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I remember the day my husband gleefully arrived home from work with three homeless and abandoned kittens. He just beamed when the kids scooped them up and cuddled each mewing fluff ball of pending responsibility. Yes, that moment of blissful love and connection comes with a hefty requirement attached for they will grow to be cats and require a life-long commitment.

Fortunately, volunteer managers don’t bring volunteers home. (Well, sorry, but I will throw a fellow volunteer coordinator under the bus and mention that she began to take a recently widowed volunteer into her home to have dinner with her and her family and it spiraled out of control from there.)
But, other than physically, do we symbolically bring our volunteers home when we start friending them on social media? And what are the implications for being connected to our volunteers beyond the workplace?
Not too long ago, volunteer coordinator Tami was so stressed that she burst into tears. “I had this huge event that I worked months on getting the best volunteers for and on the day of the event, when I arrived and asked where our lead volunteer Agnes was, the other volunteers told me that Agnes had to go out-of-town last-minute with her husband. I just about died! I asked the volunteers why Agnes didn’t call me to let me know and they said that Agnes had posted it on social media and probably assumed I knew. What a horrible day that was trying to fill in for Agnes while doing all my other tasks. It was a day I never want to repeat.”
Or how about Lena, who spent so much time involved in her volunteers lives beyond their volunteering that her evenings were spent liking posts and commenting on cute photos of Granddogs’ shenanigans.
Or Jessup, who befriended so many volunteers on social media that he started following anyone who followed him in case he might snub one of his volunteers and ended up with a hacked account .
Or Marley who learned one of his volunteers was cheating on his partner while innocently going through posts.

Hmmm, it’s a great big involved world out there, so what do we do, ban all volunteers from interacting with us after hours? No, of course not, that’s not only unreasonable, it’s just not us. We care about our volunteers and realize that what happens in their lives impacts their volunteering. We don’t wish to be the cold authoritarian manager and so we come to respect volunteers as they relate to us: Associates, neighbors, peers, fellow do-gooders, and yes, friends. Then the question becomes, can we keep these relationships separate and confined to working hours?
Connecting with volunteers on personal social media is like bringing home that first soft and warm innocent-eyed waif. But imagine bringing home 20 or 50 or 100 little caterwauling waifs. There are laws against this sort of thing for a reason. Here are a few things to consider when connecting on social media with volunteers:

How is official information communicated? Do your volunteers rightfully think that you know they will not be able to make their volunteer committment because they posted their illness or vacation on social media? Having a policy in place on how official volunteer absences are communicated will eliminate the chaos of word of mouth or “I just figured you knew” scenarios.

Will every volunteer be treated in the same manner on social media? What about those volunteers who don’t subscribe to social media or rarely post their children’s first soccer game or their latest duck in puff pastry with pomegranate red wine reduction recipe? Will they feel left out? What about the volunteer who posts every detail of their lives? How will you pick and choose which posts to like?

How much valuable time and precious energy do you spend on keeping up with volunteers’ personal lives? Let’s face it, we are human and only have so much energy to expend on our jobs, our families, our friends, our interests, our education, our health and our well-being. When we start spending more and more time on keeping up with volunteer pursuits outside of volunteering, what aspect of our lives are we cheating?

Is it possible that your social media connection can become a place to publicly whine or complain? If you are always “available” via social media, why wouldn’t a volunteer message you or worse, post a complaint? Then will other volunteers chime in until you have some real or imagined dirty laundry aired for everyone, including potential volunteers, board members, other staff and administration to see?

What we do know can hurt us: Too much information can color the way we view our volunteers. What are their political or religious beliefs? How do they treat their family and friends? What are their attitudes towards other people and topical issues? Would this knowledge make us think more or less of them and how do we handle that?

How much of our personal lives do we want our volunteers to know? Social media is a two-way street. Do we want our volunteers to know about the escapades we share with our close friends?

How do we view our role as a volunteer manager? Are we friendly supervisors, good buddies, caring peers, empathetic coaches or a bit of all? In reality, we are in charge and we manage the volunteers’ experiences. The more professional our approach, the better the experience for all volunteers.

Next time you want to bring that adorable little cuddly volunteer home with you, just keep in mind there are serious commitments and pitfalls associated with that warm and caring intention. Always striving to keep professional relationships with volunteers not only benefits them, it benefits us as well.

Unless you really want a household full of cats.