Volunteers and the Game of Complaints

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I’m revisiting an old post from 2013 because Volunteer Appreciation Weeks are upon us and one way we can appreciate volunteers is to give them the gift of loving the mission. And by that, I mean, shielding them from nonsense.

Volunteers: A head-pat will do

I remember this incident vividly, because organizations often view volunteers as “our little helpers” and not as members of a professional team. It’s easy to pat volunteers on the head, and toss the “Boundaries and Good Practices for Dummies” book aside when dealing with volunteers because, hey, they are so cuddly (codeword-ignorant and therefore, harmless), they don’t need to be treated with anything resembling….intelligence and professionalism.

A few years back, I sat in a meeting with long-term, respected volunteers Darla and Jo, and the supervisor of their department, Cindy. I was shocked when Darla and Jo brought out a list of complaints against Kay, their immediate supervisor. They hadn’t brought any issues to me before this meeting, so I was a bit skeptical, especially when they produced a list of Kay’s shortcomings, including how she treated staff unfairly. (Hmmmmmmmmmm)

Volunteers: Professional team or pawns?

During the conversation. Darla and Jo mentioned they often went out for drinks with a couple of staff members under Kay’s supervision. (Really?) And those staff members shared their difficulties with Kay. (Well, how convenient) So, what that means is, when out socially, away from work, these staff members let loose and talked about the organization and other employees in front of volunteers, drawing volunteers into the politics of their department. (What a great way to make volunteers feel part of the team, right?)

In private, I said to Cindy, “It’s a terrible idea for staff to socialize with select volunteers and air grievances. If staff is going to invite the volunteers to a function, then they’d better invite all of them and they’d better not make the volunteers pawns in some personal battle with their supervisor.”

So, Cindy, who is the supervisor of all in question, shrugged and said, “they’re on their own time, what can I do?” (Really? How would you like it if the CEO invited a couple of staff members out for drinks and they trashed you?) (oh, and then enlisted volunteers to file a complaint?)

Go on record…really go on record

I then said. “I’m going on record as saying that allowing staff members to fraternize with select volunteers on off time and discuss work issues makes for a harmful work environment and should be stopped immediately.” (And, I will be noting this conversation for the time this all goes south, which we know it will.)

Taking care of the volunteers is everyone’s business, not just the volunteer department’s. Write a policy that says your employees will treat volunteers with respect and will not suck volunteers into conflicts. They don’t deserve that. (And this chess game is what you get. It won’t resolve itself on its own.)

I had a volunteer who helped me in my office. From day one, I said to her that “it’s not that I don’t want you to be privy to things, it’s that I don’t want you to be burdened with junk. You’re here to do good work and you deserve to be shielded from the nonsense.”  She took that to heart and ever after, when I had a conversation with someone in front of her and it got a bit deep, she excused herself before I had a chance to, and she laughingly said, “I don’t need to be a part of this.” (Bravo to her!) But, you know what? She knew staff had political conflicts, personality clashes, and sometimes back-stabbing incidents, but she chose not to become embroiled in them, which lead to more love for the work.

Let volunteers love the mission

The question becomes, “for whom does our volunteer volunteer for? Um, the organization, right? But often, volunteers’ loyalties can be steered away from the mission and to select staff or other volunteers. This is why boundaries exist; to ensure volunteers are connected to mission impact and not to any cult of personality borne from feeling sorry for or loyal to one or more individuals.

So, when staff thinks they’re being nice or cute or they just want some pawns in their game of complaints, they need to realize that fraternizing might be great for them, but it’s always a bad idea for the volunteers. Let the volunteers see the greatness of the organization, not the back room where stuff is all chaos and disjointed and frankly sometimes back-stabbing. And if staff want to grouse about their jobs, then make sure that volunteers are left out of it.

-Meridian

and here’s the old post