, , , , , , , , ,

Don’t you just hate it when everything becomes such a fine line? I’ve never encountered more fine lines than in volunteer management, except maybe when trying to decide a reasonable curfew for a teenager.

Cheryl is new to volunteering. She took a job that afforded her some free time so she wanted to give back. Scouring online ads for the perfect volunteer place, she decided to take training at a local chapter of a large organization. “I was excited, really excited, because I could picture myself actually helping people in my community. I never volunteered before, never had time before and I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. So I went to training which was pretty good and then I went to my first volunteer meeting. It was in the evening, and as I looked around at the volunteers coming in, I saw people who looked like they worked too, so that made me feel a bond with them. I took a seat in the back. It was fairly crowded and I spoke briefly to the man next to me. He said he was relatively new too, hadn’t gotten an assignment yet, but was looking forward to starting. The meeting began with the chapter’s director showing a power point highlighting the stats from a previous quarter. Then there were general announcements. I noticed that the same small group of volunteers spoke up with stories or questions and they seemed to continually refer to each other. I figured they were the long-term volunteers. Then they asked one of those volunteers to come up and talk about the upcoming needs. She listed several events and assignments and asked for folks to volunteer. I started to raise my hand, but she pointed at her group and before I knew it, they had all laughingly worked out the assignments. I looked at the man next to me and he rolled his eyes. I guess I should have been more forceful, I don’t know. I thought they wanted new volunteers, but now I’m not sure.”

Ahhh, the volunteer clique. It happens because of that fine line. When we need groups of volunteers to take on assignments, especially on-going assignments, we work extra hard to find personalities that will mesh. We introduce hand picked volunteers to each other and hope that the team will “click.” I know I get all tingly when I drop in on a group and they are chatting away, enjoying themselves and each other. It’s a real perk to volunteering. You can almost hear the team bonding as each person joins. Click, click, click. It’s wonderful. But then, because of that fine line, some teams, not most thankfully, will click so well that they become exclusive. They shut new volunteers out. They become suspicious of and sometimes actually sabotage the newbies.

New volunteers are as varied as long-term volunteers. Some are forceful, some are timid. But even under the best of circumstances, being new is challenging. So, what to do when introducing a new volunteer to an established group of seasoned volunteers in order to prevent cliquish behavior?
Here are a few things I learned by making mistakes with group culture. I hope these observations help you too.

1. Do not just drop the new volunteer into the group, even if it is only temporary. Talk about getting stiff behavior-I brought a new volunteer into a group one day and I thought I had walked into a meat locker, the response was so cold. Alert the group beforehand, talk to them in person, or call to keep from putting them on the spot.
2. Talk about the awesomeness of the group to the newbie and vice versa. Let the group know that this new person considers it an honor to join such a fantastic well-functioning group.
3. Appeal to the group’s sensibilities. I’ve said to groups, “I wanted Doug to join you because he’s anxious to do well and I couldn’t think of a volunteer group better able to show him the ropes.”
4. Make it temporary at first. I’d say, “Doug will be learning from you and then I hope that he can join a group of his own once he’s ready.” Sometimes the group will just love the newbie and take them in because the decision was their’s to make. If a newbie is not forced upon them, the group is often more receptive.
5. Check in often. Observing the dynamics of the group will tell you everything about how well the integration is working. Check in to let the group and the newbie know that you care about their success and how they feel about each other.
6. Reiterate that the organization wants to be inclusive of new folks. I’ve used phrases like, “we don’t want to be the best kept secret,” and “we want everyone to be able to have a meaningful experience. With your help, we can do that with our new volunteers.”

But what happens if all else fails? I’ve had groups that, when a member or two is out for extended periods of time get angry because the temporary newbie doesn’t operate just like good old Janet or Bob or whomever is missing. Then, when several newer volunteers tell me that they won’t work with that group because of the way they are treated, I know I have a problem, and it’s time for a heart to heart. And here’s where one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned comes into play: Don’t ignore a problem. Ignoring a problem only makes it fester.
The group and I will have a chat about change. (On their time and turf is best I’ve found so I “drop in”). Change and volunteers is like buying a smaller size skirt and hoping it will be good enough to wear at a presentation. Something usually pops.
So, we chat. The group may be worried that their missing member is sick and will never return. They may think that new volunteers will come in and critique them. They may feel like they’re not doing a good enough job, because if someone new needs to come in, what does that say about them?

But back to Cheryl and her experience. As volunteer managers, it’s our responsibility to monitor who gets called to service. We need to especially look out for new people and integrate them into the team. It’s better to look at everyone in the room when speaking and not appear to have favorites by chuckling over inside jokes or discussing past events in front of new people without explaining the context to them. Everything can be an inclusive and teachable moment.
It’s a shame that Cheryl’s volunteer coordinator did not approach the long-term volunteers prior to the meeting and ask if they would “show the ropes” to the newer volunteers. He/she could have asked, “is there anyone here tonight that is new and would like to join our wonderful seasoned volunteers who are happy to help you acclimate here?”

Then, Cheryl and maybe the man next to her would have had an assignment. And that organization would be one step closer to having another enthused ready to go volunteer.