I was reading the Sunday paper and came across an article on a local man who volunteers. It was the predictable template that press articles post about a volunteer who has spent five decades shelving library books or is still volunteering at the age of 100.
I always read these volunteer articles as though I might be a prospective volunteer interested in the organization referenced. Sadly, not one article has actually piqued my interest and I highly doubt that new volunteers are beating down the doors after they read another article entitled “Volunteer turns 99, wants to keep volunteering when she reaches 100.” (Guess I know what article I’ll be reading a year from now).
I’ve been involved with articles on volunteers I’ve worked with and truly you can get down on your knees and beg and it doesn’t make a bit of difference, the paper is going to print what they think should be printed, including misquotes, incorrect stats and just plain made up drivel. I’ve seen articles that were not too bad, articles that were ok and ones that were just lousy. I have to admit, there is a certain thrill seeing my volunteers in print and I hope that the next day at work is filled with the sound of telephones ringing off the hook, but typically that doesn’t happen. So, once again, volunteer managers are at the mercy of something we cannot control: Press coverage.
But this article made me think back to several years ago when I did a speaking engagement at Busy Bee, a woman’s sewing group. I wanted to recruit the group to sew quilts or keepsake bears or a new project I was working on. The vice president of Busy Bee told me the ladies really wanted to get involved and help. I thought we could forge a great partnership and so I practiced my talk, gathered sample bears and quilts and quotes and personal stories that would surely sway them into stopping all their other charity work and concentrate on our clients exclusively. (Ok, that is a bit of an over exaggeration, but sometimes I just fantasize a bit).
I arrived early, walked around the room, saying hello and admiring their work, all the while hoping they didn’t think I was working them like a smarmy politician kissing babies. Honestly, they did amazing work and after my talk, I asked if they would like to start a brand new project. Because they seemed interested, I told them about an idea I had to make small lap autograph quilts for nursing home residents. I asked their help in identifying whether a fabric pen could be used to write messages of love and encouragement on a light-colored fabric as one of the quilt squares and they got rather excited and helped formulate how it could be done.
I left there stoked and they said they would call me when they were ready to get started. I drove away convinced that we would make great partners. When they did not call, I called the vice president and left a message. I called again and left another. I never did hear and so I chalked it up to “oh well, I was just delusional” or “they were just placating me.” Then, a few months later, I was reading the Sunday paper and there was an article about Busy Bee and in the article they mentioned that one of the projects they were doing was my autograph quilt. I dropped the page. What? I read it again. What? They stole my idea! At first I was highly incensed and thought, hey, come Monday I’m calling them up and demanding to know who they were doing this for and what happened to ethical behavior? I stewed all Sunday afternoon and promised myself to take care of it the next day. Of all the nerve.
When Monday came, I searched through all my contacts and found the one for Busy Bee’s vice president. I called her and she answered. I told her who I was and that I read the article in the Sunday paper.
“Oh, you did, it was a good article, wasn’t it?”
I told her it was and then as gently as I could I reminded her of my visit and idea to do the lap quilts.
“Oh,” she said, “that was you, was it? Well, when we didn’t hear from you, we decided to make the quilts anyway and we found another place to accept them. They’re doing quite well.”
I was about to argue and tell her that I had followed up, but I stopped. I realized it would do no good and so I asked if her group would be willing to make some quilts for us.
“Sure,” she said, just drop by and I’ll give you some.”
Of course you know that there were none available when I dropped by. Yeah, I waited another six months and tried calling again. No response.
Sometimes, you can make a contact with one person from a group and they are all excited to work with you, but then, another member of the group who has more clout will snatch their participation away faster than a mom grabbing the new cellphone from the dirty hands of her two year old.
Groups, I’ve learned are complex. They are run by all types of hierarchies and no two are the same and so, enlisting their help takes a great deal of discovery, patience and finesse, all of which I did not use when trying to partner with Busy Bee. Groups’ loyalty is first and foremost to the group and sometimes the dominant member of the group has a friend in an organization so that is the only organization they will work with. Groups are really about individual personalities within that shape the group. I knew a group that volunteered for an organization and then accepted donations from the organizations’ clients. Yep, group first because the president of that group said it was “only fair”.
So, I let the whole autograph quilt thing go and found another pair of volunteers to begin the project. And, I wished the agency that receives the Busy Bee quilts well.
After all, knowing groups, some day I may get to steal a group away too!