, ,

mathSo I was trying to explain my job recently to a female executive at a chamber dinner. She was sincerely curious as to what volunteer managers really do. As you know, our jobs can’t be explained in a couple of sentences; not really well, anyway. I started off badly, talking about numbers and demographics and motivations. My new friend looked at me blankly. Because I was losing ground fast, I tried talking about motivations and demographics and return on investment. After all, she lived in that world, right? She did want to understand and I am normally not tongue-tied, but here I was, stumbling over theory, slicing my job with a clinician’s knife. It sounded so meaningless and I pictured a trained monkey pointing at a chalkboard. “Oooo oooo aaahh aaahh, volunteer number one, volunteer number two.”
As she shifted position, I felt myself start to let go of the stats and graphs and the desire to impress and I said, “you know, let me tell you a story.” She leaned forward as I thought of a current volunteer I have the pleasure of working with right now.
“There’s this volunteer, Sharon,” I relaxed. “She was in a group that I spoke to a couple of years ago. At the time, her husband was critically ill, so she could not volunteer, but she kept one of our brochures in her desk drawer. About a year and a half after her husband died, she was just starting to think about what she could do that held some meaning for her and she happened to look for an old photo album in her desk when she came upon our brochure. Sharon turned that pamphlet over in her hand and felt that was a sign so, brochure in hand, she decided to come and see me. She was hesitant, closed up really. Her words were so heavy that they bent her over as she told me about losing her husband. I wondered if she was ready to do the work, but she was already one thought ahead and she wondered aloud if she could work with terminally ill people, but she had to at least try. As I gently explained that my first priority was to the patients, she looked down and said that she would not put her grief on them. Her painful sincerity made me want to give her a chance.
Sharon came to training. She sat in the back, said little, but did participate in group exercises. She seemed embarrassed at times, a bit reserved or maybe just wounded. After training I put her with a no-nonsense volunteer who promised to keep an eye on the ‘newbie.’ Sharon started to visit patients in a care center setting, never alone, always with another volunteer.
She spent many an hour in my worn chair by my desk, talking about what she observed, what she felt and what she couldn’t bring herself to do. It was always apologetic with a nervous tilt of the head. I wondered if this could work. But as the weeks went on, she started to look me in the eye. Sharon began to gingerly speak to family members, ever so humble, ever so timid. They started to tell her things, deeply personal things and she swallowed them up like prescribed medicine. The patients thanked her for listening and she found herself not needing her mentors.
A few weeks ago she came into my office and sat in the chair. Sharon shared a journal that she had been keeping. She wanted to read her latest entry to me. She wrote, ‘I never thought I would feel worth again, but I feel it now. I feel it the minute I walk in the door. I know I am needed. I had my heart-broken and I feel it beginning to mend. I am really truly helping people and it fills me up with such joy, a joy that I thought could not be mine. I love these people, their stories, their courage, their life experiences, good and bad. I am so glad I decided to take this step. It saved my life.'”
My new friend, this powerful female executive was listening intently. She nodded, absorbing all the nuances of our job. From recruitment, to screening to placement to cultivation, to motivation, to managing, to the retention, to the personal satisfaction when we see volunteers blossom.
Sharon is a microcosm of our jobs. Take Sharon and multiply her by all the volunteers you have mentored. Then add in the educational in services, the recognition events, and the speaking in front of staff about volunteer accomplishments. Sprinkle in the remembering of names of children, grandchildren, pets, places they love to vacation, their birthdays and their pet peeves. Throw in a dose of advocating, cleaning up misunderstandings and checking in and re checking in. Mix in those hours spent at home pondering where to put a talented new volunteer and how to gently extract an aging one from a tough job. And don’t forget the tension lifting laughs and antics when a volunteer is down.
I believe this executive went away with a better sense of volunteer management. I hope she has a new appreciation for all of you.
I hope she knows that “this is how it is”… and yet, there’s so much more.