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personal shopperOh, those odd requests. You know, the ones that can either make you cry or seek therapy. We get them all the time and our volunteers can sometimes just walk into them. The other day, I was talking with one of our retired volunteers, Greta, who, for 12 years provided respite in the homes of terminally ill patients. Completely nonplussed, Greta would take the assignments that no one else would or could. She particularly loved working with men whose care giving wives needed time to shop or visit relatives or even take a nap in the next room. Some of the male patients cared for by Greta had dementia or Alzheimer’s, which made for a challenging time.
She recalled the day we sent her to a patient’s home and she met with the man’s wife who calmly instructed her to lock herself in the bedroom with her husband. “He tends to wander,” she said. “And oh, he usually walks around naked.”
Luckily, Greta, a retired psyche nurse and case manager, had already been to odd request-ville and survived. Completely unfazed, she would coax the patient to dress himself.
She talked about another patient she dubbed “Bad Brad.” Bad Brad would flush anything and everything down the toilet if he got near the bathroom. Greta put a stop sign on the bathroom door. “I just looked at everything as doable,” she said. “And if I couldn’t, well, you heard about it!”
We all get the out of the ordinary requests.
There are the unusual requests for volunteers who can sing in Olde English, or volunteers that have no sense of smell.
While odd requests may seem like a hardship, they are actually a chance to step back and think outside the box, even if you cannot fill the request exactly as it was put forth. That’s when bargaining can be used, because we ultimately want to help our clients. “Maybe I don’t have a volunteer who plays “Bringin in the Georgia Mail” on the fiddle, but I do have a volunteer who has a fine collection of bluegrass cds.”

Mindy is a volunteer coordinator who has always tried very hard to fulfill every volunteer request. She has meticulously paid attention to exact needs and worked hard to find the perfect volunteer fit. “But lately,” she says, “I’ve found myself wanting to be involved in the requests before I begin to fill them. I’m finding that the more I speak directly to the clients, the more I can get a sense of the type of volunteer they need. And I can offer the type of volunteer I think would work for them and the volunteer who is actually available. It’s made my job so much better and given me a proactive way of filling needs. I’m just sorry I didn’t think of it sooner.”

Being proactive is an excellent tool for not only managing the amazing volunteers we have, but for showcasing the skills and possibilities of the volunteers who may not have a current assignment. We don’t have to wait for invitations to planning meetings. We can ask to be included. We can come with a menu of volunteer services and offer to plug volunteers into the spots that we know we can fill even when there is no request. Think of it as akin to being a personal shopper. Personal shoppers get to know their clientele and because they also know all the designer clothing lines, they can offer the outfits that flatter their clients’ body types.

Mindy continued. “I know who my volunteers are and what they are capable of. The rest of the staff in my organization can’t possibly know all I know about them. So, I figure, I can offer the volunteer service I know will work, versus constantly rejecting the requests that I can’t fill. The more I am proactive, the more respect our volunteers receive, and the more I can place volunteers who have a skill or passion in situations that are enjoyable for them. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Mindy reinvented the way volunteer involvement is utilized in her organization. She stills receives traditional requests for volunteers, but now, she has taken on an activist role in promoting and controlling the ways her volunteers are assigned. “I’m trying to play to the strengths of my volunteers. They come with varied skill sets and I want to see those skills used.”

Volunteer management can be a passive position (receive requests, then fill them) or it can be an active position (seek ways to use the volunteers available based on their interests). On the surface this may seem like a no-brainer, but when Mindy stepped back and took a look at the way things were done in her organization, she really had an epiphany. “I had requests that were difficult to fill and I had volunteers who were not being utilized in the most advantageous way. It became clear that I needed to step my role up and become a part of the request process. I’m using the volunteers more efficiently now and I feel so much better about my work.”

Our roles can and need to expand. For instance:
Staff: Do you have a volunteer to stuff goodie bags?
Volunteer Coordinator: I see you’re putting together a brochure for services, I happen to have a volunteer who is a graphic designer. I think he could be persuaded to help you with that.

Because we’re somewhat like that personal shopper, we know our inventory of volunteers and how each one can enrich the ways our organizations serve our communities which will eventually lead to volunteer managers sitting at organizational planning tables.

Me? If I could afford a personal shopper, I would. They’re really good at their jobs and frankly, I’m not so great at picking out flattering outfits. Maybe staff members who put in requests would appreciate a knowledgeable personal shopper for volunteers too.