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mustangThe open door policy, oh boy. If you oversee two or more volunteers, you know what I mean. Volunteer managers pretty much are required to have an open door policy, which is great for keeping informed but is also a killer of productivity. So says Celeste, a volunteer manager who manages more than one hundred diverse volunteers working in a thrift store. Her store is large and is open six days a week. Donations flow through the store all day long, and in between customer service, cashiering, straightening, receiving goods, sorting and pricing, her volunteers are bustling from the moment they arrive to the time they leave.
“No one can ever question the dedication or work ethic of our volunteers,” Celeste says. “They come in when they have relatives visit them, when they have a slight cold, when they get done with doctors’ appointments. They’re amazing. See, we foster a real sense of team here, and part of that is my open door policy. Believe me, the volunteers are so dedicated, they stop in to check and see if we’ve sold a big-ticket item, or if we’ve got the manpower to sort through that large donation quickly to make sure the good stuff gets to the floor. They even keep lists of customers to call when certain types of items come in, like a particular brand or type of cookware.”
While it sounds like Celeste has it made, behind the scenes it took a great deal of work to create such a well oiled team of volunteers. And with that team comes the challenges she faces maintaining that team. It’s not like Celeste can go into her tiny back of the store office and watch “Days of Our Lives” while eating power bars and drinking green tea. She, and her volunteers have created a system that works like a fine automobile with Celeste’s availability, encouragement and direction much like the wheels that carry the car.

With her open door policy though, comes a tiny percentage of volunteers who need more time and space than the others. “I’ve got these two volunteers, Irma and Jean,” Celeste says with a laugh. “They really take the open door policy to a whole new level. It doesn’t matter that I might have someone else in my office, or that I am on the phone, or that I’m really, really busy with bookkeeping, they come in and interrupt me ten times a shift. I think they just have no idea that I don’t have the time for questions like, ‘what happened to that green blouse with the stripes,’ or ‘did you know there’s two identical blue McCoy pottery pieces, how odd is that?’ I suppose it’s a compliment that they feel comfortable with me, but sometimes I feel like the mom who answers her phone and the kids immediately all need attention and start yelling Ma! Ma! Ma!”
Celeste went on to say, “I’ve heard all the advice from so many people. Close your door, ignore Irma and Jean, leave the office when they are working, interrupt them and politely say that you have work to do, and ask them to please stay out of the office, but it’s easier said than done. Besides, Irma and Jean are great with the customers, and are always willing to work an extra shift when someone calls out. They’re indispensible really, so why shouldn’t I put up with a bit of inconvenience? Heck, I’ve got Joe, who is hard of hearing and makes the customers shout, and Marge, who puts women’s clothes in the men’s section, and Philomena who over prices knick knacks. Oh, and there’s George, who can never seem to remember to turn off the lights and Babe, who can’t see the rips and stains on clothes and puts them out. Am I supposed to nitpick all the volunteers? I can’t do that. We make it through each day with humor and positive thinking, and I appreciate each one of them. And to all those who think that I can make these volunteers eliminate their quirky habits, I say, you have never worked with volunteers. ”
Ahh ha, how smart Celeste is. If we were to judge our volunteers on their shortcomings we’d have no volunteers. And all that well-meaning advice by those who don’t work with volunteers just does not make sense to us, because we know that perfection does not come without piecing together imperfection. Our volunteer teams are made up of real human beings with gifts and shortcomings. The well oiled machine we produce is vintage. It doesn’t have all the fancy new techie stuff and it may creak here and there and it may take a few minutes to warm up and the windows may hand-roll slowly, but it works. It moves down the street with the air of the artisans who created it. No, our machine was not mass-produced by robots, it was put together with the sweat of the volunteer manager who polished every piece. And in those moments when the throaty sound of that engine revs up, we know that our machine is unique and perfect.

Let’s face it. A great deal of what we do is a trade-off, and a part of our volunteer’s “pay” is our overlooking of inconvenient things, like the volunteer who interrupts us, the volunteer who needs more of our time, and the volunteer who needs reminding over and over. Should those inconveniences that may look to an outsider like we don’t know how to “control” our volunteers, cause us to lose productive volunteers? I, for one, would rather not lose great volunteers just because they require a little extra of my time.
Our volunteer teams are created by vision, artisan spirit and a heck of a lot of our time and effort. That well oiled machine is made up of restored parts, and we may have to work harder on some of those parts than others to keep them running properly, but they’re necessary parts.
I’m off to work now, to drive in my lovingly restored well oiled and polished machine. I may have to do some maintenance and occasionally change out parts or stop for gas, but driving down the street, it is a thing of beauty.