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relapse pictureI have a long distance friend, Marla who is a volunteer coordinator for a large hospice organization.  She called me a while back and we chatted about one of her fellow volunteer coordinators, Amy. See, Marla fills in for Amy when she is on vacation and vice versa. They each manage about 80 volunteers in their respective areas. We all know that adding another full load, even for a week, is exhausting, but having to fit within another coordinator’s style can sometimes be, well, frustrating.

Marla and Amy had back to back vacations, Amy first. Here’s what Marla told me happened.

“I stopped in everyday to check on the volunteers,” Marla said. “And each day was the same story. The volunteers welcomed me, but with phrases like, ‘it’s so good to see Amy get some much-needed rest, she is so stressed out,’ or ‘we are worried about Amy, she’s works so hard and then she has to worry about her ailing mother and her sister doesn’t help out at all.'” Marla barked a laugh. “Ha, Amy doesn’t have a bigger load than anyone here, and sometimes I have a harder time finding volunteers, given my location. It’s frustrating.”

Marla sighed, and covered the mouthpiece. “oh, and get this! One of the volunteers even said to me, ‘you know, I was going to retire, but I just can’t let Amy down. She has a stress related condition and she’s got so much to worry about with her son struggling financially.'”

I could hear Marla chewing her pencil. “Amy has mentioned that she has had some medical issues in the past, but jeez, never once did the volunteers ask about me or my volunteers or anything else for that matter. They seemed to be a little, I hate to say it, cult-like.”

Well. What an interesting management style. Marla continued, “you know, it was on the tip of my tongue to say something like, ‘hey, we’re all busy and Amy is just playing you to make you stay.” Then she chuckled. “Maybe we all should use that on our volunteers. If you quit, you’ll put me in the hospital!”

Are volunteers more impressionable than paid staff? Maybe. I suppose it depends upon their reasons for volunteering and their personalities. Is it wrong to manipulate them? Of course. Volunteers should not know much about our personal lives, and certainly, not all that is going wrong or perceived to go wrong. As volunteer managers, our boundaries need to be pretty clearly defined.

“Oh, and get this!” Marla added. “I went on vacation, thank goodness after covering for Amy and she then covered for me. I worked really hard on making sure that all volunteers were in place, all information up to date, so that it wouldn’t be hard for her to manage while I was gone.” Marla paused. “so, I get back on Monday and when I checked in with the very first volunteer, guess what she said?”

“Welcome back?” I offered.

“No, she did say they missed me, but she also said that Amy seemed overwhelmed by the additional work and they had to work a little extra to help her.”

“Then,” Marla dropped the punchline, “MY volunteer asked me, ‘Did you know Amy has a stress related condition’?”

Hmmmmm. When retention becomes a problem, I may have to try the Amy management style!