While eating breakfast at our favorite hole in the wall diner, my husband pushed aside his plate of pancakes. “They’re a bit doughy this time,” he said and covered the plate with his paper napkin just as the server walked by. “Finished already?” Her question was a polite accusation, yet she removed the plate at my husband’s nod. That got me thinking aloud. “Does the cook feel badly when food comes back uneaten?”
“No,” my husband quickly offered, “it’s a job.” But then he thought about it. “Well, maybe so.”
It reminded me of volunteer manager Brett, who oversees the volunteers that cook meals for patients at a hospice care center. “One of the biggest challenges I have is to handle the volunteers’ disappointment when patients don’t eat the meals prepared for them. The volunteers put their heart into making the meals look and smell appealing from making sure the plate is cleaned of any spillage to the garnish that enhances the look.” Brett continued, “I mean, when a new volunteer starts, I have to really remind them that patients may be too sick to eat. They may order food with every intention of eating it, but their appetites often are just not there anymore and they don’t even try a bite. That is very disappointing to the volunteers who send out food thinking that the patient will enjoy the meal they just prepared with care.”
“What do you do to quell that disappointment?” I asked.
“Number one, I’m available. I’m there to gauge the volunteers’ reactions to things, like if they get quiet because they think they were reprimanded by a patient’s family or staff member, or if they seem down because no one is eating or if they act discouraged because no one seems to show any appreciation.”
Brett is a savvy volunteer manager. He knows the impact and benefits his volunteers bring, but he also realizes that the volunteers don’t necessarily receive continuous positive feedback. And if they do not, then disappointments may just color the way they view their volunteering.
I remember a volunteer, Jess, who was upset because the client she was working with said to her, “I don’t like you.” She had put her heart and soul into trying to “reach” this gentleman and when he refused to be “reached,” she was devastated. “What did I do?” she asked. “What could I have done differently?” And her very telling question was, “why doesn’t he like me?” At that point, placating her with flippant statements like “well, it’s just him, not you,” would serve no useful purpose. This is where some real volunteer management is necessary. We have to ask, “what are Jess’ expectations of volunteering? What are her methods of working with clients? Did we give her the wrong client, not only for her, but for him as well?”
When working with volunteers, I was always adamant about telling them that a rebuff or client anger was rarely directed at them personally. The fact that someone didn’t eat a volunteer prepared dinner had almost nothing to do with the meal, but everything to do with the patient’s ability to eat.
Brett says, “I tell the volunteers that the patient’s family is hyper aware of the meals that are made, that the family is touched by the extra care put into those meals. I tell stories about how a family member will get so excited because their dying loved one tried some creamy mashed potatoes. Because I’m here all the time, I can see the good that is being done. I try to impart that to my volunteers.” Brett connects his volunteers to the overall experience of volunteering, not just their own unique and personal experiences. “I tell them that not only does the family and any visitor notice the great meals, but our staff notices too. And my volunteers absolutely revere the staff, so that means a lot to them.”
Do the cumulative good experiences outweigh the immediate bad experience? Hopefully so, because if a person comes to volunteer with the thought that they will make a positive impact in another person’s life, then a rebuff or a moment of disappointment can puncture that warm bubble.
As Morrie Schwartz, the subject of Mitch Albom’s acclaimed book, Tuesdays With Morrie once said while telling the story of a wave who feared crashing onto shore, “you’re not a wave. you’re part of the ocean.”
Our volunteers are part of an ocean of good work. Helping them see that is one way to soften any disappointment they may encounter. But our work doesn’t stop there in a warm fuzzy ending. Excellent and continued training about clients, situations and how to view volunteering is also in order. I remember a hospice resale shop manager who was having some challenges with her resale volunteers and their brusque nature towards the folks coming to the back door with goods to donate. “They’re not looking at them as people, so much as nuisances,” she lamented. I asked one of the bereavement counselors to do a workshop with the volunteers and she not only agreed, she made a real difference in their attitudes. She offered stories of how bereaved people view the items they are giving away. It sensitized the volunteers to look at donors in a different light. As one volunteer said, “it’s not just unwanted junk people are bringing in, it’s their lives in a box. We need to be mindful of that.”
Because we can’t offer continuous training every day and every shift, we reinforce the connections in a continuing dialogue with each volunteer. An example would be saying to an assembly line volunteer feeding the homeless, “your work is amazing. Because you were here to prep those potatoes, we actually fed 200 people this time. And one gentleman said to me that this meal reminded him of a Sunday afternoon at his grandmother’s farm.”
Volunteer work can be wonderful, messy, unpredictable, illuminating, satisfying and sometimes, disappointing.
It’s the diligent volunteer manager that keeps each volunteer tethered to the mission and to the overall good work which keeps that bubble aloft.