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volgredients“I won’t work with her.” Camille’s matter of fact tone belied her conviction. Camille was adamant. “No one will work with her, she’s impossible.”
Here’s a not so shocking news flash. Volunteers talk amongst themselves. We discover this when they tell us things we know we did not tell them. They discuss us, the work, the organization, the staff, the clients and each other. Volunteers have standards. They will put up with our forgetfulness, our shoddy instructions, our missing their birthdays, our failure to call them back right away and our stressful demeanor. They are patient and understanding with clients and overworked staff. But they draw the line when it comes to having to routinely work with someone they cannot get along with.

It’s not just volunteers either. I have a very good friend, Judy who works in a not for profit finance department. Last month she called me one day, upset because a new person was entering her department. “It’s Syl from PR. She’s unhappy in her job and so they are moving her over to my department. What a nightmare this is going to be.”
Judy went on to lament that the entire organization knows that Syl is a “gossip, backstabber and self-proclaimed know it all.”
“Instead of getting rid of her, or forcing her to actually do her job, they shuffle her around and now it’s our turn. I cringe when thinking about listening to her non stop chatter every day.”
I feel for Judy. I’ve endured shuffled employees and wondered why they were moved from spot to spot instead of weeded out. They enter a department, wreak havoc and move on, leaving the bruised and bleeding stalwart staff behind. They complain that “the other guy” is at fault and that they really just want to help. They rip apart the seams holding the fabric of a working team and cause stress. They are truly poison.

I’ve also tried moving volunteers who can’t get along with other volunteers. There are the chatty ones (actually they are beyond chatty, they really never quit talking), the grumpy, picky ones, the know it all ones and the complainers. I’ve tried talking to them and tried appealing to the kind nature of the new group they are joining. But eventually things start to fall apart a few days or weeks after the volunteer in question tries to modify their behavior for a bit. Their new group of volunteers may really, really put on their compassion overalls and welcome the new person but then the egregious behavior just creeps back in like a criminal returning to the scene. Pretty soon the new group is unraveling too. That’s when you start to wonder how many groups of volunteers you can have lying in tatters before you stop moving one person around.

This is one area in which we agonize as leaders of volunteers. We can’t alter personalities. We try to bring out the best in everyone and we spend hours of effort cultivating our volunteers, getting to know their strengths and how they work with each other. We mix them together like a chef creating his signature dish. Each volunteer is a distinct ingredient, a volgredient if you think about it. A pinch of Joyce with a base of Marguerite and for a dash of spice, there’s Mike. Yum, what a wonderful concoction they are. But sometimes we have a volgredient that just clashes with all the others. Think about a chef creating a dish out of a fermented duck egg. There’s got to be something to make it palatable we think. Maybe that volunteer can work alone (if they agree of course) or maybe they can work with us (if we have the energy) or maybe they just have to time themselves out and realize that there may not be a place for them. Sometimes we just can’t find a dish to mix in the volgredient and so we have to shelve them until they either ripen or change.
As leaders of volunteers, we feel personally responsible for their failures and chide ourselves for not finding that spot where they can shine. We see everyone as having the potential to do great things. Do you realize what an amazing statement that is? We see everyone as having the potential to do great things.
Every great dish came about because a visionary chef created it. He/She dared to pair unlikely ingredients together. So, cook on my friends. Your view of volgredients makes you creative, compassionate and adventurous. Not every dish will be award winning and sometimes you must take out a volgredient, but as you taste each creation, your finely honed palate will serve you well.
Bon appetit!