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lost in forestChristian was hired as the volunteer manager for a small hospital. After spending ten years as a human resources generalist, he wanted to utilize his skills while working with folks who wanted to give back.

“I replaced the former volunteer coordinator, Janice, who was moving out of the area. She had been in charge of the volunteers for five years and we spent about two weeks together before she left. The volunteers on the whole were very sorry that she was leaving. They were really attached to her.”

Every volunteer manager has their own unique style of managing volunteers. Some are gentle and kind and encourage volunteers with praise and genuine caring. Some are a combination of inspiration and a perceived expectation of excellence. Some are masterful negotiators and visionaries. Some are light-hearted and fun, others are serious and meaningful. Most are combinations of all of the above. Few of us can be authoritarians or dictators, at least not for long.

“What I discovered a few weeks after Janice left was just how much the volunteers were attached to her. I can’t tell you how many times I heard a volunteer say, ‘Janice didn’t do it that way’ or ‘Janice would never have asked that.’ At first I kind of expected it, but as the weeks wore on, it became more of an us against him situation.”

What Christian was experiencing is the unraveling of the management style instituted by his predecessor. He stepped into a role that was not his style and so the volunteers, used to Janice’s management, were chafing at her absence. It wasn’t so much a rebuff of the new leadership as it was missing the old leadership.

“The more I spent time with the volunteers, the more I realized how intertwined they were with Janice. She knew so much about each one. She socialized with many of them, went to their family functions, had lunch with them, and stayed with them in the hospital. They had her personal cell number. One lady, Bea told me that Janice helped her buy a car. Another volunteer, Simone said that Janice found bargains for her online. It was all so overwhelming, I mean, I was hired to do a job, but I never expected that my job was a 24/7 immersion into the volunteers’ personal affairs. When I was in human resources, I never walked the dog for an employee or planned a birthday party for a grandchild. I simply did my job.”

Christian’s experience went beyond taking over a job from a popular coordinator. He was unknowingly walking into more than a job, he was walking into a cult of personality.

“I started asking the other staff about Janice and the volunteers. I learned that Janice was extremely social and gregarious and that she had a positive attitude and sense of humor. I already knew that from spending time with her before she left. But what I heard from many of the staff is that Janice often seemed frazzled and complained about stress. I also heard that she was somewhat flirtatious, which, on the surface doesn’t seem too harmful, but I now feel a real sense of indifference from the men who volunteer. It’s as if I’m personally responsible for Janice’s leaving.”

Managing volunteers is challenging enough without having to replace someone who has created a cult of personality and Christian, no matter what he did to win the volunteers over, was just not Janice.

“The volunteers would do anything for Janice, and she was very successful in filling all the jobs. But I got to tell you, the first few days, I just thought that the volunteers were really wonderful people who truly wanted to help others. Now I’m finding that yes, the volunteers are wonderful people, but I’m not so sure if they want to help others or if they just wanted to please Janice. I ask them in the nicest way to take on a an assignment and I try to ask them questions about their families, but they are somewhat cold towards me. I haven’t lost any of them yet, but I expect that to occur any day, because although they have direction from me, they seem lost without her.”

Stepping into anyone’s role is hard but stepping into a status quo that you cannot duplicate is incredibly challenging. As volunteer managers, we walk a fine line between being professional and being involved. We sometimes utilize whatever skill works to fill volunteer requests. We often become very comfortable with our volunteers and develop strong relationships with them.
But, every now and then, we have to do a mental check on our own style of volunteer management to ensure that we have created a professional atmosphere and that our volunteers are loyal to the clients we serve and not us. The mental check goes something like this:
If I leave tomorrow, will my replacement find all the systems in place they need to succeed?
If I leave tomorrow, will my replacement be able to continue the calendar that I have set up for volunteer meetings, events, training’s, educational in services etc?
If I leave tomorrow, will my replacement find the volunteers welcoming or will he find hostility because the volunteers are loyal to me instead of the mission?
If I leave tomorrow, will my replacement find that boundaries have been consistently crossed with volunteers, hence making her work life impossible?
If I leave tomorrow, will my replacement have a list of currently active, currently inactive and also former volunteers?
If I leave tomorrow, will my replacement walk into utter chaos or find a smoothly run department?

Ahhhh, if we can occasionally look critically at our work with the eye of our potential replacement, we might just discover some things that need our attention. We might just see the forest instead of those pesky daily, demanding trees that get in the way.
And if a professionally run environment is better for our potential replacement in case we happen to leave, then isn’t a professionally run environment better for our own health and well-being?