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charlie brownJeremy has been managing volunteers for several years at an organization that helps disabled veterans. A social worker, Jeremy spends about 10 hours a week working with volunteers who help veterans find housing and medical care. They also do fundraising activities and office work. “I laughingly call the volunteer management aspect of my work, my part-time job. I can’t give the volunteers as much time as I’d like, but for the most part, they are fortunately pretty self-starting and able to monitor themselves.”
Jeremy continued, “We were in the process of ramping up our volunteer program to take on some new initiatives and I was asked to try to find someone to help recruit more volunteers. Luckily, one of our volunteers, June had a friend, Trisha, who, before retiring was a marketing rep at a large textile firm. June said that her friend might be interested in helping us, so I called Trisha and she agreed to come in and talk.
Trisha came in and met with me and my supervisor, Eileen. Eileen is the one who originally requested more volunteers for our new initiative. Both Eileen and I were incredibly impressed with Trisha’s qualifications. She had gone through extensive marketing seminars at her textile firm and she was extremely knowledgeable on targeted recruitment. She said that she believed in our mission, and that she would be happy to spearhead a campaign to recruit more volunteers. My supervisor, Eileen was thrilled and excitedly gave Trisha pretty much the go ahead to use her vast knowledge and experience. Eileen gave her a “carte blanche” mandate to get this done so we went over Trisha’s plans and agreed to meet in two weeks.”
Jeremy then said, “a week later, Trisha sent me an email saying that she thought long and hard about the opportunity and decided to decline helping us with recruitment. I was shocked, just shocked, given the positive meeting we had the week before. I couldn’t imagine why she had changed her mind, I mean I didn’t even speak to her but I know that she had emailed Eileen several times. I saw that Eileen was also notified and I tried to reach her, but the entire management team was at a retreat so I couldn’t find out what might have happened.”
Jeremy continued, “I was just so thrown by this change of heart and so the next day when I saw June, I asked her if Trisha had spoken to June and sure enough she had spoken with her friend several times. I asked June to tell me the reason Trisha decided to quit after our first very positive meeting. I said, ‘June, we really hit it off and if I did something or wasn’t clear, I need to know that so I can explain or apologize if I need to.’
At first June was hesitant to say anything and then finally, she opened up.”
Jeremy took a breath, “June told me that Trisha was at first very excited about connecting with our organization and was making some real plans. But then, as she emailed Eileen for some specifics like demographics, targeted populations etc, the tone of Eileen’s emails changed. Eileen told Trisha that all her recruitment plans needed to go through a committee for approval. She also wanted Trisha to meet with the marketing department so that they could tell her which clubs and organizations to steer clear of because marketing wanted to target them first. Evidently the marketing department wanted to provide her with all the proper wording for her recruitment and they wanted final approval on her messaging. Marketing also said that they were very busy and could fit Trisha in for a short meeting in a couple of weeks.”
Jeremy sighed. “June said that Trisha, while at first excited about the assignment, soon became leery of all the layers of bureaucracy being heaped on her. She told June that it felt like being back at work, and just having retired, she did not wish to return to a job, especially one that didn’t pay. Now, I honestly don’t know whether to approach her on a softer project or to just let her go.”

Asking volunteers who are professionals to head up or direct projects can be a real elevation of volunteers within our organizations. But if our organizations wish to utilize a volunteer’s professional skills, then that volunteer will have expectations that their professional skills be respected.
Eileen’s colossal mistake was giving the signal for Trisha to “head up” a project and then killing the momentum by subjecting Trisha’s plans to layers of rules and regulations. It is the old bait and switch. Come to our organization and utilize your talents and skills but now that you’re here, we want you in this box.

Had Eileen asked for Trisha to become a “volunteer consultant” on a recruitment plan, the whole interaction may have gone better. Not only did they lose a valuable resource in Trisha, they created a negative advertiser as well, and Trisha, being a professional probably has a circle of professional friends who will hear from her that volunteering for Jeremy’s organization is well, disappointing.

We, volunteer managers are always looking to elevate our volunteers. Every day we encounter amazing individuals who can better our organizations with their skills, wisdom and experience. We have to keep advocating for volunteers like Trisha to be treated with clear messaging and courtesy.

If our organizations really want professional volunteers, then we’d better elevate the role of the volunteer manager, who has the skills to recruit and retain those very desirable folks.