to step back from the situation and look at it logically with a positive outcome or ending in mind.

Another use of story crafting is to present each side in mediation with the story of the other side’s point of view. Telling Steven how much work needed to be done was a story meant to educate him on the enormous work load on staff. Telling Allie how volunteer Steven would take assignments no one else would take was a story meant to inform Allie that Steven was committed to getting the job done.

Positive identification: The tool volunteer managers use daily. Let’s look at Steven’s success story. How did staff view Steven? They saw him as a hypercritical, over-simplifying volunteer who continually offered up unwanted ‘solutions’ to problems that either did not exist or were being addressed in other ways. What did they not see? They did not see Steven’s passion for the mission, his willingness to help in any manner, nor his desire to more fully understand organizational workings.

Tapping into volunteer’s motivations will yield clues to their behavior. Maybe the needy volunteer just went through something tragic and is hurting. Maybe the talkative volunteer is isolated. As volunteer managers, we can humanize our volunteers so that staff sees them as more than just temporary help. We can highlight the volunteer’s character by sharing the positives we witness. Sometimes our humanization needs to use the word ‘but.’ For example:

Volunteer Millie lost her husband of 45 years a few months ago and is a little raw but she is so grateful for her husband’s care that she is committed to learning our system so she can further our work. She wants to be a help to us, not a burden.

Volunteer Asher lost his job due to cutbacks but he is passionate about helping end hunger and actually considers this an opportunity to make a difference in the world. He says he feels privileged to learn from our staff.

Matching: The volunteer manager tool that is always sharp. By pairing Steven with staff insiders, he was able to see first hand how overburdened staff were. He was able to integrate into the bigger picture and thus became a champion for not only the mission, but for the very staff that had rebuffed him before. And by choosing a staff member who was willing to work with Steven and most likely had a personality that would benefit Steven, our volunteer manager made a successful match.

Now here is the really interesting part in all of this. Experts say that behavior is the outward expression of attitudes, but that if behaviors are modified, attitudes can change. Look at the Steven example. His attitude changed. And as his behavior changes, staff’s attitude towards him and possibly other volunteers will slowly change as well. So, if we can mediate behavior changes in staff and volunteers, we may just end up with attitude changes.

Next time: Part 3. Laying the groundwork for volunteer engagement that takes into consideration personalities, character, attitudes and behavior.


When Staff Doesn’t ‘Like’ a Volunteer


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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.





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.


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……




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.


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.


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