The other night, a friend invited me to a volunteer meeting. She had just started volunteering for an organization that helps runaway teens. I said, “sure” since it was in the evening and I figured why not, I can’t get enough working with volunteers and I really didn’t want to watch any more tv programs about catfish catching with my husband.
Ok, honestly, I wanted to see how the meeting was conducted and whether or not I could get any tips from the moderator. Honestly. All right fine, I really was hoping that the meeting would be mediocre so I could feel good about my meetings. Not a noble reason to go, trust me, but meetings are hard to conduct. Are they interesting? Are they enjoyable? Are they succinct and mind-blowing, earth shattering, and brilliant? If not, guess what? No one will come to the next one, you loser! That hangs over our heads all the time like a dark cloud of failure raining on our meeting agendas. “This is boring, why do we have to come to meetings, I never learn anything new and volunteer Emma talks non-stop through them anyway, I can’t hear about her granddaughter’s finance anymore!”
So, I went and sat down next to my friend and looked around at the concrete block walls, utilitarian fold up tables, uncomfortable stacking chairs and felt right at home, like a bird in a nest. The roll up screen was down, the laptop on, and the fuzzy power point welcomed us to the meeting. Whew. So far, my meetings were on par, so I relished in the fact that there were no black tie clad people serving shrimp on toast, no full length videos and no dancing staff members replete with their own “thank you volunteers” song.
The moderator, who was filling in for the regular moderator, welcomed everyone and got right to the agenda which beamed down on us from the screen. I looked around the room at the volunteers, recognizing each one although I knew none of them. (I have volunteers just like these!)
My eyes alighted on one gentleman, who sat listening intently. As my gaze returned to him periodically, I could see his temples rippling ever so slightly. He was clenching his jaw. Oh, oh, I thought, not a good sign, one the moderator could not see because she did not have as clear a view of him as I did. The agenda was pretty straight forward, consisting of upcoming events, news items and volunteer needs. I took sick pleasure in the one or two mistakes that had to be amended. (I’m not proud of that, trust me, and my little voice of perfection in my head said, “oh, so now you think it’s ok to make mistakes huh?”)
Volunteers asked questions about assignment dates and other “housekeeping” type issues and everything was pretty normal until the gentleman with the rippling temples spoke up. “You know,” he said, (which always means something we know and care not to admit is coming), “I’ve been volunteering over two years. I’m the lead for one of the task forces and when we get called out, we only have four volunteers to choose from. Now, my question to you, is, where are all these volunteers? Why don’t we have more volunteers on the task force? We advertize for people, I see new people on the roster, heck I’ve even let some come in and watch what we do, but no one has stepped forward to join us.”
At this point, I felt a rush of empathy for the moderator and could completely understand her pain, having been in this position many a time. I was sorry now that I so meanly wanted to see some mistakes, and I just wanted the rant to end. “Why can’t we get more volunteers?” He went on, the pent-up frustration spewing forth. “I mean, I work for crying out loud and I can come to meetings, I can get up in the middle of the night and be where I’m supposed to be, so why can’t we find other people like me?”
I wondered, should I raise my hand, but the moderator handled it as well as she could, saying that volunteers like this gentleman were hard to find and that they were making a concerted effort to reach out to the community. Now, I know the truth and I suspect this gentleman did as well. The truth is, we all try, but recruitment is just one part of our jobs. It jockeys for position along with retention, recognition, problem solving, mediation, human resources, and every other little thing that gets thrown our way. The luxury of just recruiting is unthinkable, sort of like coming home to no housework or driving a car forever with no maintenance needed. I wish.
The moderator and this gentleman bantered back and forth for a bit while the rest of the volunteers looked on. I suspect this scenario plays itself out all across the volunteer spectrum. I wondered if the moderator felt frustration, not at the volunteer, but at the fact that this volunteer had to remind her how much was on her plate and how she could only give a percentage to each task.
Volunteer Frustrations can bubble up anytime. Some volunteers will make an appointment to air their concerns privately. Others may “blow” in a meeting or while working on an assignment. I’m no psychologist (ask my husband, he’ll tell you-as he watches catfish being hauled out of a river) but I suspect that the volunteer who vomited his frustrations grew very tired of a meeting in which everything was normal. I suspect that in his mind, no one was addressing the glaring lack of volunteers. I suspect he may have felt like this new moderator could do something about his concerns. I’ve had that happen on more than one occasion. I go through channels to address a volunteer’s request, but it languishes and the volunteer corners a new staff member because they may have more clout.
We, volunteer managers are continually checking on our volunteers, but we are not perfect. Sometimes we can see frustrations building and sometimes we can’t. We try to intervene before volunvomiting happens but we can’t always see it coming. Most of the time, the frustrations our volunteers feel are the very ones we feel too.
Kudos to the moderator who did not feed into those frustrations but calmly addressed them. In retrospect, (which is easy now, I know) perhaps a few things could have helped. I’m going to put these in my arsenal of come-backs for the next time a volunteer spews forth their concerns at a meeting:
1) “You have an excellent point, one which we are very concerned about as well. Who, here, in this room is willing to step up and become a member of the task force?”
2) “I’m so glad you brought that up. It is foremost in our minds too. Let’s put together a committee from the dedicated folks in this room to do targeted recruiting.”
3) “Thank you for voicing the frustrations we all feel. Would you be willing to sit down with me soon so that you and I can work out a plan to recruit folks like you, dedicated, hard-working and committed.”
Perceived Inaction=Grievance. Action=Cooperation.
Vexed volunteers are not bad volunteers. They want what is best too, so let’s put that vexation to work. Diffuse that frustration by challenging them and the folks around them to help better the situation.