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quicksandBelinda started volunteering for a large animal shelter five years ago. Early retired from a fast-paced corporate world, she threw herself into her passion: Rescuing the abused and abandoned. An ideal volunteer, she learned the system, absorbing the organization’s mission, needs and goals through her skin and into her mind and heart.

Then she began. She created a “speaker’s bureau” complete with accompanying rescued pooches. She initiated a “corporate partnership” with local pet businesses. She recruited hard-working volunteers and took over the social media job.

She was nominated and won a state award. (Which we all know is often the kiss of death for a volunteer)

So, in the natural order of things, what could come next? When a job opened up, Belinda was hired. Boy, was she happy, because now, she could do more good work, right? And now the shelter had her enthusiasm for 40 or more hours per week. Bliss, pure and simple?

Maybe in a perfect world. Belinda became the “volunteer coordinator” and she was expected to “perform the math.”  (Organizational Math: if 8 hours per week volunteering=a whole bunch of great things, then 40 hours per week working=OMG, mind-blowing results!)

Well, the volunteer coordinator role set in. Paperwork, restrictions, and piddly duties like mediation, recognition, retention, arbitration, record keeping, statistics, training, monitoring, education and rehabilitation of volunteers started to chip away at that 40 hours. The math no longer looked that good. (40 hours of volunteer management minus all the “stuff we have to do”=42 minutes of brilliance per week).

Belinda soon became just another staff member. Staff members are not “loved up” the way volunteer managers love up the volunteers. Staff members are not, in most cases told how “special’ they are, nor welcomed with a huge smile each time they enter the building. Appreciation of Belinda, the staff member was not the warm and fuzzy appreciation of Belinda the exceptional volunteer.

Belinda started seeing the organization from within. Since, as a volunteer, she was sheltered from the staff’s bickering over funding, she started to see staff members in a different light and realized they were not the angels she had come to love.

Reality was painful. For a couple of years, she trudged on, spending time off the clock where her heart lie; in free creation mode. She mentored other volunteers well, because she still was one in her heart. Deadlines replaced dreams. Mandates trumped motivations. Stats pushed spontaneity to the side. Belinda told me that she felt as though she were wading through quicksand, whereas when she volunteered, she glided.

She quit one day, not because of some monumental injustice, but when the weight had crushed her enough. She did not go back to volunteering, but stayed away from the shelter she loved so much as a volunteer.

I’m not saying that we should never hire volunteers. I’m not even saying that we shouldn’t treat them special and shield them from the minutia. I’m saying that volunteer to employee transitions are tough and eye-opening. Maybe these transitions are the stark examples of how much effort volunteer managers put into managing volunteers. We make them feel appreciated, special, and insulated from the tedium so that they can excel. Too bad most employees can’t feel that way.

In my fantasy world, organizational management, for just one moment, will look at how volunteer managers nurture the volunteers to get the very best from them. Then organizational management will think about adopting some of our practices in order to nurture and encourage employees.

And in my fantasy world, they will start with us.

-Meridian