We, volunteer managers (Leaders of Volunteers) are misunderstood. Sigh, tell me something I haven’t heard over and over, right? I’ve bemoaned it for years like an alarm clock set for eternity.
So, in the fault derby of life, who can we pin this misunderstanding on? CEO’s? Non-profit staff? The volunteers themselves for being so darned accommodating? Media? Our parents, for not making us more lovable? The eternal great red fireball that is the mystery of life? (that’s where I pretty much assign blame to everything anyway so take that red fireball).
I’m only going to explore MY experience here. I cannot begin to imagine your experiences nor can I pretend to know your circumstances. And I’m sharing my experience in hopes that it may in some small way give you a perspective on yours.
I can look back now and say with confidence, that it was my fault. Much as I hate to admit it, it was. Why? Because I did not explain volunteers and volunteer management well enough. Not really. Oh yeah, I shook my fist at the sky and preached to everyone I happened upon (funny, they never liked it much when I followed them into the bathroom, still rambling on about volunteer needs, but that’s another story). I did formal educational pieces, pop-up vignettes, wrote emails, and trotted volunteers of every shape and size out (“see, this is volunteer Rhoda, she does so much for us but did you know that Rhoda is also studying biophysics?”) all aimed at “educating” staff on engaging volunteers. It felt like describing the ocean and its ecosystem by bringing in a kiddie pool as an example. Wait, I think I did a post on that….yep, it’s Volunteer Management: A Kiddie Pool or an Ocean. It felt overwhelming. How do you explain something so all encompassing?
But, there was one critical element that I missed and I’m hoping you don’t miss it too. I thought the magic of volunteer wonderfulness was obvious and that my job was to cattle prod others into acknowledging it. By prod I don’t mean physically shaking someone, although my fingers would twitch a lot when explaining for the tenth time that volunteers have lives outside our organization.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned. People don’t like being harped at (shocking, I know). They don’t like being hounded about their shortcomings. Non-profit people are overworked and incredibly busy. Being reminded that you “don’t get it” is an additional wearisome burden. And who responds well to an additional burden? ….(ok, I KNEW you were going to say “we always do!“)
What could I have done differently ? So much. That’s why I’ve spent the past couple of years sorting it out. What I discovered is the basis for my book, “The Disruptive Volunteer Manager.” (I know, it’s a shameless promotion, I suppose).
Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in our emotions that we can’t see the logic. We, volunteer managers work in complex human emotions like Reese’s works in peanut butter, so it’s no surprise our own emotions are at a continual heightened state. It’s hard to be empathetic all day long and turn off all those emotions in order to look at things logically. But we have to. For our own sanity. For our ability to get things done. For the good of our programs.
I finally began to turn off my own personal emotions and deal with things in a constructive manner. I functioned so much more efficiently and felt so much clearer for it. It really wasn’t all about me and my tender feelings. It was about advancing the program by separating my feelings from the work.
We have to take the people skills we employ when engaging volunteers and use them to engage our organizations. We have to treat fellow staff in the same engaging manner we use to interact with volunteers. How? By asking the same type of questions we ask when working with volunteers:
- What drives staff motivations? (and how can we use that to get our message across?)
- How does staff and management best receive a message? (and how can we frame our messages in the way they will welcome them?)
- How can we best show the benefits of volunteering? (and show how clients, staff and our organizations benefit from a strong volunteer presence.)
- How can we eliminate the us vs. them mindset and forge an alliance? (and establish a workable partnership within our organizations?)
When we look at where our frustrations come from, we then see where we need to enact different approaches. What is your reaction to these challenges?
- A volunteer showed up late for an assignment.
- The head of fund-raising and events never mentioned the volunteers who worked at the gala, but praised everyone else.
- A civic club is dragging their heels on a promise to volunteer.
- A staff member suggests that “volunteers are not qualified to work with clients.”
- You’ve arrived at a remote location to give a presentation to a large group of potential volunteers and find that the audio-visual equipment they provided does not work.
- In a meeting, you present stats on volunteer involvement and the CEO cuts you off because the meeting is running too long.
Ok, for me, scenarios 1, 3, and 5 are annoying. I’d laugh about them later and move on. But 2, 4 and 6……frustrating to the point where I’d let it fester and build up. I’d sneak into the restroom, hunched over and muttering, then come out of the stall and snap, “what are you lookin at,” at the person who just walked in. Which of the above challenges do you think would fester with you and why?
What happens when we emotionally cling to the idea that we are misunderstood? We can suffer from a confirmation bias which means we look at everything for evidence that supports our theory. Any time someone doesn’t praise volunteers becomes an “aha, it’s true, they don’t get it” moment. And this can push us further into feeling underappreciated. Then, our goal morphs into “force them to understand,” versus “help them understand.”
Which of these two strategies would a LoVols (leader of volunteers) employ with a volunteer who was struggling to fit into the program?
- Get frustrated and mad. Think about that volunteer at night right before going to sleep and wonder if that volunteer is purposefully trying to make life harder. Fantasize about leaving that volunteer to figure things out on their own while murmuring, “oh yeah, I tried to tell you that you only sign in for the hours you’re here, but noooooo, you don’t think I have anything worthwhile to say!”
- Think about how to best reach the volunteer. Ask, what does this volunteer need from me to succeed? How can I best show this volunteer what they need to know so that they contribute meaningful work and reap personal benefits?
Well, if you chose the first one, I’m not sure you are in the right profession.
Leaders of volunteers are passionate people. We are passionate about volunteerism, the volunteers themselves, the possibilities for good to great work and the idea that we can and do make a difference. We want everyone to be passionate about volunteers.
Honestly, it’s head-throbbing trying to figure all this out, isn’t it? Why do we feel we are so misunderstood? Why does every volunteerism conference use a catchy title such as, “It’s Time for a Change” and then we lament that nothing ever changes?
I think we may very well suffer from our own form of the “tortured artist syndrome.” You know, like Vincent Van Gogh. Because I’m no clinician and have no business analyzing anybody, (I was once told by a friend’s therapist to stop practicing without a license, so yeah, I know I have a problem) I’m going to call it, “the tortured volunteer manager syndrome.”
In actuality, we are artists. We paint in volunteerism. We write in helping others. We sculpt in engaging volunteers to find themselves. We strum the strings of magically pairing human beings to meaning. We design programs from human potential. We perform in possibilities. What we do is an art. It’s not coordination, it’s not traditional management and it’s not easily discernible or explained. It’s the art of volunteer engagement.
Next time: Must we cut off an ear and pump our fists at the sky?