“Is it too much to ask?” Calista queries while wiping grape jelly off the hands of her five-year old. She smiles and pats him on the head as he runs off to join his three older sisters in the yard. She drops the rag on the counter and sits down on the bar stool. “I’m not a high maintenance person, not at all. But, I mean, I do need some consistency and direction.”
Calista started volunteering for her PTA after some pretty heavy pressure by the PTA officers. “Maybe it’s because I have four kids in that school,” she laughs, “but I became a target for their recruitment. Maybe it’s because I’m a loan officer at the bank which makes everyone assume I’m the goddess of paperwork. And I know every volunteer group has their share of paperwork!”
Feeling the need for parents to step up, Calista agreed to volunteer and she set aside time for the next meeting. “I’m fortunate because my husband, Josh is great and encouraged me to get involved so I did. After dinner one night, I headed out for my first meeting. I was introduced to the President, a nice lady named Jenna and I met all the other officers as well. They seemed very pleased to have me join the group.” Calista leaned back. “They had quite a number of projects going, including holiday events, fund-raisers and volunteering in the classroom. After the meeting was over, I realized they had gotten me to sign up for a call tree and also as a member of the awards committee.” Calista giggled. “Oh, they were good. I kind of liked the two areas I signed up for. The call tree I could easily do from home and the awards committee sounded fun. At the end of the year there would be awards for students, teachers, parents and even office staff. I have to admit, I was hooked.”
Calista thought for a moment. “Every month I would faithfully attend the meeting. Jenna, the president took me aside and asked if I would research prices on awards for the award ceremony, present my findings at the next meeting and I agreed. I wasn’t being utilized on the call tree and I just figured that no calls needed to be made, but at the next meeting I was armed with the awards information. I had spent a good amount of free time gathering prices, guarantees, choices, etc. But when I got to the meeting, I found that the president had already contracted with a company to create the awards. When I asked the president about my research, she said that it may come in handy next year, but that she had to act fast on a promotion that someone sent her. I gotta tell you, I was annoyed. She could have emailed me so that I didn’t waste my time.”
Calista was a victim of Lack of Communication (LOC).
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I have been guilty of the LOC malady. And I had no good excuse for my lack of communication. Now here’s the thing about committing a LOC on volunteers. A real volunteer’s time and effort is disrespected by misdirection, no call back or no follow through. Running into a volunteer that is awaiting your call is like rounding the cat food aisle to see someone you owe 20 bucks to and forgot to pay. When we see this volunteer do we say, “Yeah, I could have called you to tell you that the project you were so excited to be part of has been scrapped but I chose the cowardly way by ignoring it and you.”
Being mindful of volunteers’ time and effort is crucial to volunteer retention. We can’t give a volunteer an assignment or tell them we will call them without following through on that promise, because it is a promise, a promise to treat them as a valued member of our team. And, as if we didn’t have enough work, we cannot let other staff members commit a LOC either. We have to be on top of their treatment of volunteers too.
But what about those conversations in a hallway, or on your day off in the store when you promise something to a volunteer but don’t write it down or store it in your phone? If I had a dollar for every time that happened to me I’d have a nice little nest egg right now. When I’d finally given up on the idea that I could remember everything (yep, you’re right, control issues), I began to be more honest. “Well, Donna, I’m so glad we ran into each other here in the feminine hygiene aisle and we got to talk about your wanting to get involved in that new project. I can’t tell you how excited I am to have you work with us, thank you so much. Can I ask you a favor? I’m afraid that because it’s a Sunday evening and I don’t have a notepad with me, I might let this conversation slip and I would be mortified if I didn’t call you tomorrow with that information. Would you mind calling me tomorrow to remind me? You would? Thank you, you’re the best!”
Now, when Donna calls the next day, I can chuckle and say, “Thank you for calling me. I was so excited that I was just about to call you, but sometimes I forget. You are unforgettable of course, but now let’s talk about your involvement.”
If a volunteer calls and says, “I haven’t heard from you…” that is red flag territory. For whatever reason, that volunteer was handed a LOC. Open it with honesty.
Honesty goes a long way. Sincerity gallops right along with honesty. I’ve had to say, “I didn’t call you because I’m an idiot,” and “I didn’t get that information because I let time get away from me and I sincerely apologize.” Ouch, It’s sobering to realize that I’m not super volunteer coordinator. But, I am human and I do care about volunteers’ time and energies.
Calista sighed deeply. “You know, it would have been ok had I gotten some sort of acknowledgement that my effort was for naught. An apology, a reason I wasn’t informed, something. That would have gone a long way to make me feel valued.”
Volunteers do not expect us to be perfect. However, they do expect their time and efforts to be valued. Communicating is about valuing them. And too many sloppy LOCs will produce a volunteer LOC out!