Hannah is a volunteer coordinator at a large hospital system. She oversees many programs, from the gift shop volunteers to pet therapy, afghan makers and information desk greeters. On any given day, twenty to thirty volunteers are at their posts or participating in behind the scene projects. The hospital auxiliary raises tens of thousands of dollars from their gift shop and other volunteer run activities. And yet, Hannah says she is never invited to any upper level planning meetings, but rather is given edicts that are discussed and formulated by her superiors. “I’d love to put my two cents in before they ask for something I know will be difficult to pull off like the time they wanted me to find volunteers to personally deliver the flowers from local florists as they arrived at the front desk. Since I couldn’t pull a greeter off the desk and I couldn’t ask a volunteer to just sit around and wait for an occasional driver to show up, it was a request that made no sense. I tell my supervisor that I would like a seat at planning sessions so I can be proactive and he shrugs and says he’ll see what he can do. And then, he comes back with something new. Meanwhile all the programs that are running smoothly are just forgotten, like they take no special skill or work to keep them running. Sometimes, I feel like a character in Upstairs Downstairs, that great British show about housemaids and servants.”
Sadly, Hannah feels invisible. Her work, however, is quite visible, and just as the old white glove test catches no dust, her diligent and relentless pursuit of excellence gleams spotless in her array of well run programs. Hannah’s job is to provide volunteers for support and programs, so do her superiors see Hannah as more than that? Does excellence always beget a voice?
The answer, I think is quite subtle and has to do with the notion of “priming” and association. Does anyone associate volunteer coordinators with upper management? Do organizations automatically look to volunteer staff as go-to people for fresh, new ideas on solving organizational needs? Or, are we viewed as the house servants, not too terribly bright, hard workers for certain, but not privy to paradigms, theories and marketing strategies? Are we consistently overlooked because we are associated with small tasks, not large concepts? Hmmmm, and do we sometimes shoot ourselves in the proverbially feet because we dress and act the part we are associated with?
“I’m tired of being overlooked,” Hannah continued, “as though I have no worthwhile input. Does my management team not see the number of human beings I manage, the amount of skill and forward thinking it takes to keep up with the changing world of unpaid help? Clearly they have no clue as to the nuances of leadership involved in engaging people in our mission. It’s so frustrating,” Hannah vented. She speaks for many of us, who have been associated with the erroneously simple skills it takes to manage volunteers. The very title, “volunteer coordinator” speaks to the simplicity of telling people where to be on any given day. Ho Hum, must be time to shop on my PC, because there’s really not much to do. The intricate weaving of a vast resource of management skills is not how we are viewed and so, upper management is “primed” to think we plan tea parties and swap recipes with compliant little while haired ladies.
Hannah sighs. “I’m working hard on changing upper management’s minds about my job and the worth of our volunteers beyond just filling slots. I envision the day when vibrant volunteer help is valued and I am valued for finding and engaging that help. It’s a tall order, but it has to work. I can’t see myself being relegated to the downstairs forever.”
Volunteer leaders like Hannah will eventually change the landscape of volunteer management. Is it going to be easy? No, because think about all the “Cinderella stories” about servants or low-level workers rising to the top. There is still the residual thought that those stories are just “flukes.” It’s going to take a concerted effort on all our parts to change the mindset of “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
Can we do it? Heck yeah, we’re used to hard work and challenges.
As for me, I’m “primed” and ready to fight.