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“It’s just so frustrating,” volunteer manager Elsie says. “I have this volunteer, Abbie. She is without a doubt, the most talented artist I have ever met. She has a heart and soul full of giving. So why am I frustrated? Well, we have asked Abbie to create posters for our program and she readily agreed. Everyone here knows her talent and is excited to see her work, but Abbie is continually chatting up the staff, starting posters over, and in general just wasting time. I nicely try to remind her that we have deadlines and needs, but she continues to drag things on and on. I’m spending an awful lot of time with her because she brings so much potential to the table.”

Oh boy, the volunteer who frustrates. I’ve had them, and I’m sure you’ve had them too. I remember a volunteer who was so talented, but so needy, a volunteer who was so accomplished but so critical, one that was so loved by staff, but went so far off the rails.

One in particular stands out. I’ll call her Tanya. Tanya had this incredible ability to connect with family members. She could enter a room and be a trusted insider within an hour. Watching her engage with a devastated family was like standing at the edge of a powerful waterfall. The sheer energy was awesome.

But, away from a client and family, Tanya was all drama. Her life was upside down, inside out in a whirlpool of turmoil. For years, I was her sounding board. For years I soothed her spirit and dried her tears, all because I witnessed such potential in her. I would think, “if only she could stop fighting with her family,” or, “if only she wouldn’t look to stir the pot all the time and instead concentrate on her gifts.”

For years I hoped she would view her life the way she viewed her volunteering. I cared deeply about her and, just as we care about all of our volunteers, wanted to see her succeed, not only in volunteering, but in life. She had the personal tools to be great. It killed me to see her waste that by alienating and fighting with friends, peers and relatives.

One day Tanya turned on me. I left her to simmer and take time off and she came back as if nothing happened. But then, she turned on me again and this time stabbed me in the back. Fellow volunteer coordinators sympathized and refrained from saying, “I told you so,” even though they had warned me that this would happen.

Do I regret trying to mentor Tanya? No, I don’t. Am I bitter? No, honestly not, because I saw so many clients benefit from her extraordinary talent. Would I do it again? That’s a tough one. How do you look at a formidable waterfall and try to keep it from breaking the rocks below?

We all will occasionally interact with people who frustrate us because we are in the business of cultivating potential and it’s hard to watch incredibly talented people sabotage themselves. We care about our volunteers and wish them well in all aspects of their lives.

But maybe, part of the frustration is in trying to change people. Is that really our job? Is getting involved in a volunteer’s personality traits a part of developing great volunteers?

Now as I look back, I think that a great deal of my frustration with Tanya came from the idea that I could change her, make her a “better” person instead of accepting her for who she was and concentrating on her volunteering. And really, who am I to think that I could make her perfect, that I could control that energy?

So, I still feel a small pang of frustration, but really not as much with Tanya, but with myself for being more of an enabler than a volunteer manager.

My take away, I guess is to be careful, because sometimes, when standing on the mossy edge of that powerful waterfall, you can slip and fall in.