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iceberg I’m not telling you anything new when I say we all want our volunteers to be acknowledged and appreciated. We all want our volunteers to be treated with respect and looked at as integrals members of our teams. We all want volunteers to be thought about as contributors, not extra little worker bees. So, when that happens, are we, volunteer managers, not completely satisfied? Are we done? (Finally, the volunteers are treated as equals, I can stop clenching my teeth!)
Hmmm, if the answer is a hesitant no, what more do we want? (Besides world peace of course)
So let’s take a little trip if you will and look in at a volunteer manager, Josh sitting at his desk, answering phones, solving problems, listening to stories, making placements, (fine, for brevity’s sake, I won’t list all of the tasks going on) and a staff member wanders into his office. (for giggles, let’s say, a member of senior management) “Wow,” the senior manager says, ” I have to tell you, Ellen is such a great volunteer, she really did an excellent job last week. What a gem she is, you’re really lucky to have her!”  Josh immediately smiles, looks up and agrees, “Yes, she is wonderful, thank you so much for acknowledging her contribution, I will certainly pass that along to her.”
The senior manager walks away, mentally patting herself on the back for praising a volunteer. There, now everyone’s happy, right?
Well, yes, but Josh has this nagging little feeling that not everyone and everything has been properly acknowledged. For him, there is a back story to that praise. Now, don’t get me wrong, we are all thrilled to hear our volunteers receive praise. So, then, what is that invisible behemoth of a back story lurking beneath the surface?
In the case of volunteer Ellen, what that senior manager did not know is that Ellen at first spent three months questioning whether volunteering was right for her. Josh allowed Ellen to observe other volunteers in action, invited her to educational in-services and arranged for Ellen to have her own volunteer mentor. Josh spent hours on the phone encouraging and motivating Ellen in order to give her exactly what she needed to feel comfortable. Although swamped with requests, Josh focused in the moment and saw in Ellen the potential to be a great volunteer. So when praise for Ellen also includes the phrase, “you’re lucky to have her,” Josh invariably remembers all his efforts beneath the surface.
Some volunteers are naturally great, some quickly develop into great volunteers and others need more mentoring. It is as much an art to recognize the volunteer who needs little mentoring as it is to find the right way to mentor a volunteer who is unsure. The yin and yang of volunteer management is a nuanced role that takes the eye of an artisan who dabbles in human potential.
When major events go off with no major problems, it’s the volunteer manager who has spent the time calling and recalling volunteers so that they know all the little things like where to park, whether they’ll need to bring water or sunglasses, the proper dress, directions to the event, who to check in with, where the bathrooms are located, and what they will be expected to do. All that work is never seen, only the fact that volunteers are on time and prepared.
Beneath the surface there’s all the time spent hearing volunteer concerns and the follow through in correcting a wrong or getting an answer. Beneath the surface, there’s all the work behind the scenes everyday that volunteer managers do, like dropping everything when a potential volunteer walks in off the street, skipping lunch to visit a volunteer in the hospital, staying late because a student needs papers signed to prove they’ve volunteered, looking up airline tickets for a volunteer who’s computer is broken, making a fuss over grandchildren who have come to visit, going with a volunteer to a doctor’s visit because her daughter lives in another town, looking at pictures of a trip when a report is due, saving that book for a volunteer who loves the same author, framing pictures of volunteers as gifts for their families, and bringing in garden flowers to share.
Beneath the surface of any excellent volunteer program is a volunteer manager who cares enough to work tirelessly with a mixture of raw gut instinct, mother hen tendencies and a passion for human potential. That tip of the iceberg did not poke through the water on its own for it is supported by a massive base of cultivation, patience, persistence and old fashioned sweat.
So, once we get the respect and acknowledgement for our volunteers down and once we are comfortable knowing that our organizations will always treat our volunteers with respect, then maybe we can start working on some recognition for our contributions and our everyday efforts.
It’s a lot to hope for, but I can dream big, as big as that iceberg base, can’t I?