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friends over coffeeYes, we have an open door policy. Being accessible for the volunteers is crucial. Some staff will shake their heads and say, “why don’t you make the volunteers stick to appointments?” No, because that would make me, well, inaccessible. Yesterday, however, was one of those days that just made open door more like the fourth of July parade on steroids. All day long a steady stream of volunteers kept replacing each other in the office and each time, I would have to put down the one item I was working on and listen. Each time they left, I tried to gather my thoughts and continue but as the day wore on, I realized that on paper, I was going to accomplish nothing. I did manage to sneak a couple of phone calls in. At one point, a staff member stuck his head in, saw that I had a volunteer sitting there, motioned to me that he would see me later and left. Within three minutes he called me on my cell phone.
I told the volunteer I had to take the call and answered. (dumb mistake I admit). I actually answered and said, “hello, Jay, I am still with my wonderful volunteer that you saw me talking to a minute ago.” To which he replied, “I know, but I really had to ask you this question.” Ahhh, I apologized to the volunteer who was telling me about the sale in the mall and she said, “Boy, those social workers really monopolize your time!”
It went pretty much like that all day. I heard about a sick mother and everything that was being done to place her in a nursing home. I listened to the in depth recounting of an Alaskan cruise. I saw pictures from a grandson’s wedding. I heard about a granddaughter’s graduation, the home oven that wasn’t working and was just purchased, the progress on a bathroom remodel that was taking longer because parts were on back order, the reason a haircut was bad-the hairdresser had had carpal tunnel surgery recently. I tried a new bar cookie and heard about the recipe that came from a friend who loves to copy famous recipes, looked at a large bruise from a recent fall, petted the family dog that was out for a ride in a new car, admired the blouse that was gotten at a thrift store for two bucks, discussed the upcoming football season with a sports fan, went out to meet a visiting niece who was home from college, walked around with a former volunteer who missed us horribly, and learned that you can’t ever leave sweetened condensed milk boiling in cans on a stove unattended. Wow, who knew!
I felt like I was in some coffee shop, having an eight hour latte. But you know, it really wasn’t non-productive, if you look at it in perspective. For those who have never worked with volunteers, you must have a really hard time understanding what we do. You cannot possibly know the relationships we forge and how we nurture those relationships. A brand new volunteer started opening up and I listened to him talk about his retirement and how he enjoyed staying busy and helping people. I watched him as he spoke and with no words in my head, felt him becoming a part of us.
I kept returning to that project in between visits and by the time I mentally engaged, another volunteer would peek in. Hmm, so what? For every ten minutes I spent talking with a volunteer, I can multiply that by fifty in the amount of service hours they will provide. So, my time was never in jeopardy of being wasted. Each volunteer will perform the critical work that needs to be done.
I think, for me at least, I get frustrated with days like that because I am conditioned to think work has to be something plainly visible, like charts and stats and well, something to show for my day. Cultivating volunteers looks to an outsider like fun and games. Staff poke their head in and see me (Horror alert) looking like I’m having a good time. That can’t be work, can it? But then, I go home bone tired. And I’ll bet you do too.
Making each volunteer feel as though their time and lives are the most important thing at any given moment is work that’s as hard as grinding out facts and figures. We tend to our volunteers like an organic farmer caressing tender shoots. “Grow, my friend, grow into a great volunteer.” And like that nurturing farmer, we look to the day when we can stand back and admire the strong, capable volunteer in front of us.
Do we really have the time for an open door policy? Not according to time managers; their heads would explode if they saw what we did. But according to volunteer management 101, we must make the time.
The neglected work? It’ll be there tomorrow.