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What happens when staff doesn’t like a volunteer? Does the volunteer quietly quit because they never get called or do staff begrudgingly put up with a volunteer they dislike and work suffers? What can we, the volunteer program leader do in these situations?

A leader of volunteers, who is a good friend and colleague recently shared this experience with me:

I remember one of our volunteers, Steven. Staff would run the other way when Steven came in because Steven always had an idea or a plan to improve our organization and the way we operated. It would frustrate already overworked staff to listen to all these critical ideas.

But what they didn’t know about Steven was he would take the assignments other volunteers wouldn’t take. He actually volunteered for a lot of shifts, ones that needed filling. He was both annoying and indispensable at the same time.

It was exhausting, knowing how dependable Steven was and yet being frustrated at his frequent sharing of plans to improve our organization. But then one day, a solution came in a most unexpected way.

A staff member, Allie who was in charge of a large project involving the creation of a detailed cataloging system needed volunteer help. The assignment meant working in a basement on a very cranky machine. Most volunteers wouldn’t want to tackle such a cumbersome project in a dingy basement so I thought of Steven. I asked my boss if I could approach him with the proposal and fortunately, she agreed.

The staff member in charge of the project was willing to give Steven a try so I approached him, saying, “look, Steven, saying no is ok. I’m asking you to work on a temperamental machine in a basement here, but it is crucial work that needs to be done.”

To my surprise, Steven replied, “I would love to do that.” And the interesting thing that happened, was Steven got to see behind the scenes at our organization and by working directly with staff, began to realize how little time they had for all these ideas and projects he had been pushing on them.

I knew that pairing Steven with this assignment was a success when all on his own, he recruited another one of our volunteers to help with the project. I even overheard him one day pipe up when hearing a group of volunteers grouse about how slow it was taking to get an answer to a question and say, “you don’t realize how busy the staff is here.”

With Steven I knew that I could either sit back and just let him drive me crazy or I could understand how much he cared about the mission. I realized his complaints and ideas came from his desire to support our mission, not from some need to complain.

I remembered something I heard from a very wise peer that stuck with me: “That one unhappy worker might be the lone voice in the wilderness telling us something we need to hear. We need to ask: Why are they miserable? Maybe, they have a point.”

When dealing with complaining volunteers, we have to examine whether or not it is the message or the way it is presented that irks us. And staff must realize that a volunteer’s role is not to make staff happy.

Just as every staff member needs direction from their supervisors, volunteers need direction from the person supervising them. We can’t expect volunteers to read our minds, so as leaders of volunteer programs, we need to train staff and show them that volunteering is a two-way street. That’s where the successes lie.

So, from this experience, we know we can salvage a staff/volunteer relationship that has soured. Let’s look at the volunteer manager toolbox and pick out some tools that work in these types of situations:

Mediation: One of the most important tools a volunteer manager possesses. Stepping back and thinking about three basic things helps us to mediate.

  1. What is the best outcome for our mission?
  2. How will volunteer A satisfactorily arrive at the outcome?
  3. How will staff member B satisfactorily arrive at the outcome?

By focusing on outcome, (a capable volunteer and a reasonable staff member will find a way to work together to further mission goals) we can then create a mediation plan.

Look for the interests of each party. For a volunteer, it may be they believe they have good ideas and need to be heard. For a staff member, it may simply be they need quiet time to get their work done. How then, can these two interests be addressed to the satisfaction of each party?

Picture a continuum: On one end the staff member would give the volunteer complete attention at all times. On the other end the volunteer would work in silence at all times. Begin to move the ends toward the middle-what would that look like? Maybe staff could spend 5 minutes with the volunteer when they arrive and update the volunteer while listening to any new thoughts. Maybe the volunteer could be instructed to bring all new ideas to the volunteer manager who would present the ideas in official ways.

The point is to craft the movement of the two sides towards one another, keeping the mission as the goal.

Story crafting: A skill that serves volunteer managers well. In the above Steven story, our volunteer manager deftly created a story. By thinking of volunteers and staff members as stars of a story, we can more clearly ‘write’ the ending in our heads. We can envision ‘reading’ that volunteer Steven was paired with staff member Allie which resulted in a mutually beneficial relationship. It helps us to step back from the situation and look at it logically with a positive outcome or ending in mind.

Another use of story crafting is to present each side in mediation with the story of the other side’s point of view. Telling Steven how much work needed to be done was a story meant to educate him on the enormous work load on staff. Telling Allie how volunteer Steven would take assignments no one else would take was a story meant to inform Allie that Steven was committed to getting the job done.

Positive identification: The tool volunteer managers use daily. Let’s look at Steven’s success story. How did staff view Steven? They saw him as a hypercritical, over-simplifying volunteer who continually offered up unwanted ‘solutions’ to problems that either did not exist or were being addressed in other ways. What did they not see? They did not see Steven’s passion for the mission, his willingness to help in any manner, nor his desire to more fully understand organizational workings.

Tapping into volunteer’s motivations will yield clues to their behavior. Maybe the needy volunteer just went through something tragic and is hurting. Maybe the talkative volunteer is isolated. As volunteer managers, we can humanize our volunteers so that staff sees them as more than just temporary help. We can highlight the volunteer’s character by sharing the positives we witness. Sometimes our humanization needs to use the word ‘but.’ For example:

Volunteer Millie lost her husband of 45 years a few months ago and is a little raw but she is so grateful for her husband’s care that she is committed to learning our system so she can further our work. She wants to be a help to us, not a burden.

Volunteer Asher lost his job due to cutbacks but he is passionate about helping end hunger and actually considers this an opportunity to make a difference in the world. He says he feels privileged to learn from our staff.

Matching: The volunteer manager tool that is always sharp. By pairing Steven with staff insiders, he was able to see first hand how overburdened staff were. He was able to integrate into the bigger picture and thus became a champion for not only the mission, but for the very staff that had rebuffed him before. And by choosing a staff member who was willing to work with Steven and most likely had a personality that would benefit Steven, our volunteer manager made a successful match.

Now here is the really interesting part in all of this. Experts say that behavior is the outward expression of attitudes, but that if behaviors are modified, attitudes can change. Look at the Steven example. His attitude changed. And as his behavior changes, staff’s attitude towards him and possibly other volunteers will slowly change as well. So, if we can mediate behavior changes in staff and volunteers, we may just end up with attitude changes.

Next time: Part 3. Laying the groundwork for volunteer engagement that takes into consideration personalities, character, attitudes and behavior.