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Hal, a new volunteer manager was feeling pretty good about his recent volunteer recruitment campaign when his supervisor stopped by for a chat. It seems that several senior managers from his organization had just returned from a national conference and they brought back handouts from all of the sessions, including the ones they did not attend. “I’ve got a handout for you here,” Hal’s supervisor said to him, “from the volunteer session. I’d like you to read this over, then call the presenter to learn more about her program and try to implement her recruitment method. I think it would help you.”

Hal took the handout from the presentation entitled “Six Easy Steps to Recruiting Skilled Volunteers With Staying Power” and read the power point slides. He had heard about some of the recruitment methods before, and was in the process of implementing them, but he called anyway. The presenter was pleased that someone wanted to hear more about her program and she answered Hal’s questions. When Hal explained to his supervisor that he was in the process of implementing many of the presenter’s suggestions, his supervisor quipped, “then why don’t we have enough volunteers?”

Wait for it, my head’s going to explode! So, ok, how did one little word cause this disconnect between Hal and his supervisor? Did you spot that fiend in the title of the volunteer management presentation?

Six Easy Steps to Recruiting Skilled Volunteers With Staying Power.

Did you see it? That slimy, rotten word that absolutely makes volunteer managers’ jobs a living nightmare? The evil word is easy.  Or substitute these similar back-stabbing words: Tried and true, sure-fire, simple, foolproof, fail-safe, reliable.

My head is calming down now. Why would any decent volunteer expert do that to the rest of us? I wondered that the first time I attended a conference. Fresh faced and eager to learn from experienced volunteer managers, I sucked up the “do this and results will magically appear,” presentation like a Mai Tai on a Friday afternoon. Then I went out and tried to quickly install the methods that promised guaranteed results and failed.  I really, honestly thought I was a complete dimwit because the magic results were anything but magic. (Unless you consider the fact that after I pieced my skull together, I woke up pretty quickly to reality, but that wasn’t their intent, was it?)

We all have a program or method that has worked out well and we want to share that with each other. That’s awesome and we need to learn from one another. But to imply that the program we’ve created will be a “breeze” to implement only makes other volunteer managers’ heads blow up, because organizational staff who do not fully understand all the skills involved in obtaining, training and retaining volunteers will key onto the words that imply managing volunteers is a “snap.”

Sorry to rant here, but this has had my temples throbbing for years and years and I still see these treacherous words, in conference session titles, and in internet articles. Besides, my question for the presenter or author is: Why would you want to sell yourself short anyway? Why give the impression that the work you are presenting is without sweat and long hours? I’ll bet you worked your tail off to implement your methods, so why not say so?

I remember raising my hand and asking questions about the challenges and pitfalls of presenters’ programs and some would just smile and not want to talk about it, and others would reluctantly open up and let the audience know that their programs were fraught with difficulties. How refreshing.

So, instead of using simplistic words, how about we all give a nod to the complexities of volunteer engagement? Can we not term our offerings a bit more realistically? Instead of using the head-blow upping word easy or any of its evil twins, why can’t we use words like skilled, ambitious, or advanced, complex, or even “God awful hard but worth it?” Why would we ever give the impression that cultivating a volunteer force is simple?

We know that volunteer management isn’t about tea parties and a few “easy” phone calls. So if instead it’s about real skills and thought and hard, hard work, let’s make sure we don’t give the wrong impression. (And by doing so, keep our heads intact).

-Meridian (thanks, going to get a Mai Tai now)