Mission centric volunteer engagement, non-profit, volunteer management, volunteer tasks, volunteering, volunteers
Albert Einstein is widely credited with this quote:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Vern sat down and dropped his notepad on the desk. The meeting had not gone as planned, but then, Vern knew it wouldn’t. He’d gathered his volunteers, served them coffee and donuts and explained the new task to them. He mustered up the enthusiasm to pitch the task and at times, came close to begging. He used phrases like, “we really need,” and “if you could just,” but the words were vinegar on his tongue.
Asking his volunteers to give more of their time to a task he knew they had no interest in, felt like he was betraying them. A few of the volunteers felt sorry for Vern and even though they were already giving a good chunk of time to client related volunteering, they promised to give the task a try. They told Vern that the only reason they agreed to try was because they wanted to support him. They appreciated how Vern had always treated them with respect, how he shared impact with them and how he matched them to assignments that utilized their skill-sets. The volunteers knew that if they did not say yes, Vern would get into trouble.
Vern put his head in his hands. It wasn’t fair to treat the volunteers like pawns in a chess game. It wasn’t fair to ask them to do something they weren’t invested in. It wasn’t fair to the clients, because now, those volunteers were devoting their time to a meaningless task which kept them from their mission centric volunteering.
This scenario, the one that Vern endured, plays out day after day in organizations everywhere. It is the scenario in which organizational upper management, without the input of the volunteer manager, decides to enlist volunteer help in a task that either a) staff involvement has decreased or b) a new initiative has been created and the “grunt work” needs to be completed or c) a staff member or department has complained that they are overworked and they want to offload the minutia on volunteers.
So, what is so wrong with that? After all, that’s what volunteers are here for, to do our bidding, right?
Well, let’s just count the ways this is the perfect example of organizational insanity:
- It sends a message to volunteers. Volunteers are not easily duped. Every action an organization takes sends volunteers a message. How many messages that say, “you are nothing more than tools to be used at our discretion” are sent before volunteers leave? Oh, and tell their friends?
- It puts the volunteer manager in a terrible position. It reduces the VM to selling a task to volunteers instead of engaging them in ways that excite their passion for the work. It undermines the VM and all the effort in laying a foundation of volunteer trust. Poof! Out the window goes everything the VM has told the volunteers about how the organization is committed to integrating volunteers into mission critical work.
- It robs clients of the help we promise them on our slick brochures. Let’s do the math on this. 50 mission centric volunteers – 20 volunteers diverted to meaningless tasks = not 50 mission centric volunteers, that’s for sure. Oh, and let’s do complicated math while we’re at it. 50 mission centric volunteers – 20 volunteers diverted to meaningless tasks x number of volunteers who don’t like the bait and switch thing happening = not many mission centric volunteers at all.
- It moves us away from the mission. What are we in existence for? To perpetuate and grow? To pad our coffers? To increase our influence? Growing, padding the coffers and increasing influence are not wrong, in and of themselves, but when they become goals instead of secondary goals for supporting the mission, then we’ve become something unrecognizable to our volunteers. And don’t forget, volunteers are not easily duped.
- It establishes a self-defeating pattern. When volunteers say yes out of a sense that the volunteer manager will suffer consequences instead of because they want to do the task, a self-defeating pattern is set. If a few volunteers reluctantly say yes, then more meaningless requests will follow, because it appears that volunteers are happily agreeing to do anything. It becomes much more difficult to explain volunteer objections if volunteers agree to assignments they feel pressured to accept.
- It keeps us frozen in outmoded models. When we engage volunteers in the same tired manner from years ago, we will see our volunteer numbers drop.
- It wastes everyone’s’ time. Volunteer managers have limited time. Volunteers give limited time. Why are we wasting it with tasks that drive volunteers away?
- It sends a message to the volunteer manager. The message from upper management says, “you are nothing more than a mouthpiece, a carnival barker, a conduit for our demands. The skills and time you invest in our volunteers mean little to us.”
What can a volunteer manager do? Besides quit?
- Don’t beg volunteers. Offer any task or request as an option. Check your emotions at the door. After all, it is up to the volunteers and we’ve all been surprised by volunteers who are willing to do something we never imagined them wanting to do. But, on the flip side, don’t buy into the “get them to do it” nonsense and don’t share your frustrations with the volunteers. They will say yes because they like you and don’t want to see you get in trouble. And then, the self-defeating pattern is set.
- Capture volunteers’ objections. Write them down to give to those requesting the task. “that’s not something I’m interested in,” or “it doesn’t fit my needs, or time-frame or skills,” are phrases that show the reason a volunteer is declining the task.
- Ask the person(s) requesting the task to present it to the volunteers. Take yourself out of the middle.
- Remind senior management that you are there to engage volunteers, not use them. Share engagement successes and failures in order to support your theories and illustrate the difference between mission centric volunteering and tasks.
Organizations thrive with engaged volunteers and while it may seem harmless to organizational senior management to ask volunteers to do whatever we want them to do, it actually sends a message. And not a very good one.
We must take two additional and crucial things into consideration when creating volunteer tasks. How does it impact the mission and how does it impact the volunteer? Without mission centric volunteering, tasks are meaningless chores that sap the volunteer soul. And wear them out. And drive them away.
What’s the definition of organizational insanity?
Not listening to nor respecting the insight of the volunteer manager.
Stacy Ashton said:
I haven’t found this to be a dilemma in my organization. There are people who are deeply interested in direct service to clients, but there are also many people interested in administrative work – some to gain work experience, but many because organization is their passion.
The volunteers who line up for the administrative work (and they do line up; my list of volunteers seeking administrative work is longer than the list of volunteers seeking “client-centered” work) see themselves as direct partners to staff. They are firsthand witnesses to how hard staff work, and they see their contribution as freeing up staff time to focus on longer-term activities that they can contribute to in short bursts of time, but wouldn’t be able to accomplish themselves unless they volunteered full-time. The administrative work of keeping an organization well-funded, compliant with all the laws of the land, and on top of the details that allow us to be client-focused is a beautiful and meaningful thing to these volunteers.
A big part of my role is to interpret for both staff and volunteers the “why” behind any task, in case it’s not self-evident. Example: we have a newsletter mail-out in which volunteers prepare the mailings, with special attention to those families who don’t want to receive materials with our logo on the return address, because for some people living with dementia, seeing a letter from the Alzheimer Society is a stress trigger.
I personally love that detail in our process. I love how it takes a mundane task and makes it all about the families we serve. So I point that out to volunteers and staff, and it serves both to reinforce the detail-orientation of their work, and remind them that every administrative task has at its core the desire to make life easier for people living with dementia and their care partners.
It’s a rare task that I can’t trace to a benefit to clients – any task that strengthens the organization benefits clients as long as we are focused on using the organization as a tool to benefit clients. If I think a task is meaningless, it’s usually because my morale is on the fritz – and it’s my volunteers who turn around and tell me how important their work is.
Hi Stacy and thanks so much for commenting, it’s so great to hear that your volunteer positions have real impact on your mission. And you’re absolutely correct that volunteers can want to do tasks we may feel are beneath them so keeping personal feelings out of the offering is crucial. That’s why we hope volunteers accept tasks because they feel they are contributing and not because they feel pressured. Thanks again!
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