charities, managing volunteers, non-profit, organizations, part time volunteer manager, volunteer, volunteer coordinator, volunteer manager, volunteer retention, volunteering, volunteers
While attending a recent staff meeting, Beth, the volunteer coordinator for a mid-sized hospital, took note of the meeting tone. “It was really interesting to watch,” she said, “because there was this staff member who was singled out for going above and beyond. He’s a social worker who bought food for a patient’s family and delivered it to their home. The CEO spoke glowingly of the social worker’s commitment to helping our patients. And while I applaud him for his creative way to do his job, I mentally compared his actions to our code of conduct. According to the code, he broke the rules. It made me wonder what or who the rules are for and for those of us who follow the rules, are we just mediocre employees? And how do I set rules for our volunteers when we applaud behavior that oversteps boundaries?”
Hmm, that is a paradox and begs the question: How do we encourage volunteers to be creative, innovative, flexible, imaginative, out of the box thinkers without simultaneously giving them the go ahead to break all rules?
“I had that experience,” said Craig, a volunteer manager at a museum. “We had this volunteer, Bethany, who put in a lot of hours behind the scenes. She was a dynamo with lots of ideas who was encouraged to create new programs by the staff that worked with her. So one day, we all were shocked to learn that she had her own social media account that she presented as an official arm of our museum. Bethany was dispensing all types of misinformation and asking for donations on her own. It was a horrible mess and I was blamed for not over seeing her more closely. She was dismissed and I became kind of “gun-shy” with the rest of our volunteers.” Craig paused. “While I still want to see our volunteers take initiative, I don’t want another Bethany. I don’t want them to think that the sky’s the limit. I mean, none of us has that kind of carte blanche.”
There’s a teeny tiny thin line between volunteers taking initiative and being called up before the executive director because a volunteer started their own slush fund. Ultimately, we are often blamed for any volunteer who goes off our rails. So what are the ways that volunteers might bend the rules? I’m betting you’ve experienced these scenarios:
A volunteer argues with you because he finds a rule inhibiting and wants you to look the other way. He argues that the rule is stupid and gives you examples as to how it was never meant to be followed.
A volunteer creates programs or initiatives on her own, utilizing your organization’s name. She is convinced that your organization is just being stubborn by refusing to incorporate her “Walk Across America” fundraiser.
A long term volunteer seldom checks in, and is very cagey about his duties. Staff doesn’t really know what he is doing in client’s homes either. He waves off any inquiries by asking, “Don’t you trust me?”
On the other hand though, you’ve probably experienced these scenarios as well:
A volunteer brings in a fabulous idea and would like to implement it. This volunteer is one of your best, on time, committed, transparent and reasonable.
A new volunteer has an unusual skill that triggers creative thoughts in your head.
A volunteer has experience in an area that you know would enhance your mission and you’ve read about other similar organizations successfully utilizing these types of volunteers.
This conundrum has been referred to in the Human Resources world as the “Initiative Paradox”. We too, often are faced with the paradox of encouraging inventiveness while trying to remain rule bound. So, how can we reasonably advance creativity? It all boils down to communication and due diligence on our part. In other words, a big heap of extra work for us.
Volunteers who are not willing to properly report on their creative endeavors should send up a huge red flag. Any volunteer who dismisses your need to know or tries to make you feel like a busy body is not a volunteer who plays by the rules. You are after all, the volunteer’s supervisor and you must keep abreast of their actions, provide direction and feedback while doing all your other tasks.
Communication goes two ways. When we honestly communicate with our volunteers and tell them why they can’t move a client into their home, we are not only considerate of their feelings, we reinforce their importance as a team member. We can then guide them to remaining a meaningful help to their client while keeping boundaries and everyone’s sanity intact.
Our volunteers bring a wealth of talent, skills and ingenuity to our organizations. With two-way communication, due diligence, and a heap load of old fashioned extra work, our volunteers’ creative initiatives will flourish.
Francesca Gino, coauthor with Dan Ariely of Duke University, describes part of the study in Psychology Today: Inducing a “casual” mindset, with cues that encouraged flexibitlity—with words like original, novel, and imaginative—increased the odds of cheating at a game.
Great piece! I love this question and it is one that we face all the time. I remember attending an ethics and boundaries session at my work place ( a large healthcare facility). As the speaker went through a long list of scenarios asking for example “is it crossing a boundary for a staff person to attend a patients funeral? Would it be wrong for a staff person to take an interest in a home support patient, helping them to sell their home crafted scarves and hats? Or what about driving a patient home?” I silently listened and wondered – really does anyone have to even second guess themselves with any of these situations. If it was one of my volunteers the answer in ever case would be NO! Boundaries are not set to limit nor are they be cruel. We set boundaries to protect our volunteers and to know where the line is and when it has been crossed. I always say it isn’t that you can’t make an exception to a rule, but you must first know the rules! As the session came to a conclusion I was chatting with a social worker ( paid staff). She asked if I found the session helpful as “it must be so hard with volunteers and boundaries”. I was surprised and said not it isn’t hard at all. We set out the boundary when they start and we make sure they stay within them. If there is a problem we address it and if it can not be corrected we will if necessary dismiss the volunteer. She was shocked. I too was shocked when she questioned the ability of volunteers to assess or accept boundaries especialy when she then told me story after story of how she and other social workers went as in your piece “above and beyond” to support patients – in ways that to my mind were very much outside of the boundary. It seems that to often people assume that because they are a “professional” the rules and boundary can be bent because “they know what they are doing”. I find it frustrating however that they assume that a volunteer can’t manage or understand this concept and that we must simply let them run amuck!
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Thank you Tina for sharing your experience with us. I am nodding my head because I have found that same frustrating attitude!. Professionals (paid staff) assume that they know best and shiver when contemplating a volunteer being able to stay within bounds. Actually, as you said, it is often the opposite case!
But it sounds like you have established a wonderful rapport with your volunteers and have given them clear boundaries and expectations. Your professional approach to managing and leading volunteers shows that volunteers are willing to listen and play by the rules.
As an aside, I used to ask the question, “and how many ‘formal incidents of complaints’ did we have regarding volunteers last month versus staff?” I always got a shocked, yet enlightened look.
Sue Hine said:
Yup – been there, faced that situation, and listened to the stories from other organisations. Two principles: know the volunteers, and step in early when a transgression occurs. Oh, and make sure other staff know this too!
An important post Meridian.
Thanks Sue! You are right, it is an important topic. Volunteer managers are challenged with overseeing programs staffed with volunteers who, unlike paid staff, cannot be threatened with loss of income. It takes much more work and many more people skills to guide volunteers. Kudos to volunteer managers everywhere!
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