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dinner and a movieGrace is sparkling champagne in a petite frame, and as she walks through her non-profit halls, bubbles of mirth float with her. She is a volunteer coordinator who has some of the most desirable natural abilities: the ability to make someone feel like they are the most important person in the world (at least at that moment) and the ability to include everyone in the fun and the purpose of the work.

When I view Grace, if I squint my eyes just a bit, I start to see a humming hub from which emanates all these connectors that run through people, places and things. It’s almost like the wizard behind the curtains in the Wizard of Oz, but not in a creepy way with a booming voice that fools people. No, she is the genuine article. Her desk looks like any other desk, but it almost seems alive with all the activity that buzzes around it. If scientists can ever extract sound from inanimate objects like they predict they will, I want them to start with Grace’s desk-the amount of voices stored in that wood over the years will be deafening.

I caught up with her recently and just like anyone who wants to bottle success or greatness, I wanted to ask her about her talents in working with volunteers. See, her volunteers are a tight-knit family. They tend to communicate with one another well, tend to be more inclined to say yes to extra work, tend to want to be involved in more ways than they originally signed up for, and tend to want to be around Grace instead of avoiding her. I know what you might be thinking, that this is an example of a personality cult. I don’t think so. I’ve seen personality cults (maybe I’ll write about one I knew of that ended up badly) but Grace is not that. Not that she couldn’t easily herd her volunteers into the “Grace is Our Queen and We are Her Minions” sect, but while she may scrape that precarious line once in a while, she is too smart to cross it and has no problem putting up an arm. elbow locked into place, to stop volunteers from becoming loyal to her instead of the mission.

Grace is first and foremost a master of communication. She calls, emails, asks volunteers to call, sends newsletters, has an open office policy, makes hourly trips to check on volunteers working, sends cards, visits, has meetings and does every other mode of communication possible in order to keep her volunteers informed and engaged. (Picture the hub humming away).

But Grace is fun on a stick, a happy birthday balloon in life. It’s a trait that I’ve seen in many long-term volunteer coordinators-Grace has been doing this for ten years. Maybe it’s because we have to create our own fun to diffuse the stress or maybe it’s because we need to see the joy in life to encourage people to work with the pain.

I asked her about some of her more successful volunteer bonding events and she said, “I’ve tried many things like a game night or having a speaker talk on a worthwhile topic, but one thing I’ve found that works is dinner and a movie. Who doesn’t like dinner and a movie? I saw it as a way to get a crowd in so that they could connect with each other.”
Grace shows movies in a conference room set up with tables and chairs, and puts out a spread of food on folding tables. It’s nothing fancy, but it is effective. “I wanted volunteers to know how much I appreciate them beyond the organization’s appreciation of them. And even shy volunteers can participate in coming to dinner and watching a movie, because I know that those volunteers that are alone appreciate a place to go and socialize on a Friday night.”

Grace has a really good point here. If a secondary reason to volunteer (after the first reason-helping someone) is to socialize, then establishing a social gathering for volunteers truly meets that secondary reason to volunteer in a safe environment. Not only did a crowd show up to the first dinner and a movie, Grace added, “I talked it up with everyone. Most of them came, even if they saw the movie. Later, they discussed the movie with each other and that gave them a chance to get to know people they did not volunteer with regularly. And the next time I had a dinner and a movie, the volunteers encouraged each other to come.”

Grace has this fearless component to her as well. She gets all of the food she serves and the prizes she gives out (sometimes there are winning tickets taped beneath chairs, other times there might be a contest or raffle to win) donated by local businesses. I asked her if she was nervous asking for donated food and goods. After all, asking for someone to donate their time (aka volunteer manager) is not the same as asking for donated money or goods. “Not at all,” she said, “I don’t go with the attitude that I’m begging. I go asking if the business or individual would like to be part of something worthwhile and most of them do. Volunteers are well thought of in the community, and people truly want to support them, so no, I’m not nervous, I’m extending the invitation to join us, to be part of our good work.”
She’s gotten so good at networking in donated goods that staff seek her out. “If they need something, like a special desk or a staff coffee maker, they come to me first to see if I can get one donated. Usually, I can.”
I asked Grace what made her volunteers feel so special and included, beyond the social gatherings. Actually I was holding out my bottle, ready to gather up that magic ingredient to take with me. “I was always honest with them,” she said. “I respect them and their contributions to the organization and I genuinely care about each one of them because each one is important and I think they feel that from me. I sort of liken it to water skiing, the feeling that you get when you’re out there…”
“Exhilaration?” I interjected.
“Yes, but it’s more like that natural high when you water ski. The volunteers come back for that feeling,” Grace corrected me. “Helper’s high. I believe each volunteer has something good to offer and I want them to see that. I help them find that.”

After leaving the humming of Grace’s hub behind, I thought about our chat. I can understand a little better why Grace is so special although I’m not ruling out the bit of magic in her along with her skills. I still want to bottle her gifts, but maybe I’d better concentrate on developing my own first.
Dinner and a movie, anyone?