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two pathsThere’s one thing every volunteer manager knows. There are no shortcuts to volunteer management. Nope, no easy path, no automatic pilot, no kick back and let it go. No, we actually put some effort into matching volunteers with assignments. Yep, we actually go so far as to try to get as much information on the assignment so that we can not only find the best volunteer, but also to make sure the 80-year-old volunteer who just had knee surgery doesn’t end up standing hours in the hot sun at a health fair.
We trust our instincts, and our instincts tell us not to take shortcuts, to check, recheck, and then follow-up. It’s called retention, or self-preservation, because if you put some good up front work into volunteers, you hate to lose them because they were given bad directions and instead of arriving at a client’s house, they end up at the wrong house where a “deal” is being made and then they are never seen or heard from again, but their car is fished from the lake three days later.
The shortcut path of just simply handing volunteer Dave an assignment is fraught with pitfalls. One or two “what am I supposed to be doing, exactly” and “who’s in charge here” and poof! Dave falls off the rope bridge into the piranha infested river of “I quit” below.
Jolene is a volunteer coordinator for a small hospice. “Recently, we started a pet therapy program,” she said. “I recruited my first volunteer, Beth and her dog, Chick. Beth works for a local veterinarian and has a lot of contacts with the therapy dog groups in our area so I was really pleased to recruit her. When we talked, Beth told me about a few horror stories she’s had trying to take Chick, her black lab, into hospitals.”
Jolene continued, “I could see that Beth was hesitant about bringing Chick into our program, because she was afraid that we would give her poor directions or ignore her when she needed us, the two things that happened to her on her own. So, I assured her that this would not happen with us and I set up a time to meet her at a nursing home where we see patients. At the time, we were taking care of three patients in this nursing home, I’ll call ‘Shady Rest.’ So I called Shady Rest and asked to speak to the activities director, Deena. Deena took my call and I explained that I would be meeting a pet therapy volunteer at her nursing home and that I would love it if Deena could join us. She agreed. So, a week later, I pulled up at Shady Rest a bit early so that I could talk to Deena about any pitfalls like residents that might be afraid of a dog and so forth. I walked into the nursing home and there was no one at the reception desk. I stood for a moment, and nodded to the few residents sitting in the lobby and then walked around a corner to find someone to ask where Deena’s office was. I found a woman in an office on the phone, who pointed and said, ‘down the hall’, so I headed down the hallway, looking for a sign. I found the activities room, but it was locked up and the lights were off, so I returned to the lobby. There was still no receptionist, so I returned to the lady in the office who had directed me and she agreed to page Deena. I went out to the lobby again, checked my watch and sat down and waited. A few minutes later, the lady from the office came out and said that Deena was really busy right now, but to go ahead and visit the patients.
As I was listening, I kept thinking about Beth and how she would have perceived all this if she had come alone for the first time. This was probably the kind of experience she had already. I was so glad I was there to walk with her down this path. By the time Beth arrived with Chick, I had scoped out all the patients’ rooms, had found a place where other residents were gathered and talked to a few of the staff. I walked with Beth through the facility and we had a decent time. Deena managed to come out for a few minutes to introduce herself so that was good. Beth felt comfortable enough to decide that she could come once a week and so it was a success. But had I not been there, I can’t imagine that Beth would have stayed long enough to figure things out. Good thing I was there.”
While volunteers are capable people, they still require specific directions and when they do not receive them, the volunteers will eventually quit. Knowing how much effort goes into recruiting volunteers, we have no time for poor directions or faulty treatment. We’ve all had to apologize to a volunteer who has had a bad experience because their assignment was not properly planned out. We’ve had the morning visits from volunteers who were inconvenienced the day before. Sometimes you just know you need to pick up every phone call and greet with, “Hello, let me begin by apologizing to you right up front.”
When I try to explain how important clear directions are and why I spend so much time on the check and recheck, I often have staff members ask, “yes, but if the volunteers can’t adapt to a little inconvenience, then they really aren’t meant to volunteer, right?”
To which I say, “that’s not it at all. Volunteers come to be of help, to know their volunteering has meaning, not only for our clients but to help the burden of overworked staff. Being sent on wild goose chases says to the volunteer, ‘THIS JOB IS NOT THAT IMPORTANT’.”
Our volunteers are not prima donnas. They don’t look for special treatment. But they are looking for clarity and meaning. It’s the very least we can give them.