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incredible-shrinking-manLately I’ve been reading stats about volunteering. Ok, they’re not in the “To Kill a Mockingbird” league, but they do tell a story and they have a lovely way of lulling me to sleep. Some surveys say volunteering is up, others say volunteering is down. Demographics are tricky and of course, one has to define “volunteering”, which is like defining spirituality or “that color the coffee turns when I put the right amount of french vanilla creamer in there…. wait, no, stop, that’s it!”
But, it seems as though when stats tell us that volunteering is down, there are the broad reasons given to explain this: Not enough skills based volunteering opportunities; not enough volunteer jobs to offer and not enough flexibility. Hmmmmm, good reasons, ones which seem to blame the volunteer manager for not providing the best experience. The conclusions of these surveys oftentimes dust off their hands with some quick advice about creating a better volunteer atmosphere. It seems so simple, but I think there’s a few more reasons to throw in based on conversations I’ve had with prospective volunteers and folks who recoil like they’re touching a third rail when they walk by my booth at a fair.

Martha sat, tears in her eyes, as I had to tell her that we could not accept her as a volunteer. “But, she said, “I’ve turned my life around, you can see that, because I’ve been out of trouble for the past six years.” I could see that, it was plain from looking at her background check. I could feel it too, she wasn’t just saying some lines she memorized. She had some really serious issues six and seven years before, but had stayed completely out of trouble recently. I lobbied to take her, keep her away from clients, but higher decision makers than I said no. Martha looked at me, and asked me, her eyes fixed on my face as I now represented all the employers and volunteer organizations that had rejected her. “How am I supposed to get a fresh start when nobody will take a chance on me?”
I still have an emotional scar from that encounter and every time I have to dismiss a volunteer due to a background check, that scar aches. I don’t know if our volunteers realize how much we care about them and about their well-being, even if we cannot accept them. Martha, I want you to know that.

Then there’s Thad, who represents so many of the prospective volunteers. “I can’t go into someone’s home,” he says in horror. “What if they accuse me of stealing something?” Or Kelly who says, “I’m not too eager to work with people I don’t know.” Or Joyce who says, “I won’t go into neighborhoods I’m not familiar with.” For these volunteers, the comfort of an office job close to the volunteer manager or organization staff keeps them coming back, but leaves vital volunteer jobs unfilled.
When folks come to us to volunteer and they do not wish to fill the slots that are critical, we have a choice: Turn them away or somehow fit them into the spot they prefer. Then, when organizational staff complain to us that we say we have volunteers, but none for the clients, we try to explain that not every volunteer is willing to do every job. Staff then shakes their heads and wonders “why can’t you just recruit some?.”
Volunteers watch the news, read and engage in social media, and speak to family, friends and neighbors. They form opinions about what they are willing to do. We can encourage them, cultivate them, go with them to a client’s home, but ultimately, they know they can reject a job. Sometimes volunteers will grow into positions and these volunteers are usually fantastic in their new roles.
Prospective volunteers tell me, “I’ve had to go back to work,” “my family needs help right now,” “I need to move closer to a daughter who lost her job,” “my wife is sick,” “I’m having health issues,” “I’m just not emotionally ready yet,” etc. etc.
Because we, unlike our human resources counterparts, cannot just “hire” a volunteer for a job, we have to creatively fill each position while juggling the creation of new positions for volunteers who decide they’d rather not do the work we may need the most.
I remember Bill who wanted so badly to fill the toughest of needs, but ended up opting for the cocoon of the home office. Was Bill’s volunteering any less because of that? No, of course not. All volunteer roles are vital.
However, behind the scenes, we, volunteer managers struggle with filling important positions for any number of reasons. I’ve tried so many ways to entice volunteers to fill certain needs. I’ve guilted, humored, begged, rearranged, incentivized, romanticized, promised temporary status and so on. Many times it works, but not always. I know that finding the right volunteer for the right job is critical, so I slog it out, recruiting from within and without.

And I would say to all those reports that conclude with suggestions that if we, volunteer managers just offer more leadership roles, create more meaningful positions and bend our flexibility just a bit more, volunteers will come rolling in: Come down and do this job for awhile and you will see that it is much more complex than that.
And to Martha: I know in my heart that you would have gone into a client’s home and would have done a fantastic job. Somewhere, there’s a client waiting for a volunteer like you, and somewhere you are waiting for a chance to prove yourself.