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spaghettiChad is a volunteer for a public school system. A retired engineer, he has been working with students in the same fourth grade classroom for many years. Chad loves the challenge of helping students better understand complex math and he oftentimes serves as a surrogate grandfather. The kids call him “Chaddie”, a name that stuck because of his chatty nature. Jorge, the current fourth grade teacher chuckles when he speaks about Chad. “His enthusiasm is awesome and the kids love him. He has a great rapport with the kids and he certainly knows the subject inside and out. Sometimes though, he has these great ideas and he wants me to implement them, like for instance, he wanted to start a fundraiser for kids who couldn’t afford these cool extra math books and I told him, look, Chad, every fundraiser has to go through the PTA. We just can’t make up our own fundraisers. Chad can’t see that, he doesn’t deal with the bureaucracy like I do and frankly he shouldn’t have to because he’s a volunteer. When I tell him that we have to go through channels, he gets disappointed and says, ‘but the kids need it now.’ Sometimes I think he thinks I just don’t want to help him, and that’s not it. It gets frustrating when there are things out of my hands and a volunteer sort of argues with me. I get butted a lot because I don’t have the authority to just make things happen. I wish I could.”

Marie volunteers in a large nursing home. She is new to the facility and her activities director, Anna is happy to have her. “Marie is great, she sings to the residents and helps us with our activities twice a week, so we are really, really thankful. I think, though, because she’s new, she really doesn’t understand the tremendous rules and regulations we are under. Marie wants to be overly involved with some of the residents and is sometimes meddlesome in their family affairs. I try to explain to her that we have rules in place and really I wish she would just stick with singing and doing activities. She wants to do more and says, ‘but these people need more help.’ I can’t really disagree with her and yet, I can’t give her the green light to get involved. It’s difficult to explain to her and I don’t want to lose her. It’s frustrating.”

I was at a meeting with a group of volunteers last week. Each volunteer was reporting progress on their activities and when we came to Stan, who is a relatively new volunteer, Stan had a list in his hand. See, Stan brought his fresh ideas with him in a wheelbarrow of enthusiasm. He wanted to create a volunteer marketplace, kinda like a craigslist for volunteers. He wanted the organization to purchase camcorders to record volunteers in action, and on and on. “But, I’m a man who gets things done, he proclaimed and I smiled. Clearly I should be frustrated, but I wasn’t.

See, in the old days, these “buts” would frustrate the heck out of me. I would try to patiently explain to the unknowing volunteer that things moved slowly, that not all ideas would be accepted, blah, blah, blah. The explaining would frustrate the volunteer, which in turn would frustrate me. I began to picture a child asking a parent why he could not fly and the parent sighing while saying, “because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Now, I am in no way comparing a volunteer to a child, but I am comparing their raw enthusiasm to the wonderment in a child’s eyes. Volunteers who sign up to help do so with the wonderment of providing meaningful work. We, the volunteer managers are often put in the position of quashing that enthusiasm by dumping the spaghetti bowl of rules and policies on their heads. How sad, for them, for us and for the clients who would benefit from that sense of wonderment.

I’ve heard a lot of buts: “But it’s the right thing to do,” “but he needs the help,” “but who will know,” “but what’s the big deal” and “but are we here to help or not?” What’s frustrating now about the buts is for the most part, I agree with them and find myself having to “spin” replies in order to tow the company line, for instance, saying, “It’s a great idea, Stan, but we must go through several committees for approval before we can do anything.” I think our frustration at having to curb enthusiastic volunteers comes more from our own frustration at our respective organization’s spaghetti bowl of rules and policies than from our volunteers wanting to purely help. I think for me, at least, when I hear a volunteer say, “but we should be doing more”, I completely agree.

Royal_Guardian_Jameson_by_faxtarI often picture volunteer managers in my head as the guardian, shield in hand, protecting the volunteers from the nonsense, aka, the politics of an organization so that the volunteers can comfortably do the pure work. The less nonsense we share with them, the better their experience.
For my own sanity, I’ve learned to not let the buts frustrate me. Instead, I let the buts carry me back to the days when I was new and full of wonderment. I loved those days and frankly, why should I give them up when they fill me with joy and wonder? I’ve now made it my mission to try and help each volunteer see their idea at least be heard and tried in some form if at all possible. This means I may not get to those reports as quickly or to that pile of paperwork in a timely manner.
Now, don’t get me wrong, those reports and paperwork are part of my job, but they contain no wonderment at all, do they?