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tinkertoySometimes our view of the volunteer world can be shaken. We read that a volunteer harmed a vulnerable person. We find that a volunteer was hiding a checkered past or we observe a volunteer behaving in an unseemly manner.
We send a volunteer out to do a good job and when we hear nothing to the contrary, we assume that everything is rolling along smoothly, because everyone realizes the worth of a volunteer and will welcome that volunteer, right? At least we hope it happens that way until we hear a confession sometime later…
Kaya, a hospice volunteer coordinator was speaking to a former volunteer, Jayne. Jayne has been battling a chronic illness that prevents her from volunteering but, when healthy, was one of the most called upon and successful patient volunteers.
In between all the catching up, Kaya and Jayne chatted about a few of Jayne’s favorite assignments and most interesting patients and families. She provided respite care to families in homes and brought companionship to nursing home residents.
Kaya said, “Jayne played by the rules, turned in paperwork on time and always was cognizant of her representation of the mission. But at one point Jayne asked me if I remembered assigning her to see patients in the Golden Oaks nursing home.”
Kaya hesitated. “Yes, I said, I remember that, but I also remember that you couldn’t go back because of the cleaning fluid they used. It gave you respiratory problems. But then Jayne told me that wasn’t true at all, that she lied to me and asked me if I wanted to hear the real story. I, of course said yes and she told me this story.”
Kaya shook her head, but she continued, “Jayne said that she went to visit a patient at Golden Oaks, a 90 some year old lady who had end stage Parkinson’s disease. She said she was in the room with the patient when a staff member came in with a lunch tray and told Jayne to feed the patient. Jayne said she told the staff member that she was not allowed to feed patients and the staff member got mad and demanded to know why she was there in the first place if she couldn’t really be any help. Jayne said she kept her cool but another staff member, who appeared to be a supervisor came into the room and basically said the same thing.” Kaya stopped for a second. “I can’t tell you how shocked I was to hear that. First of all, how dare someone treat a volunteer that way and second of all, I thought of all the good these volunteers do for patients and how Jayne could have just as easily up and quit after that. I wanted to ask why Jayne didn’t tell me when it happened, but I reconsidered. I didn’t want to make her feel like she had let us down, not after all the good work she has done. But it makes me wonder what other situations occur that volunteers are unwilling to tell me.”

tinkertoymazeVolunteer managers construct intricate helping structures. While we may be the hub or first connector for our volunteer helping structure, we must rely on other connectors (other people) to extend out further. The further you build out, the more fragile the structure becomes. Any volunteer that reports directly to the volunteer coordinator is being engaged by someone who knows how to cultivate volunteers. The further out on the structure the volunteer goes, the more the volunteer manager must rely on the soundness of new connectors (other people) interacting with the volunteer. Do these new connectors understand the volunteer’s role? Does a new connector know how to engage a volunteer? Is the new connector aggravated at having to monitor a volunteer on top of other duties or perceive a volunteer as a nuisance?
While we understand that we cannot control every situation and every person a volunteer interacts with, we understandably can worry about our volunteers when they are being engaged by other people unknown to us. And, after spending a great deal of up front time mentoring a volunteer, it is disheartening to think that a callous comment or flippant attitude can quickly ruin that.
When I started accompanying volunteers on their first assignment and introduced them to the key stakeholders, I found that some of these problems were minimized. One of our roles as volunteer managers is to educate other people on how to work with volunteers. The skills needed to retain volunteers are second nature to us, but aren’t all that obvious to everyone else who may have stressful jobs and responsibilities that prevent them from seeing the volunteer picture.
This approach takes more work on our parts, but it’s necessary, both for the mission and for the volunteer. As we extend our helping structure out, we need to personally check on the connectors being used, to ensure soundness and strength.
After all, the delicate structure we create is a thing of beauty and support for our clients. We don’t want it to fall.