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photo of helicopter on flight

Photo by Alex Broski on Pexels.com

Yvonne looked at her watch. “Oh my gosh, it’s 12:30, I have to get up there.” She hastily threw the rest of her lunch away, closed her office door and headed upstairs to the workroom. Her volunteer, Angie was just settling in for her Thursday afternoon work recording client surveys. Angie picked up the rubber banded stack and opened the computer program on the aging desktop.

“Hey, Yvonne, how are you?” Angie asked. This corner of the workroom, designated for volunteers was quiet, a bit dark, since the clouds outside threatened rain.

“Great, now that you’re here.” Yvonne turned on the lamp a few feet from the desk. Do you have everything you need?”

“I think so,” Angie said, looking around. “I’m not sure if all the new surveys are here, but I can work with these.”

“Oh,” Yvonne put her hand on Angie’s shoulder. “I’ll go find out where the new ones are and bring them to you.” She headed back to her office. After several phone calls, Yvonne tracked Garth in compliance down and was able to retrieve the latest pack of surveys and bring them to Angie.

Helicopter volunteer management. When does making sure that volunteers are engaged border on hovering and intrusion?  When does the desire to give volunteers a meaningful experience devolve into swaddling them in bubble wrap?

We, volunteer managers can often walk an emotional tightrope when we “hand over” a volunteer to a department. We can feel like the typical proud parent, especially when we have spent precious emotional time cultivating a volunteer. We recruit with an impassioned plea. We interview with laser focus, zeroing in on the volunteer’s strengths and desires. We train with patience, allowing enough time and questions to ready the volunteer for greatness. We instill in them what a great experience they will have.

And unfortunately, we carry scars, too. We’ve turned over excellent and ready volunteers, only to see them leave due to being under utilized or given confusing directions or not contacted quickly enough. We see all our upfront work wasted, our emotional investment dashed and we think of “what could have been.”

Sometimes, we just want to pick our battles. We know that if we complain that certain staff members don’t take working with volunteers seriously, we will be rebuffed, or labeled “negative” by senior management. And so, we pick up the slack, or follow a volunteer about, making sure that he has everything he needs. And maybe it’s not even that. Maybe we realize that departments are just not going to cuddle our volunteers and that scares us a bit.

While we have the best interests of the volunteer and organization at heart, does helicopter volunteer management have its drawbacks? What might they be?

  • We perpetuate the stereotype that volunteers are low-skilled. By running around making everything ok, we send a message to the staff working with them that volunteers are not capable of doing the job without our help.
  • We create volunteer dependence. When we subtly say to our volunteers, “you need me in order to succeed,” we create a dependence on us and rob the volunteers of using their common sense and being able to forge a relationship with the departments they work for.
  • We use precious time better spent elsewhere. When we follow volunteers around, we miss opportunities to recruit other volunteers, or create new programs.

So, how can we let go of helicoptering?

  • Pull a new volunteer if a department doesn’t reach out to them within 3 days. Re-assign that volunteer to another department, or better yet, keep that volunteer and ask them to help you with your projects. Don’t chase a department, begging them to call the new volunteer. And don’t be so quick to get them another one, but explain that if they cannot contact new volunteers in a timely manner, then volunteers won’t wait.
  • Prepare volunteers as well as you can and give them instructions to call you if they need you.
  • Praise staff who work well with volunteers. Create awards for key staff, Trust the time it takes for them to forge relationships with volunteers.
  • Expect some amount of failure. Unfortunately, failures will occur. It’s important to not blame yourself, or to fall back into the helicopter mode.
  • Appoint seasoned volunteers as mentors. Ask them to take new volunteers under their wing and to check in with new volunteers often at first.
  • Gather feedback, especially from new volunteers. Prepare a “new volunteer report,” and include their comments, both positive and negative. Share with senior management.
  • Prepare departments individually to work with volunteers through a “new volunteer integration plan.”
  • Continue to educate staff. Create training through in-person, video, manuals, posted tips or cheat sheets. Help staff learn how to work with volunteers.

Our desire to hover over our volunteers is understandable since it is most often based on experiences we’ve had when helplessly watching volunteers leave due to being under utilized or due to the amount of effort we put into cultivating and readying new volunteers.

Instead of hovering, which simply band-aids any problems, we can begin to work on fixing our tendency to helicopter by addressing the underlying issue: What do we think happens to volunteers once they leave our cocoon of cultivation?

  • Do we assume they will be mistreated?
  • Do we assume they are not capable of handling themselves?
  • Do we think that once volunteers ask questions, or need something, they will be labeled “difficult?”
  • Do we secretly desire to be the only person who can get the best out of the volunteer?
  • Is it more than just doing our jobs for us?

We have to be careful in how we view volunteers and our role. If we operate in an “us vs. the rest of the organizational staff” bubble, then we are going to helicopter our volunteers. And we’re going to take any shortcomings by staff personally. Stress will follow us everywhere.

If, instead, we open up and begin to work within the system, (good and bad) we can start to clearly see where challenges lie and then, in a professional way, find solutions.

One of the areas that may need tweaking is in that zone where a new volunteer joins a department. Before a new volunteer is assigned, help your organization’s departments answer these questions and formulate a “new volunteer integration plan:”

  • Does my department have a plan in place for new volunteers?
  • Do we have a departmental staff member to mentor new volunteers?
  • Do we have someone designated to answer questions?
  • What is our course of action should the volunteer need more help than we can give or is not working out?
  • How do we help the new volunteer succeed, but continue to get our work done?

Once these questions are adequately addressed, a new volunteer should fit into a department more comfortably, thus removing a lot of the anxiety felt by the volunteer manager who placed the volunteer in good faith.

Cultivating volunteers is a highly emotional experience. We get caught up in the volunteers’ passion and desire and sometimes their issues. We want to help them. While noble, this desire to see them flourish can take an emotional toll on us.

Can we set aside our emotional investment and let them fly? Can we forcefully, yet professionally advocate for top-down respect for volunteers and their time? Can we partner with other departments to set up a system for integrating new volunteers? Can we meet out consequences in a solution-related manner when departments fail our volunteers?

We, volunteer managers invest heavily in our volunteers with our time, energy, mentoring, and passion. It’s time we also invest in our own emotional health by setting our organizations up to successfully integrate new volunteers so that we can refrain from helicoptering and move forward to recruiting and creating innovative programs.