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clingingMelissa is a volunteer coordinator at a large hospital where she manages a great number of volunteers. She is responsible for filling many positions, including the receptionist volunteers who greet family members in a trauma waiting area. It is an important volunteer assignment and she is required to keep the shifts filled. She has this volunteer, Irma, who has been coming in for one shift the past 5 years. Irma is prompt, reliable, a stalwart. The day after Irma’s shift however, Irma calls Melissa to complain about the lack of brochures, the semi-clean bathrooms, the lazy security guard, the tired reception room furniture, the poor advertizing, the rude staff, the incompetent management and the uncomfortable chair. Irma chews Melissa’s ear for twenty minutes with a list of things that need to be fixed and finishes off by threatening to quit.
Melissa listens patiently and then does her best to not only fix every little thing, but she also fawns over Irma. Is Melissa nuts?

Joan has a hospice volunteer, Sig, who, she calls upon occasionally. Sig gives Joan a hard time when she calls him. She steels herself for the excuses, the sighs, the checking schedules four and five times, the twenty questions and the coaxing. Sometimes Sig refuses and sometimes he accepts. Joan thanks him profusely, and calls him the day after his assignment and listens again while he comes up with the reasons he shouldn’t have gone. Joan empathizes, comforts and promises him that the next time will be better. Is Joan insane?

Mark is a volunteer coordinator for an organization that serves at risk youth. His volunteers make home visits to assess the program’s progress. He has this one volunteer, Henrietta, who is a drama sponge. She sits in Mark’s office for an hour, watching him scramble to get jobs done, peppering her latest life crisis between his phone calls and paperwork. Mark listens patiently, assuring Henrietta that she’s “not bothering” him. He listens intently, concentrating on her needs while she’s there, empathizing with her chaotic life. Later, he may have to stay an extra half hour to catch up. Is Mark crazy?

We all have these kinds of volunteers. Are Melissa, Joan and Mark super-dedicated or are they just plain dumb? Why would they encourage these behaviors? Well, here are the reasons.
Irma works on Sunday.
Sig will go out in the evening.
Henrietta goes into a neighborhood that no one else will go into.

It’s ironic how our behavior changes, and needs to change with each and every volunteer and each and every assignment. We all have experienced the volunteer request that is nearly impossible to fill and when we do fill it, we’ll cling to that volunteer like a falling animal to a branch. Suddenly, behavior that we might not tolerate in others becomes, well, not so bad. And when that volunteer becomes ill or has to take some time off, we feel, (if we are completely honest) much more devastated for ourselves because we know how hard it will be to replace them.
Volunteer managers are by nature very mutable. It is our job to keep positions filled, to keep volunteers happy and retained, to put the right person in the right job. Sometimes, there is only one person for a job and when that occurs, our survival instincts kick in.
So, the next time you have this nagging little voice asking you why you put up with certain behaviors from certain volunteers, just think of your fingers starting to ache as you cling to that branch hundreds of feet above the canyon of NO VOLUNTEER REPLACEMENT. Then, ignore that voice and Hang On!
-Meridian