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I was just speaking with a staff member about how she feels about her work. There is a a bruised quality to her tale and a sad sense of “something missing”from her experience. I know what that”something missing” is. She used to be a volunteer.

This is an interesting phenomenon, a volunteer transitioning into becoming a staff member. I’ve know quite a number, because logically, the very good volunteers can one day become staff. After all, we are all looking for the best people, right? Now, there’s a huge difference between those volunteers who come to us looking for a job in the first place and the volunteers who did not start off wanting a job, but somehow they were in the right employment place at the time. I’m speaking of volunteers who become staff members after years of volunteering.

I’m talking about going from the praise, encouragement, cheer leading, meaningful work environment of the volunteer side to the reality driven, “you are expected to do your job” side of employment. It’s somewhat like stepping out of your warm house on a sub zero morning. That rush of ice cold air enters your lungs and it hurts. “Where’s my hot chocolate and footies,” you lament. Those items are not out here.

I’ve actually stood by and witnessed a volunteer turned staff struggle for years trying to merge the two experiences. It’s a painful journey for both of us, since I was her volunteer coordinator and I know the tremendous difference she made in the lives of our patients and families. Other staff members who came from the volunteer world will tell me the same thing in varying degrees of honesty. It’s not the same in here.

One of the ways volunteer managers keep volunteers coming back time after time is by shielding them from the internal nonsense of our organizations. We shield them from overbearing managers, from economic concerns, from mercenary marketing schemes and from the daily grind. We serve up the part of our organizations that should be on the forefront and sometimes is not.

Should we prepare our volunteers for possible employment? I personally don’t think so. The vast majority of volunteers do not want to work for our organizations. They want to be part time, have that rich and rewarding volunteer experience and then go home fullfilled. They don’t want the things we deal with day after day. Frankly, I don’t want to give them access to the inner workings of the organization. They may not like what they see as much as the version they see now. Because we, as volunteer managers absorb, deflect and hide the trivial and annoying, our volunteers are free to do good work that is pure and untainted. That is a wonderful gift we give to them and we should be proud of that gift. And the gift of an unfettered volunteer to those we serve is truly remarkable.

There’s another reason not to let volunteers be part of the noisy, grinding engine that is the core of our organizations. Instead of being an oil filter, the volunteers are the steering wheel that keeps our organizations headed in the right direction.That other reason? We, volunteer managers want to ride up front where the view is spectacular, too.