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treasure hunt“No,” I almost shouted, “you cannot volunteer in that area without proper orientation and training!” I stood, hands on hips picturing this person in front of me as no more than a child. “Why, you ask? Because it’s a requirement, that’s why.” I said in my best Mom authority voice. My hands trembled slightly. I did not care that this person said they had spent 30 years in management. I did not care that they had jumped through all of our other hoops, because what good is a volunteer who won’t listen? I plugged my ears to their simple questions. “I’m sorry, but you either come to the next training, or we can’t use you anymore.” The echo of my footsteps down the tiled floor bounced off the serene artwork on the walls. “I don’t have time for this,” I muttered. “Volunteers need to just get with the program.”

No, this scene did not happen. Oh boy, I hope you didn’t think it did. But could it? Do we not box up our volunteers like overly taped goods on the way to China? We’ve added background checks, fingerprinting, drug testing and personality quizzes to ensure that crazies don’t wiggle in. We require training and signatures and photo IDs to prevent any “Lone rangers.” We vet and inspect and watch like hawks each one of our new volunteers. And the seasoned ones? Oh, I might have heard one mention something about religion or politics. RED FLAG! RED FLAG! Book the counseling room!

Since we’ve got it all in control, we can’t let in anyone who might pose a risk, not only legally but also to the assembly line of our volunteer base. Keep ’em in check or all sorts of mayhem might ensue. Yes, we require and require some more and require even more. But what we often do not require is innovative thinking, problem solving, fresh ideas, and good old gut instinct. No, those things are best left to the all-knowing people in power and they will cling to that power even as the ship goes down or is rendered out of commission. While start-ups thrive on new ideas, established non-profits may hold on tight to the ways things have always been done. And that usually involves a line between volunteers and innovation. When is the last time you saw a volunteer sit in on an executive planning meeting?

The other day I was talking to a group of our volunteers who work in one of the thrift stores. They had forged this great camaraderie with each other over the course of two years and they support one another through life’s challenges. One of them asked me to find the phone number of a new volunteer who just happened to train with them one afternoon. Although, this new volunteer, Hannah trained with them, she will be volunteering on another day with a newly put together team. “We want to call Hannah and invite her to one of our get-togethers,” they said. “We’d like to follow-up with her.”
“That’s so nice of you,” I said, “I’m sure she’d appreciate that.”
“Well,” they countered, “have you heard the story of how Hannah came to us?”
“No,” I admitted, “I didn’t.”
So they told me. It seems that Hannah was volunteering at another thrift shop for another organization. “Hannah was the right-hand girl for the shop manager. She volunteered three days a week,” they said. “But then, Hannah’s husband got sick and she had to stop for a time so that she could care for him. She said that during that time she never once heard anything from the shop or the organization. Nothing. No card, no call.” The team looked at each other and shook their heads. “When Hannah walked back into the store after her husband recovered, the shop manager said oh, you’re back, good. That’s when Hannah left.”
I have to admit, I was taken aback. I did not know that about Hannah. But the team went one step further. “We feel like she was treated poorly and we want to make sure that she feels welcomed and needed here. So, we’re going to make sure that happens.” One of the team looked me right in the eye and said, “it’s the right thing to do for volunteers, you know that.”

Not too long ago I was sitting and talking with a volunteer, Jim who I hadn’t seen for a while. He told me a story about visiting a nursing home patient. He said, “The director of the nursing home pleaded with me to come in on Saturday so that the patient would not be alone with a Saturday worker who made the patient uncomfortable. This worker reminded the patient of a man who had beaten and robbed him several years before. He would get really agitated when he saw this worker.” Jim shifted slightly. “For just a moment, I realized I should call in to see if that was ok, but then I knew: It was the right thing to do. I hope you don’t mind that I took that on myself.”

Mind? While organizations may see their journey as a straight line, volunteers tend to be able to swarm over wide swaths of terrain, finding and seeking the right thing to do. If we can just relax our holds on them, just a little, imagine all the territory we can cover.