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Well, I’ve been having this internal conversation for a long while. Getting the best out of the volunteers is my job, right? And I truly want them to do their best. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a volunteer glowing from a really great experience. And what about the feedback from those we serve? It’s like Christmas when giving that praise to a volunteer.

So, why am I having this conversation?  Oh, about six or seven years ago, a friend of mine overheard me speaking to a volunteer on the phone. When I finished, my friend looked at me and said, “that was masterful manipulation, you know that?” Ouch. “You think I’m manipulative?” She rolled her eyes. “C’mon, that’s what you do.”

Fine, I should just let that go, but ever since then, I have had an internal ear that keeps hearing just a bit of manipulation. There’s the volunteer who needs constant support. Do I really, really believe what I’m saying when I tell him once again, “we are so appreciative of all your time. You are a constant support to our families.” Honestly, sometimes, I’m tired of spending an hour hearing how inadequate he is and wonder if he’ll ever be able to stand on his own.

Then there’s the volunteer who talks incessantly and nitpicks, but does a job that truly no one else wants to do. Not having the time to listen but listening anyway because it’s easier than trying to find a new volunteer is ok, right? Frankly, I’m the one being manipulated, but oh well, the job gets done.  Am I encouraging her? Maybe placating is more like it.

But the internal conversation really heats up when I work with a particular group of talented professional volunteers who, I’ve noted need a great deal of attention and dare I say it, encouragement. They expect more hand holding, more fetching of coffee, more concierge behavior, more running interferrence. Someone asked me, “how can you stand working with these people?  They’re so needy and demanding, and ugh, their egos are huge.” My quick answer was, “yes, but the end result is so worth it.” Hmmmmmm. So, morphing into the volunteer coordinator they want and need produces a desired end result. I guess each and every volunteer produces an end result and how they get there is in large part determined by how we manipu… er, encourage them.

While manipulation is self serving and encouragement is holding the welfare of everyone at heart, the two are cousins, one noble, the other a devious craftsman.

“Oh, we couldn’t do it without you.” says manipulation while encouragement tsks from the corner. How many times have volunteers said to you, “I’ll bet you praise everyone.” That makes me wonder, does some praise sound hollow and do some volunteers honestly believe that we just spew mindless gratitude? It is difficult to individualize all feedback but fortunately most volunteers sense sincerity. Staying grateful and aware keeps praise truthful. For the most part it all works, until that annoying voice, dripping with sarcasm asks, “did you really mean that or are you just being manipulative?

I will continue to monitor my praise o meter. When it starts to sound generic, I’ll go back and remember that each volunteer is an individual with unique needs, triggers and an ability to smell insincerity a mile away. If I don’t, I’ll just have to get used to hearing, “Oh, I’ll bet you say that to all the volunteers.” And sadly, they’d be right.