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Don't Believe Your Press Too Much

When I attended my first peer group meeting for volunteer managers, there was a moment that stopped me in my tracks.  During the break, a few volunteer managers were sharing volunteer stories and I overheard one of them remark, “yes, that happens to me too. One of my volunteers told me that I was so amazing and actually said that my orientation changed her life.”

“Whaaaaaat??????” Poof, my brain exploded.

Their volunteers were saying the exact same wonderful things about them that my volunteers were saying about me. How was this possible? I wasn’t special? I wasn’t the greatest volunteer manager ever? There were, (gasp) others?

What a wake-up call. My little piñata of secret self-importance burst open with one whack of the reality stick. But as I dejectedly swept up all those sweet volunteer comments that were like piñata candy from the floor, I started thinking about what all that meant.

It meant I wasn’t the best volunteer manager to ever walk the earth. It meant my volunteer programs weren’t the greatest thing to happen in the history of volunteerism.

It meant that I was taking my job way too personally. I was personalizing volunteer enthusiasm.

That day, I realized that I was the representative of my organization which meant that I was the face, the voice, the go-to symbol of all the good my organization stood for. The volunteers were praising me because they loved the work.

Because here’s the thing about taking comments too personally. One day we’re buoyed by a volunteer’s glowing comments and the next day we’re dragged down by a careless remark from a staff member who didn’t get enough volunteers for a task. It can become this gigantic disconnect in our heads: How come the volunteers think I’m so great and yet, staff just treats me like I’m on a lower rung?

Becoming emotionally self-absorbed in our work is exhausting and it corrupts the way we view our job performance. Taking everything personally clouds the ability to see the bigger picture. When the work becomes personal, we become guarded and unable to view challenges with logic. We defend more, complain more, and close ourselves off more. We begin to see each positive comment as personal affirmation and each negative comment as hurtful. We lose the ability to see things clearly.

But you know what? Letting go of the personal and instead, representing the mission and the impactful volunteer work is actually so much more satisfying than slogging through all that heavy personal junk anyway. And you get to go home at night.

So, what to do when volunteers tell you that you’re the best thing since sliced bread? Firstly, thank them of course. But their comments can actually present an opportunity to learn more about the things you are doing that are working and going well.

A few follow-up questions can uncover the specific reasons that volunteers gush over you and their work:

  • “What part of the training did you find so helpful? How did that speak to you?”
  • “Can you tell me more about why you find this work so fulfilling? What elements of the work are directly impacting you?
  • “How did the conversations you and I had in private help you become a better volunteer? What exactly did I say that made you feel like you can do this?”
  • “What words did I use during the interview that made you want to volunteer?”
  • “What is it about the atmosphere here that makes you feel so productive?”

A comment such as, “I’m so glad I volunteered here, this is the best day ever,” sums up a pinnacle moment that consists of a lot of moving parts. That smile of triumph on a volunteer’s face or their respectful hush when something profound occurs is the culmination of factors working together to make a perfect volunteer moment.

While it feels really good to hear the wonderful compliments from our volunteers, it can also be highly instructive. We already know that asking an unhappy volunteer the specifics of what went wrong helps us to learn and adjust for next time. In that same vein, asking for the specifics of what is going right can also be helpful and give us solid blocks to build upon.

Not being the greatest volunteer manager in the world isn’t so awful. It’s actually kind of nice to know there are lots of them out there.