David is a social worker and part-time volunteer coordinator for a small hospice. He coaches and encourages about 20 volunteers while providing psychosocial services for 40 nursing home patients. He jokes that he’s perfect for the volunteer manager position because “I just can’t stop offering to do things.” He has been mentoring volunteers for almost a year now and enjoys that aspect of his job. “I feel like I can really place volunteers with a patient, because I have first hand knowledge of what that patient is about. I can really connect with the volunteers too, because we both see the same people. I feel like it’s a win-win.”
A few months ago, David was approached by a lady, Ruth, who owns Jingle, a therapy dog. Jingle is a mixed breed rescued dog and the story of how Ruth adopted him during a Christmas storm touched David’s heart. “It was awesome, and petting Jingle while Ruth told me his story made me realize how much our patients would love having him visit.” Together, David and Ruth came up with a schedule for Jingle to visit patients in a small nursing home that specializes in working with dementia residents.
“Everything seemed fine at first,” David recalls. “I went with Ruth the first time and introduced her to the activities director, Lynn. Lynn was very welcoming and showed Ruth and Jingle the activities room and the nurses’ station. David was secretly thrilled at having introduced some alternative therapies into the volunteer program. “I always felt like if I could just have the time to do the volunteer program some justice, I would have some real neat therapies going on. I realized shortly after I started that volunteer management takes time and real effort. There’s more to it than I ever imagined.”
After several weeks, Ruth started missing her scheduled days. David would call her when he could to check in. She said she had forgotten, or something had come up. “I was starting to get worried,” he said. “I tried to coax the real reason out of her, but she wasn’t forthcoming. I was really confused.”
One day Ruth came into the office and asked to see David. She and Jingle settled into his small space and Ruth offered this explanation. “I think we are going to stop seeing patients for a while,” she said as she stroked Jingle’s head. “It’s just not working out the way I thought it would. The patients who we see, well, I don’t know how to put this, but they really don’t seem to get much out of our visits. They don’t seem very enthused when they see Jingle and well, he’s not excited to go there.”
“Oh,” David said was the best he could muster. “I’m sorry you had that experience.” David said that when he recovered, he offered to send Ruth and Jingle into a different facility. He said he tried very hard to explain that his patients might not outwardly seem engaged, but Ruth was adamant. Ruth left and said she would be in touch in a few months and meanwhile, she was going to continue to visit a Children’s hospital nearby.
David was stunned. “I honestly never in a million years expected that,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that the patients got so much from her visits. I just felt so helpless trying to make her see that, but I couldn’t. I really don’t know what I could have done better. It bothers me a lot that I thought this was a no-brainer and it was anything but. Maybe I need to spend more time with new volunteers, but I just can’t.” David paused. “Clearly volunteers are much more complex than I thought. I mean, the ones who were already here and working, I thought everyone new would be just like them, but I was wrong.”
We’ve all experienced the seeming no-brainer. The volunteer who is a veteran will enjoy working exclusively with veterans. The volunteer who had an experience like our clients’ will be perfect working with our clients. The volunteer who needs hours for whatever reason will do what we ask to get those hours. None of these situations are no-brainers because, frankly there are no no-brainers. No volunteer can be pigeon-holed into a role. At least, not for long.
You’ve had volunteers like this: The mother who wants her child to volunteer and thinks he’s the next Einstein. The man who is humble and seems lonely but secretly wants to be a motivational speaker. And the dog owner who looks you in the eye but sorta speaks to you through her dog. Each volunteer is a complex human being with needs and desires. Sometimes they have issues, hang-ups and funny quirks. But, as we place volunteers in positions, we rely more heavily on understanding the motivations and needs of each and every volunteer than our counterparts in the realm of paid employees do. We are literally human resources on steroids.
I can only assure David that we have all been down that road. Why do volunteers stay? Well, I’ve yet to see a chart that explains it, because it’s the individuality of volunteers that we cultivate. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t tenets by which to manage volunteers. There are, but as long as we keep in mind that each new volunteer has their own path, we will be less likely to drop square pegs into round holes.
Now that’s a no-brainer!