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I just finished creating a new voice mail message, one that replaces the really nice one I have on my phone line now. The new message sounds like this:  “Thank you for calling the volunteer department. I am currently on the phone or assisting other volunteers. Your concerns and questions are very important and I will return your call in the order in which it was received. Current wait time expected is between 2 days and 3 weeks.”

No, I didn’t really change my voice mail message but sometimes I think it might be the wisest thing to do. When a volunteer calls (or stops in) and wants to discuss a problem, concern, idea or suggestion, it often requires the input or permission of someone either higher up or in another department to enact change. While the volunteer waits on the volunteer manager to solve or answer, the volunteer manager waits on other staff to give a go-ahead. This can literally take weeks. It may be because everyone is afraid to make a decision, or the suggestion doesn’t seem as important as everything else on the plate. No matter the reason, there is a time warp when it comes to volunteer needs. If management wants the volunteer department to create something, they want it post-haste. But when the volunteers want to create a great project, it sits on the pile of things to consider, often languishing for weeks.

I’ve had a number of volunteers come up with really innovative ideas. I’ve had volunteers wait, get frustrated and then fade away. Sadly, the clients and the organization suffers. Right now I have this really dynamic volunteer who wants to create and run with an idea she deems awesome. She has the expertise to run the project. She has the backup man-power. She has the time to do it and she believes in it. So, what’s the problem?

Organizations can run like bloated larva inching across road. We can be bloated with committees and oversights and liabilities that truly cripple creative thought. We may all be afraid to take a chance, yet when we see news of some organization winning an award for an innovative idea, we all look around and say, “why don’t we do that?” It’s a vicious cycle, one in which the volunteers cannot understand what takes us so long to make a determination. They shake their heads and walk away in frustration.

I’ve noticed over the years that the successful projects are the ones I don’t tell anyone about until they are up and running. I encourage the volunteers to do a pilot project and we work out the bugs together. When I present the already running project to upper management, I get a “good job.” If a project doesn’t work out, we can contain any damage because we’ve started small.

You have to give your volunteers credit, not free rein. You have to give yourself credit too. If you oversee the beginnings of a great idea, you can manage that idea so that it works within the parameters of your organization. Showing people a well thought out, proven project works better than pitching an idea. Ideas are shadowy things, full of pitfalls and danger. There’s a great deal of work you will do in the beginning, but if you believe in the outcome, the rewards will far outweigh the initial work involved making sure it runs properly.

I’m going to tell this volunteer to run with her idea, but in a very controlled and confined space. With success, we can present it to the powers that be and if history serves me correctly, we should be ok.

Yes, the motto is proceed until apprehended, but you know as well as anyone what your volunteers are capable of accomplishing. Rely on their desire to do what is right for your clients and proceed, cautiously, but with the conviction that you will succeed.