Javier is a former volunteer coordinator for a large non-profit agency. He now works as an insurance representative and jokes that he was hired because he had access “to all these retired people.” As he runs his fingers through his hair, he says. “I often regret that I left my volunteer coordinator job. I really thought that I was doing fulfilling work and I had some ideas to engage more volunteers, but at the same time, I felt really, oh, I don’t know, unimportant. Besides myself, we had a volunteer manager, Kristen, and another volunteer coordinator, Gail. Kristen would often vent her frustrations at senior management’s lack of understanding of volunteer services. She would come down from a meeting and roll her eyes and say, ‘Well, we got overlooked again.’ I think that affected Gail and me a lot. We began to notice little things more, like not being recognized for organizational accomplishments, not being remembered on Volunteer manager appreciation day, and other things, like not being called on in staff meetings to offer opinions. I started to think that I wasn’t producing enough, so I started looking for another job. When I landed one, I gave my notice. I’m not sure how I could have changed the way I felt, but I wish I could have.”
Tragically, Javier is not alone and while it is really crass of me to compare volunteer managers to survivors of traumatic hostage taking, aka the stockholm syndrome, I just wanted to point out that we, volunteer managers can easily start to believe that we are not as valuable as other staff based on our perceived treatment of volunteer services. Our self-worth can be “blocked” when we think that the volunteer department is the last one to be recognized, funded, or given educational opportunities. For those who are the sole volunteer coordinator, it is especially difficult, because who the heck is there to commiserate with besides the little stuffed tiger that sits on the back of the desk? (you know the one with the huge blue eyes a volunteer brought back from her trip to India).
Others might point out, “well, jeepers, the volunteers praise you all the time and lots of them are highly educated!” But true as that may be, do we not equate volunteer praise to the cuteness of a parent’s praise and think, “Yeah, well, they have to say that, they’re my volunteers!”
Deep down, do we not wish upper management could see what volunteers see in us? Do we long for that one on one with senior management so that they could feel our passion? Do we secretly hope that one of our more respected volunteers would burst into the CEO’s office and declare, “look, you have got to come to your senses and realize how valuable your volunteer manager is and I’m here to make you see that. Now sit!”
If we are not careful, we may become victims of the Blockholm syndrome. We can get dejected, depressed and frustrated as we look through the prism of low self-worth. So, how to keep from being “blocked?” Here are just a few suggestions:
- Keep all notes of praise-as a matter of fact, write down verbal praise after the fact and keep these in a handy drawer. You will be shocked and buoyed by the rapid accumulation of kind words.
- Deflect flippant unkindness-remember, snide comments are all about the speaker, not anything you’ve done.
- Check in with people who care about you. Hearing from those who lift you up helps and don’t dismiss volunteer praise. The volunteers are smart, accomplished, perceptive people and their praise should never be discarded.
- Continue to advocate for the great work you do. There are plenty of staff who notice your accomplishments even if they don’t vocalize continuous praise. Actually, praise everyone around you-they probably feel overwhelmed and undervalued just like you. They will return the favor.
- Find ways to get volunteers into the limelight. Great publicity usually shines brightly all around.
Volunteer managers are amazing individuals who impact the lives of so many people from clients to volunteers to family and friends to other staff members. While we usually humbly state that we don’t need praise to function, we too, are human and sometimes feel under valued by circumstances around us. Don’t let it block your self-worth.
In the words of a volunteer, “I owe so much to my volunteer coordinator. She trained me, spent time with me and showed me the way. She was patient and kind and now I am so proud of the work I do. I am a better person because of her.”
Let’s all unleash our potential by focusing on the positive instead of letting the blockholm syndrome define who we are.