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MontyPythonsFlyingCircusREB73MI am a huge Monty Python fan. My husband and I, when first married would stay home, out of clubs and restaurants to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It was brilliant. (ok, I’m giving up my age, but don’t care).  The lexicon from those shows and subsequent movies became part of his and my vocabulary. We talk about spam (in shrill voices), used to tell our children that “it’s just a flesh wound” (only during minor injuries of course) and diffuse an argument by saying, “I didn’t expect the Spanish inquisition!”

So what on earth does this have to do with volunteer management you ask. It’s a fair question. I came across an article on a Python reunion and had to grab a cup of coffee, close the door and get into a comfortable chair to read it. It was like being contacted by an old friend. I just wanted to reminisce (and maybe find out how the dead parrot was doing). See, to me, humor and silliness have a place in everything, especially irreverent humor. Think of the doctors who save lives, but bandy jokes back and forth about death. Finding the absurd can alleviate stress and the Flying Circus cut through so much seriousness and let us laugh.


But the part that struck me most about this article was Eric Idle’s theorem of comedy: Idle: “Comedy is a theorem. You write it, and think, ‘In theory if I say this like that, and I wear that, and I stand in that place, the result will be laughter.’ So it’s a theorem. And then you actually prove it. And that’s the nice thing about comedy: They laugh or they don’t. So I think of it as algebra.”

Algebra. Hmmm, really smart people can do algebra.

Many years ago, I did an unscientific poll on what people thought of volunteer coordinators. I was just curious and at the time, the words that were used to describe us were words like caring, compassionate, nice, considerate and helpful. While these are wonderful attributes, not one person said volunteer coordinators are “smart”. So, Eric Idle (who is brilliant, not just smart) got me to thinking. Is volunteer management a theorem like comedy? Well, maybe the Ministry of similarities can show us how we are very similar to the brilliance of comedy.

In theory, we take a need and we postulate that volunteer Y, coupled with circumstance X will equal the desired result Z. On the proactive flip side, we postulate that volunteer A, coupled with circumstance B can create program C to meet future needs. And, as Eric Idle pointed out, the theorem works or doesn’t. If the need is not met, we go back to the blackboard. equationsprofesseurtableauchalkboardlessonslearnedblackboard-8516aadf23e9e2986c04a766fdd620a2_h

If volunteer managers simply called every name on their list for every need, there would be no theorem involved. (Now sometimes we get desperate and actually call every name, but not routinely). A robot could accomplish that task. Instead, we begin to postulate the most workable theorem in our heads.

The algebraic equation, when we start to analyze who and how best to meet a need looks something like this:

The Need: A volunteer to drive an elderly lady client to doctor’s appointments.

Begin with a Volunteer (Y) from the list:

Volunteer Joanne does not want to work with clients.

Volunteer Claire loves to work with clients.

Volunteer Betty will occasionally work with clients if you are in a bind.

Volunteer Sadie will only work with clients who live in her mobile home park.

You’ve already eliminated all the male volunteers because you do not place male volunteers with female clients.

Add Circumstance (X): The client lives on the same block as Joanne, far from Claire, a short distance from Betty and near Sadie but outside of her park.

Joanne + circumstance = she will say no.

Claire + circumstance = a burden on Claire.

Betty + circumstance = a real possibility.

Sadie + circumstance = a possibility if you can point out that taking this client is almost like taking someone in her mobile home park.

The Z (meets the need or sum of Y+X) is most likely calling Betty first, then Sadie, then Claire, then perhaps Joanne. Or, you, being a problem solver might ask two volunteers to split the assignment or you might pair Joanne with Claire so that she can be mentored for later assignments (thus solving a future equation at the same time). There are many combinations, but the point is, the volunteer manager is constantly formulating. Now that’s smart.

I know what you’re thinking. The above example is so kindergardenly simplistic, it’s laughable. You, an experienced volunteer manager, are working at college level math. Within these volunteer equations are variables such as personality traits, availability, current volunteer load, the need for a break, social obligations, family emergencies, other activities, level of training and experience and so many more. Add to that the variables such as clients’ personalities and specific needs and voila, your mind’s blackboard looks like the scribblings of a madman.

Is volunteer management nothing more than a call down list, or is volunteer management a well thought out algebraic equation created to serve clients, volunteers and society in the best possible scenario? I think we know the answer but we need the non-profit world to realize that we are more akin to mathematicians than robo-callers.

So, ok, in this career, I’m glad we are being referred to as nice, considerate and helpful. But I’d also like for us to be recognized as smart.