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derailed train

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.