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Willow, a new volunteer manager for a small organization providing aid to the homeless population in her town, answered her phone the day before Thanksgiving. She had spent long hours that week, organizing and recruiting volunteers to help prepare the annual meal held at a local high school auditorium. Exhausted, her brain overloaded, she tried to muster up enough energy to sound human on the incoming call.

The caller identified himself as Harry, the coach of a soccer team consisting of 15-year-old boys. “I’d like to get these boys involved in helping others,” he told Willow. “We’d like to come out and feed the homeless tomorrow.”

Willow felt a throbbing in her forehead. “How many players are we talking about?”

“Not the whole team, mind you, about 7 or 8.”

Tears filled her eyes like the bubbles in a natural spring. The volunteer slots were set in stone. It had taken every fiber of her new volunteer manager being to accomplish that. She was bone weary and wondered, why did this man wait until now to call? How could he think that there was no coordination in putting together something so incredibly complicated? Why does no one understand?

It’s happened to all of us. Often, people call at the last moment to help, especially at holiday times. After it happens, you begin to expect it and it is incredibly frustrating to have to tell a group of willing helpers that they are not needed because they procrastinated or called on a whim. They are, after all, potential volunteers. Granted, most might never volunteer again, but there’s always that little voice in our heads that sneers, “there goes a group that might just have been the greatest group of volunteers known to man. And you denied them. Tsk, tsk.”

So, what to do if you are not able to just dust off those last-minute potential holiday volunteers? If you feel that a part of your job is to give people the chance to experience the deep, satisfying joy in volunteering, then you will feel a twinge of guilt or sadness when having to refuse someone, even if they called too late. We all know that holidays bring out the desire to help and that each “drop in” volunteer might become an advocate for our organizations.  Can we accommodate those late comers without making the holidays a nightmare for ourselves?

Yes, there is a way. It’s not perfect mind you, but it’s better than feeling overwhelmed and guilty at the same time. And it takes implementing now.

So that the future you is not caught in a holiday trap, prepare for the season right now. Before the holidays creep up on you, create some projects that last-minute folks can do. Don’t save the work that must be done but be ready with some extra projects that are off premises and not in direct contact with clients. (No background checks needed). You can invite these one time volunteers to become official volunteers at a later time.

Start now by asking everyone in your organization for fantasy projects. Ask, “If you had 3 or 5 or 10 volunteers over the holidays, what could they do?” Does marketing fantasize about hundreds of distributed holiday flyers? Does the thrift store secretly salivate over a huge deep cleaning and resorting for the season? Does finance have a tired office that cries for a fresh coat of paint? Is there a corner where an extra decorated tree would look lovely? Do you partner with other agencies and can you ask them if they have projects? I’ve always been able to find a nursing home that was extremely grateful for some extra help during the season.

You can also create your own meaningful projects. Go to social workers and ask if they have a family that needs Christmas presents because of financial need and then create a “gift tree” with the ages and sizes of family members on paper ornaments. Buying a gift for someone who is going through a tough time is a very satisfying introduction to volunteering. Don’t be afraid to create a project in which the participants will have to spend a bit of money. That never seems to matter.

One time volunteers can certainly write holiday cards and wishes to older clients or children. They can have a card writing party off premise. Ask a willing volunteer to attend to explain how much these cards mean to your clients. The point is to be creative. You know the difference between meaningless work and projects that can actually enhance the holidays. Have an extra tree to decorate, or paper place mats to color (good for youth groups to do). Ask your existing volunteers if they would be willing to mentor a group when necessary. Stock up on craft supplies now.

Then, when someone calls last-minute, instead of having to say, “sorry, but there’s nothing I can give you,” you can invite the late comers to get their feet wet by tackling a small but worthwhile project. If the latecomer says no, at least you offered something. I’ve had folks tell me that my organization was the only one  who even tried to place them. That good feeling can translate to future volunteers.

You, by virtue of being a volunteer manager, take care of everyone around you. Take care of yourself this holiday season by preparing now for those inevitable 12th hour but sincere calls to help. Your future self will thank you.