One day several wise men were challenging each others thinking over tea. “If you were given the opportunity to sacrifice yourself for world peace,” the first man asked the group, “would you do it?”
“Yes, of course,” the second man said. The third man agreed. “If I were guaranteed world peace, I would do it, surely as it would be the right thing to do.” The fourth man rubbed his chin. “What do you mean by world peace?”
“Just that, world peace,” the first man said.
“Well, if world peace meant only for one day, then no, I wouldn’t do it,” the fourth man said.
Do we know what staff members, CEO’s, volunteers, and the community mean when they use certain phrases and concepts? And do those concepts mirror what we, volunteer managers define them as?
One day when I was feeling particularly feisty (or truth be told, downright crabby from hearing that a volunteer was sent home from an assignment at a health fair because a marketer brought her children to man the booth), I heard a staff member say, “we couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers.” Now, I know this is a lovely platitude, but being cranky, I asked, “really, that’s so nice, what do you think would actually happen if we didn’t have volunteers?”
She looked at me like I was a pompous jerk (and maybe I was). “Well, we probably couldn’t accomplish as much as we do.”
“Do you think we’d close?”
“Don’t be silly,” she said and walked away, I’m sure thinking that I was nuts and a pompous jerk.
But what is meant by common concepts that are continually used? What do some of the phrases we hear actually mean?
“We love our volunteers.” What does that mean? We love them individually and will bring them soup when they are ill or we love the idea that we have them? Or we love them as long as they don’t create any problems for us or take up our time or ask questions when we are busy?
“We’re volunteer friendly.” Really? How? Explain that to me. Do we hang out with our volunteers on a Saturday afternoon along with our good friends? Do we let them call us at home? Do we confide in them? Do we smile at them when we walk in but don’t notice that they have a broken arm because we are late for a meeting?
“Volunteers are the heart of our organization.” Hmm, are we talking about a crucial organ or a warm fuzzy feeling? Do we mean they truly inspire us to be more compassionate or is the term “volunteer” an abstract idea that we cherish, not real, breathing human beings that come in every day?
See, if you say volunteer engagement to a volunteer coordinator, there is a complex burst of ideas that go off in their heads, including the idea that engagement is a two way street. Ask any random staff member “what is volunteer engagement” and you may get a totally different view that does not include volunteers in leadership roles or the challenges in managing volunteers. And here is where an awful lot of volunteer manager angst lives.
Wait, did I really say, that, whoah, I must have let that rabid little voice take over for a minute. Whew.
So, the challenge is, how do we beat the concept of volunteer engagement into everyone’s heads?
But seriously, we have bent ourselves into pretzel shapes for years trying to “educate” organizations on the true nature of volunteer engagement. Sometimes we’re kinda like the folks who show up at your door unannounced, either selling something, or trying to get you to accept their pamphlets on their religious and political beliefs. I know I have been like that.
Me: Knock, knock.
Staff: Who is it?
Me: Volunteer Services here to educate you on volunteers!
Staff: Um, I’m really busy, what with just coming from three meetings and my work is piled up. I just attended a seminar last week on fund raising so I’m a bit overwhelmed.
Me: Well, if you’ll just open the door, it won’t take more than 20 minutes.
Staff: Can you come back later?
Me: But this is important. Don’t you want to know about volunteers?
Staff: I already do, they’re great, gotta go, my phone is ringing.
Hmmm, if the knock knock method doesn’t work, now what? Well, maybe we should try a dialogue. I know, dialogue is one of those buzz words, but
we could seriously try asking organizational stakeholders the meaning (in their own words) of concepts that we think are important to bettering communication between volunteer services and staff. And if we do this with sincere intentions to learn where we differ from staff in how we view volunteer services, we might be able to begin work on closing the gap.
Hearing a senior manager’s explanation of volunteer engagement may make you angry and think, “how can he be so ignorant? How can she think that’s all there is to it?” But, if we put aside that anger and look at the disparity in thought, then perhaps we can begin to free ourselves to analyze how to make volunteer engagement better understood within our respective organizations.
With the keen desire to understand, we can try asking, “how do you view the volunteers’ role? What does the term volunteer engagement mean to you? What about volunteer involvement?”
Be prepared to hear some surface answers and some surprise answers and be prepared to question (in a non-judgmental way) those answers. “What makes you think that?”
We can ask, “what do you think the most important job a volunteer manger does and what are the challenges volunteer managers face?” Hearing the answers may initially make you defensive but in stepping back, may just make you see where the misconceptions lie between what the volunteer department actually does and the perceptions of the rest of the staff.
Again, this is dialogue, not mandates to change the way we view or do our work. How can we work together with staff to help them learn more about the challenges and organizational responsibilities of volunteer engagement?
If we want to get to a place where staff view volunteer engagement the way we do in all its complexities, perhaps we need a street map to get there. Discovering the diversity of ideas within our own organizations on common volunteer concepts and terms may just be the first step to the GPS we need to arrive together at that place where volunteer engagement is understood by everyone the exact same way in which we understand it.