, , , , , , , , , , , ,

sheepDo you ever catch a staff member lumping all volunteers into a herd, like sheep?
Richard graduated college with a degree in psychology. He took a job as a volunteer manager for a mid-sized organization that places volunteers in area agencies. Richard has plans to continue his education and will apply to the college of social work in two years. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate being a volunteer trainer and manager. I really do, it’s that I’ve had this long-term plan for quite a while. I hope, as a social worker, that I’ll be able to work closely with volunteers.”
Richard recounted a team meeting that he attended a few weeks back. “It was one of our mandatory meetings for all staff. The CEO, all the senior managers and all of us workers were there. They had presentations, financial reports, and upcoming events. You know the type, there’s some rah-rah stuff where they tell us we’re the best at what we do, and then there’s problem solving talk about things we can do better.” Richard paused. “I was half paying attention, I gotta admit, then one of the marketers got up and started talking about the need for everyone to be more professional. People were raising their hands, giving advice and testimonials. One of the senior managers stood up and said that the volunteers we train ‘were not acting in a professional manner’. My ears started burning. What? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The volunteers I train were not professional?” Richard’s voice went up an octave. “I mean, she was basically saying I didn’t do my job. I take a great exception to that. And here’s the real kicker; no one disputed her!”
Richard went on to say, “I mean, here’s a senior manager tearing down the volunteers in front of everyone. She painted a picture that all volunteers are unprofessional which is so far from the truth. It was demoralizing and completely bogus. Just because volunteers are an easy target is no excuse for her to foster that impression.”
Ahhh, Richard, I’ve been down this road so many times. When people generalize about our volunteers, they do enormous harm. Most staff have very narrow views of volunteering; they know the volunteers in their area and sometimes they only come in contact with one or two volunteers. To broad brush an entire force based on here say or one isolated incident is devastating, insulting and frankly demoralizing. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve had staff say to me, “the volunteers don’t know what they’re doing”, or “the volunteers aren’t very reliable”. In every case, the staff member heard these claims from another staff member who either exaggerated or recalled an isolated incident.
So, I have learned to nicely confront the person who has painted the picture that our volunteers are sheep in a herd of incompetence. The outcome has been more awareness of broad statements. The last polite confrontation went something like this:
Me: Sheila, I just wanted to ask you a question about something Dave told me he heard you say in your meeting yesterday. Dave told me that you said ‘our volunteers don’t even know who our CEO is’. Is that accurate or did he misunderstand?
Sheila: Oh, well, I, I don’t remember exactly, but I might have said something about a volunteer receptionist not remembering the name of our executive director. It really wasn’t that big a deal.
Me: No, but I would really like to follow-up with that volunteer so that I can make sure she will have the correct information. We wouldn’t want anyone to be embarrassed. Do you remember who that volunteer was?
Sheila: Well, no, I mean I was told this by one of my staff, Corella who observed your volunteer forgetting in front of a client.
Me: That certainly is distressing. May I ask Corella who the volunteer is so that I can give her the correct information?
Sheila: Well, sure, I guess, but really it’s no big deal.
Me: Thank you, I will follow-up with Corella. Our volunteers are an asset and we want them to act in a professional manner, and believe me, volunteers want to do a good job.
Sheila: Ok, fine.
Me: Can you tell me about all the other instances of volunteers not knowing the CEO’s name?
Sheila: I, I don’t know of anymore.
Me: Well, that’s certainly good to hear. Fortunately one incident does not mean the majority of volunteers don’t know the CEO’s name. But if I may, in the future, we would really appreciate your coming to us if you have a concern about one of the volunteers so that we can address it. It’s not helpful to air these concerns in a general meeting because it gives others the impression that we are not doing our jobs and that the volunteers are incompetent which I know you know they are anything but.
Sheila: All right, I will keep that in mind.
Me: Thanks again, you’ve always been so supportive of our volunteers and we appreciate your help in making everyone aware of the great work the volunteers do.
Now if you think I don’t actually use that formal business speak, I most definitely do. In order to make my point, I remove all emotion, and speak in a very formal, direct, businesslike manner. My extreme businesslike attitude subtly points out their unprofessional treatment of our volunteers.
I’ve done this ever since I became very tired of doing nothing about these blanket statements. Embarrassing a senior manager in a meeting by “correcting” his or her broad statements in front of everyone is often a career killer. But, one on one, we can point out the error and ask for help in recognizing the impact our volunteers make.
Volunteers are not sheep, or children or just little old ladies with no skills, they’re a microcosm of the best our communities have to offer. Volunteers have earned respect, so let’s help our respective fellow staff members remember that.