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like me
Taylor, a petite millennial, manages volunteers for an agency that pairs mentors with children struggling in elementary school. Taylor recruits, schedules and places the reading buddies who help seven and eight year olds improve their reading skills. One staff meeting day, she was asked to provide volunteers at an upcoming cocktail party given for the mayor and several dignitaries and key donors. Taken aback, Taylor said she didn’t think that her group of volunteers would want to serve drinks.
“The senior managers looked at each other as if I had declared a mutiny. One snidely asked me if it was too much for me to try or if I was too busy. I couldn’t believe it, but I kind of stammered that I would ask.” Taylor adjusted her glasses and paused. “Ever since that day, they have treated me differently. It’s subtle, but I can feel a coldness about them. It’s as if I committed the ultimate betrayal, although they seem to have no problem questioning each others’ ideas. I guess it’s ok for them, but not for me.”

Ahh, I can still remember twenty years ago being told that I got the job as a volunteer manager mainly because I was so nice. “Yes!” I shouted in my head.(but not too loudly so as to offend my other thoughts) “I am nice,” I pumped my fist (not too threateningly, more like a sweet hello wave). I prided myself on being nice and after all, that’s what was expected of me, wasn’t it? Yep, what a great job, can’t wait to be nice to some volunteers!
Well, it didn’t take too long for me to figure out that nice was a personality trait and not a skill. I found I needed some mad skills to actually manage volunteers. “Dang,” my nice self said over a cold beer, “this is much more complicated than I thought!”
And after a few years, I began to wonder if those random “you’re so nice” comments might just be code for some other concept. Are the following definitions of “nice” the secret meanings of the word?
Nice=timid, placid, submissive, weak, docile, spineless, wishy-washy
Nice=quiet, never offering opinion, robotic
Nice=unable to see the big picture like those in charge.

Hmm, can nice volunteer managers say no as in “no, the volunteers will not go out in the blizzard to put flyers all over town for your event because you forgot to mail them out?” And, if we say no, will we be disliked?

Well, it’s not about whether senior management likes us (and really, we know deep down that doormats are not liked, they’re used), it’s about doing our jobs. It’s about being a team player but also an expert in our volunteer base. We know our volunteers and their capabilities and we should not be afraid to voice our opinions on utilizing them. So, in between Dolly Doormat or Negative Ned, is the logical negotiator.

For example, Negative Ned might shout, “No way dude! Seriously, you want me to round up volunteers right now? Do I look like I have nothing else to do? If you honestly think volunteers just sit around waiting for me to call, then you’re nuts!”
Or Dolly Doormat might nod her head and smile. “Yes, ma’am, I’ll cancel that presentation at the Ladies’ Auxiliary I had lined up for this afternoon and get right on it. I’m sure those 200 potential volunteers won’t mind my last minute no-show. I’ll just apologize profusely to them and try to explain in my monthly report why there are no new recruited volunteers.”

Instead, here’s how Noble the Negotiator would answer: “Let me see if I understand this correctly. You need five volunteers in two hours to man a booth at a last minute fair. (re-state the request) That sounds like an important task.(acknowledge that the requester feels the request is important) I have an important presentation today that could possibly give our organization an ‘in’ with the Ladies Auxiliary and have put a lot of effort into making this happen so you can see that I have to be there. (nicely point out that you have work you must do and why it’s important) But let’s figure this out. Can a staff member set up the fair and stay until our first volunteer arrives? (involve the requester or offer alternatives if the request can’t be wholly fulfilled) I will put a trusted volunteer on the phone right now and give him a list to call. Since I will be out in the field, I will have that volunteer keep you updated until I return.” (fulfill the request without owning the lateness or mistake or circumstances that make the request difficult to fulfill)

There is a danger when we, volunteer managers look at requests from our own emotional prism. When we deem requests “stupid” or “unreasonable,” we lose the objectivity needed to operate in a professional manner. Besides, volunteers deserve to make up their own minds as to whether to drop everything and come in or to subjugate themselves to what we may perceive as a demeaning task. It’s their choice.

But if we are seeing patterns of refusal, then we can arm ourselves with the data to justify a “no volunteer will do that job” scenario. Keep detailed records of volunteer responses to requests. It can be as simple as “when we call during the day, 82% of our volunteers are already engaged in other activities and cannot come in,” or “of the 43 volunteers called, 100% said no, they were not comfortable serving drinks to donors at a party. Five of them even called it and I quote, ‘inappropriate’.”

Data always trumps vague, emotional claims such as, “volunteers don’t want to do that!” Knowledge and data are the capital with which to negotiate. We don’t have to be afraid to voice our expert opinion in such a way that we are not perceived as pushing-back or lazy or negative.

If we become a noble negotiator, we may or may not be liked, but we will be respected.