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kitchen inspection
Sadly last week, Martha, a volunteer with a project management background not only just quit her volunteer assignment, she quit the organization she’s been volunteering with for the past five years. It wasn’t a decision she came to lightly. It wasn’t something she decided one night because things did not go her way. She quit because, well, let me tell you a story first.

When I was in college, my roommates and I would finish up our classes and head for the local hangouts. In order to get from our off campus housing to the bus stop, we had to walk down a gangway by our apartment, then across a road where we had to navigate around the back of several small mom and pop businesses until we hit a cross street where we could walk to the front of the small businesses and catch the bus. You would think that having to walk around a few pesky buildings didn’t matter, but for some reason it did to us so one of my more daring friends decided to walk through the back door of a mom and pop restaurant and out the front, thereby shaving off a good 5 or six minutes. We all stood in the back of the building, stunned, but when we didn’t hear any shouting, we followed her lead. That day became known as the day our shortcut to the bus stop was born.
The kitchen help never said anything to us, although I’ll bet money that they hated us walking through their kitchen. Today, of course, it would never be tolerated, but back then, things were, should I say much more loose. As other friends heard, they started using the restaurant as their walkway. We would nod to the staff as we breezed through their kitchen (swell of us, huh?) and wiggled around the meatloaf. Now here’s the point. Did we ever eat there, I mean, at least as a thank you for not calling the authorities on us? No, we did not. Why? Because we saw what went on in the kitchen, in the back of the restaurant.

But back to Martha. She began as any volunteer, enthused, and eager to find meaningful work. She started off small by volunteering one afternoon a week and when she retired from her career, she devoted two, then three days to her volunteering. As she increased not only her hours, she increased her involvement with programs and eventually took the lead on a project. She became as the organizational staff joked, “the unpaid employee.” Martha was fine with the joking as she loved being a part of the inner circle and after a short time, the staff began to let their guard down and speak in front of her as though she were a paid employee. Slowly, Martha started to take trips into the back of the restaurant.
One day, Martha was sitting at the reception desk when a donor came in to inquire about a rather large donation he had made several months before. He had not gotten any acknowledgement of the plaque he was promised on the donor wall and so he had come in to find out when that plaque might be hung. Martha called the financial department secretary who basically said that orders were running behind and to tell the man that he would be notified when it was up on the wall. “I thought that the secretary could have spoken to him personally. I mean, I felt good at first that she thought I could take care of it, but in thinking about it later, I saw how discouraged that man was. This was customer service gone wrong. We should have been much more personal with him.”

Although Martha knew intellectually that her organization was run by people who could have bad days, exhausted moments, lapses of judgement, Martha started to see a pattern forming. It was like the commercial kitchen that goes lax and greedy. Oh. just use that food one more day, it won’t matter. Just leave that grill dirty, we don’t have time to clean it right now. Just skimp on those meals, we need to turn a profit. Martha saw corners cut on clients, and promises left unfulfilled. She gently asked questions on matters that seemed right to her and received little satisfaction. She would talk to staff members and some shrugged and said that it was the “new order” while others bristled at her questions. Martha wondered, “who’s inspecting this place and why did I not see all of this before?”

Volunteers are unique because not only do they serve, they are also actually clients of our organizations that are allowed to go into the back of the restaurant. If our organizations are sound, we can advertize that long-term volunteers mean our non profits have passed the transparency scrutiny. But when there’s high volunteer turnover, it may mean that the volunteers are noticing the dirty food prep area, the food left out of the refrigerator, and the glove-less hands.
And we, volunteer managers can try our best to keep volunteers out in the pristine dining area, but eventually, they get a peek in the back.
So let us volunteer managers continue to remind our respective administrations that official inspectors aren’t the only ones paying attention.