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arms bonding closeness daylight

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One of the most prolific skills volunteer managers possess is the art of matching volunteers to not only roles, but to each other. We work hard to pair volunteer personalities that will mesh. We introduce hand picked volunteers to each other knowing that the team will “click.”

I remember getting all tingly when I dropped in on a team and they were chatting away, enjoying the camaraderie with one another. It’s a real perk to volunteering. You can almost hear the team bonding as each person joins. Click, click, click. But some teams will click so well that they shut new volunteers out.

Being a new volunteer is challenging, especially when dropped into an established group of volunteers. The group is an entity unto its own. The group has a rhythm, methods of interaction, unspoken rules and shared history.

Individually, the group members may be welcoming, but group dynamics dictate actions. So, what can we do to encourage socialization among volunteers but at the same time be cognizant of group think?

  1. 1. Do not just drop a new volunteer into the group unannounced, even if it is only temporary. I brought a new volunteer into a group one day and I thought I had walked into a meat locker, the response was so cold. Alert the group beforehand, talk to them in person, or call to keep from putting them on the spot.
    2. Play up about the awesomeness of the group to the newbie and vice versa. Let the group know that this new person considers it an honor to join such a fantastic well-functioning group.
    3. Appeal to the group’s sensibilities. Say to groups, “I wanted Doug to join you because he’s anxious to do well and I couldn’t think of a volunteer group better able to show him the ropes.”
    4. Make it temporary at first. Say, “Doug will be learning from you and I hope that he can join a group of his own once he’s ready.” Sometimes the group will just love the new person and take them in because the decision was their’s to make. If a newbie is not forced upon them, the group is more receptive.
    5. Check in often. Observing the dynamics of the group will tell you everything about how well the integration is working. Check in to let the group and the new volunteer know that you care about their success.
    6. Make it clear that the organization wants to be inclusive of new folks. I’ve used phrases like, “we don’t want to be the best kept secret,” and “we want everyone to be able to have a meaningful experience. With your help, we can do that with our new volunteers.”

But what if the group still rejects new volunteers? I’ve had groups that, when a member or two is out for extended periods of time get angry because the temporary volunteer doesn’t operate like good old Janet or Bob or whomever is missing. Then, when several newer volunteers tell me that they won’t work with that group because of the way they were treated, I know I have a problem, and it’s time for a volunteer intervention.

Have a chat about change (On their time and turf is best). Invest in members’ feelings. The members of the volunteer group may:

  • be worried that their missing member is sick and will never return.
  • be upset that their missing member is cavalierly being replaced.
  • think that new volunteers will come in and critique them.
  • feel like they’re not doing a good enough job, because if someone new needs to come in, what does that say about their competence?

Assure the group that you care about the missing member. Reinforce the group’s strengths. Make inclusion a source of accomplishment.

Here’s another part to this: Do we, volunteer managers sometimes play favorites without knowing it? It’s natural to engage volunteers who are “super volunteers,” but it’s our responsibility to look out for new people and integrate them into the team. How can we show that we are inclusive?

  • look at everyone in the room when speaking.
  • when chuckling over inside jokes, explain the context to everyone and make everyone part of the fun.
  • when discussing past events, give a synopsis of the event. (and heck, even long-term volunteers don’t know everything about every event)
  • introduce new volunteers in meetings.
  • when asking questions, call on new volunteers.
  • use welcoming and inclusive verbiage.
  • speak to accomplishing mission goals together.
  • enlist long-term volunteers into mentoring new volunteers.

There’s a delicate balance between “clicking” and “clique-ing” and integrating new volunteers into established volunteer groups takes nuanced persuasion.

But then again, ‘Nuanced Persuasion’ is our middle name.

This post is an update from a 2015 post, Click, click, clique