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Today, I’m sorry, but I have to issue a dire warning. Do NOT treat your volunteers too well. Don’t be too nice, too accommodating, too flexible, too encouraging. Nope, everything you’ve learned and know instinctively about volunteer management is wrong.

There is this volunteer, Mabel, a sweet very genteel retired school teacher. She is so classy. She was raised in the era of good manners, respect and hard work. Mable has been volunteering for over nine years. She is dependable and a pleasure. So, hmmm, what could possible go wrong?

Mabel branched out. She heard the call for volunteers to help in another part of the organization, away from daily contact with volunteer staff. She called me yesterday and in her sweetest manner, asked me why she was being treated so poorly by her new boss. She was convinced that she was inept, a poor volunteer, and (gasp) too old to do the job. Whatever did she do, Mabel wondered.

I listened without speaking, all the while thinking (just let me get my hands on you, staff member who made her feel that way. Nine years down the drain.) I assured her that she was a fantastic worker and valued by our organization. (Who could be mean to her, I mean, seriously?) I told her that with her permission, I would speak to the staff member in charge of her duties.

I gathered my thoughts and went to see the aforementioned staff person. I walked down the long hallway into the bowels of finance and billing and serious stuff. I politely knocked and entered the painfully tidy office. “Hi, Jerice,” I said. “I’m here to talk about Mabel, the volunteer if you have a minute.”

Jerice rolled her eyes. I told her Mabel’s concerns and Jerice replied, “She’s a very nice lady but she isn’t a very quick learner. I’ve had to show her how to do the same job three times.” (Three times? If you knew the record number of times I’ve had to show a volunteer something, you’d faint!)

Jerice shifted uncomfortably and then got defensive. “I thought volunteers were supposed to help, not take up more of our time. I’m really too busy to be constantly showing… blah, blah, blah.” As Jerice prattled on about how busy she was, I started daydreaming. In this daydream Jerice was a little girl in a classroom and Mabel was her teacher. Jerice couldn’t get the math problem and Mabel, in a booming voice yelled, “Jerice! You are the dumbest little girl I’ve ever taught!”

Ok, that’s mean. No, in the daydream, Mabel is patient and kind, just as she always is. “Jerice,” I said. “Mabel has been a faithful, hard-working volunteer for nine years. We don’t want to lose her. If this is not the spot for her, please tell me and I will happily take her back in our area. Happily!” You see, Jerice, Mabel has already had an experience here. And she is comparing that experience. It’s not apples to oranges, it’s apples to rotten apples and your apples are oozing rot.

Jerice calmed down and said she did want Mabel’s help. Funny, she never once asked if Mabel was happy or if she had any thoughts on her experience. Maybe she just needs to get to know Mabel before she can appreciate her. Sadly, volunteers are faceless and feelingless to many. I have hope, but I will be watching closely. And at any sign of Mabel’s discomfort, I’m going to start baking a juicy mouth-watering apple pie and invite Mabel home.