When my children were young, I barricaded them from anything and everything embarrassing about myself because I knew they would spread it faster than spilled cooking oil over a brand new dress. Little ones really have no filter and when they learn something juicy, they will a) tell their teacher, b) tell their best friend’s mom or c) tell the guy in the elevator who turns out to be the one processing your car loan.
We learn pretty quickly how to keep damaging information away from those who view the world as a big piece of warm toast just waiting to be smeared with buttery gossip. There are the neighbors who pry ever so nicely, the co-workers who ambush you on a Monday morning before you’ve gotten your game face on. “So, how was your weekend? Really, I didn’t know you hung out in those types of establishments.”
So, how does this relate to volunteers? Well, we can get really comfortable around them and let down our guard and the next thing you know, you have your boss in your office wondering why the heck you said those terrible things about the operations manager because “it’s all they’re talking about in administration.” Of course anything said innocently like “you know I do like the new giving director. He seems nice, but it’s sometimes hard to understand him, he mumbles like he has something in his mouth,” becomes by the time it makes the rounds of eager ears, “Meridian says the new fund director doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Trying to explain only makes it so much worse.
I’ve never had a volunteer spread anything I’ve said out of meanness or ill intent. It’s always an innocent aside or a slip of the tongue. At the time, it’s never funny, and when it happens, you just try to lay low in your warm dirt filled trench until the whole thing blows over and then you’re extra nice to anyone and everyone in case they’ve been told something that will come back to haunt you soon.
I remember one day saying to a volunteer who was a retired charge nurse that our female executive director looked positively glowing. That afternoon the volunteer ran into the director as she was headed for lunch and asked ever so intrusively, “when is the baby due?” Yeah, she did and then told the director that she heard it from me.
I remember another time a volunteer, John thought he was actually going to help me and went to my boss and proceeded to complain that I was overworked. (This is a lovely theme that volunteers who really care about us volunteer managers come up with, and sometimes want to do something about much to our chagrin). When he told me what he did, I didn’t know whether I wanted to hug him or ask him to help me pack my things. See John owned and ran his own boat manufacturing company for thirty years so he pretty much said whatever the heck he wanted. Although my boss realized I did not put John up to it, (at least that’s what she told me) I could tell that she wondered how much “oh poor little me” stuff I was spouting. I had a hard time defending myself and John on that one.
One of my favorite volunteers, Jessie once accompanied me to a community event advocating for the homeless that just happened to be covered by local press. While I was crawling around on the ground trying to tie down the tent in the tornado-like winds, Jessie was interviewed by the press and was happy to help by giving some personal opinions on the subject which of course appeared in the paper the next day as the official position of my organization. The next morning I sneaked into my office, but they found me! I really think I would have gotten into less trouble if I had set fire to the donor’s wall.
My favorite one though, was the day I came close to a meltdown. A staff member I trusted implicitly didn’t follow through and caused all kinds of emergency extra work. I was pacing, muttering, and trying to figure out how to make the last-minute disaster come together when one of the volunteers, Ruthie walked in on me having a heated conversation with myself. I didn’t notice her for a moment and when I did, she was watching me pretty much in the same way she would watch a stranger wearing a goalie mask coming down a dark alley. I stopped when I saw her and told her that I was just figuring some things out and she nodded, said ok, goodbye for the day and left. So the next day, Ruthie came in unexpectedly, found me in a casual conversation with a senior manager and offered me some medication from her medicine chest. It was Xanax.
What do I think I’ve learned about being honest in front of volunteers? Should we be very careful about what we say? I do think that we should spare them any political nonsense, personality conflicts and dysfunction in our organizations. They don’t need those headaches. But am I careful about every little thing I say? Nah, not at all. I look back at those incidents and others and laugh. I lived through them, and each volunteer thought they were doing the right thing. And you know what? WE CAN’T CONTROL EVERYTHING! (Horrors, I still shudder at that realization).
I think as long as we keep in mind that our volunteers want to be a part of the goodness of our organizations’ missions, then we’ll share with them the best part of ourselves. We can be funny, crazy, serious, mindful, playful, driven or any combination of personality traits that make us unique.
As long as we are sincere, we can share ourselves without fear of the few times we are taken out of context, misunderstood or “helped” by well-meaning volunteers.
One trait I’ve noticed about volunteer managers is that we are comfortable with life’s complexities. We don’t see people and the world as the perfect red velvet cake, but as this ever-changing creative cake mix that is interesting, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately perfect in a non-perfect sort of way.
Granted, we’ll sometimes get a bubble of dry flour when we bite into these not so perfect cakes, but then again, we get to eat a lot of frosting too.