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I Repeat Why are Volunteer Managers So Darned Repetitive

“See you then!”

Oh those 3 innocent words, words we utter in good faith. We’ve made sure the assignment is solid, and we’ve handpicked the volunteer. What could go wrong?

Yuri, a new volunteer manager excitedly forwarded the city council’s emailed invitation to her volunteer, Chase. He had been chosen to receive the Samuel P. Goldman annual award for charitable work.

Yuri sent the email, adding that she would meet Chase there. She arrived early that day and took a seat in the audience. When the council meeting got underway, Yuri kept glancing towards the door, watching for Chase. With growing unease, she finally tiptoed out of the room and stood in the outer hall, where she pulled out her address book, and dialed Chase’s number. “Where are you?” She whispered into the phone.

“I’m here, at the Goldman Center,” Chase answered, “and there’s no one around. Where are you?”

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, crap. The email she had forwarded wasn’t particularly clear on details. Chase had assumed that the award ceremony would take place at the Goldman building instead of the city council chamber. Since it was too late for him to get there on time, Yuri accepted the award in Chase’s absence, all the while kicking herself. Not only was there a missed photo opportunity, there was the disappointed council and now she had a dejected volunteer who had lost a chance to be recognized for his hard work. It was a trifecta of volunteer management disasters.

One lifelong habit learned the hard way from managing volunteers is to be clear and repeat, as often as necessary. Even now, my emails or conversations with friends contain the repetition I developed as a volunteer manager.

“Hi, Linda, thanks so much, it sounds like fun, would love to get together. I’ll see you next Tuesday the 27th at 3pm at Barnaby’s, the one on Mission street near the stadium. I’ll grab a table if I’m early and let the hostess know you are coming. It’s not a shiny, new, bold idea, but in the back of my mind I can still see the time I arrived at the county building while everyone was at the district court building for the event, over thirty miles away.  Yeah, missed my volunteer’s naturalization ceremony as a new US citizen. Can’t get that back.

When a pattern of miscommunications pile up, (and it doesn’t matter whose ‘fault’ it is, it just matters that it happens) we, volunteer managers quickly develop a system to prevent miscues and false assumptions. Usually, the system entails:

  • transcribing the volunteer task, repeating it, then emailing the requestor with the details to make sure we have all the correct facts.
  • emphasising each detail with the volunteer, making sure that time, date, place, length of task, expectations and any particulars such as “the front door will be locked, go around to the side entrance,” is understood.
  • repeating the volunteer confirmation back to the requestor, usually by email, with the added benefit of asking for any changes they may have neglected to pass along.
  • a reminder to the volunteer, highlighting the details again, and asking if there are any questions or issues.
  • framing conversations and correspondance to highlight necessary details.

It only takes a few disasters to force us to find a better way. While repetition may seem old school, it can mean the difference between smooth volunteer engagement and costly missed opportunities or errors.

Luckily, technology helps.

Calendar reminders to “check with Giovanni for Wednesday’s event” aids in the process, especially when a volunteer agrees to an assignment more than a few days out.

Blast emails about a large event with clear, emphasized details in bold can be sent daily, right up to the event, with each new email eliminating fluff and narrowing down to time and place.

A volunteer making “reminder calls” can intercept problems before they occur. They can go over details with the volunteers or leave messages reiterating the particulars.  When the assignment or event is over, the volunteer can then make “feedback” calls and ask for future availability.

Good intentions cannot guarantee success. Instead, the habit of clearly stating directions, and repeated checking in may be cumbersome up front, but in the end, it saves us from embarrassment and disastrous outcomes. And when it becomes a routine habit, it doesn’t take much time at all.

Yep, sometimes old school has its advantages.