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john deereSheila is a very enthusiastic volunteer manager I know. She works for a hospice and is always researching new ideas for her volunteers. When she attended a symposium last July, she brought several great ideas back to her organization. One of the ideas involved volunteers phone calling clients. Sheila was thrilled to contribute, to have another wonderful program for her talented volunteers and to help overworked staff. At least that’s what she thought when she offered to start the program.

Now, six months later, Sheila is struggling. Staff at her organization “forget” to give her the names to call. They make noises about how they are “handling everything”. They brush her off when she asks for lists of clients. She’s tried to tell upper management, but they assure her that everyone is “on board.” Sheila spends a great deal of time chasing staff for the information and then has to send volunteers home early because there isn’t enough for them to do. Sheila is heartsick because she innately knows how much this program can do.

It’s kinda like a farmer who has acres of fertile soil. One day he wins a John Deere tracker to replace the old back braking hoe he’s been using in the hot sun. The farmer smiles and then goes back to the hoe while the shiny new green tractor sits in the barn. It’s too much trouble to learn how to start it. He’s too busy to figure out how to drive it and besides, he’s used to just hoeing.

Sheila spends half a day pinpointing the clients that should be called. She searches records, calls staff members and reads through lists. Staff seems perfectly happy turning it all over to her. So, the farmer, when given a tool to improve his life, expects John Deere to show up and run the tractor for him.

Sometimes staff has no buy in. They can view volunteers as threats, or nuisances, or fluff. They won’t take the time to help a program grow and thrive. What a shame. It is everyone’s job in the organization to integrate volunteers and to enhance the work being done. What galls Sheila is that the phone calling ultimately helps the staff, but they are woefully uninterested. They are stressed and overworked. But what is she?

She is close to giving up, but the work haunts her. Volunteers tell her how much the clients love the phone calls. Knowing you can do great things and not being able to is soul crushing. But not every organization always sees the benefit of volunteers. Sometimes they give lip service while secretly blocking volunteers’ involvement. How short-sighted they are. In the hands of a capable volunteer manager, volunteers change everything for the better if given the chance. How can we not take this affront personally?

What does it say about any organization who does not treat volunteers as a valuable resource and lets staff get away with depriving clients of important services? What is the message when they don’t insist on volunteers involvement and just as importantly, what is the message when they don’t include volunteer managers in the planning and execution of services?

We, volunteer managers are all shiny new John Deere tractors ready to change the face of farm work. How great that farmers can now spend more time on planning and experimentation now that they have a useful tool. But if they let it sit, unused, it will rust away. And they will continue to break their backs hoeing while other farmers reap the rewards.

Volunteers talk. They talk to their friends and acquaintances. Are they saying, “yes, I signed up to help, but when I got there, no one had anything for me to do. I liked the volunteer coordinator, but she seemed stressed and unable to fix things for me. Such a pity.”

Eeeck, how tragic. So, as managers of volunteers, we need to find a way to say to our respective organizations, “teach everyone to drive the tractor and let’s get to work providing the very best for those we serve.”