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So, what’s next for leaders of volunteers? #WeGetToRevampEveryVolunteerRoleSoVolunteersActuallyWantToVolunteerWithUsWhatAConcept!

Ok, maybe we should take it one step at a time. To reframe volunteer engagement and impact, we first need listeners who become supporters who then become advocates for our vision.

Tall order, right? It’s hard enough to get anyone to listen, much less champion the ideas we are advocating for. This is where reputation comes in.

And who will listen to us if our reputation paints us as:

  • meek and mild
  • having fun
  • doing easy stuff
  • always apologizing
  • always running around putting out fires
  • reactive versus proactive
  • unable to fill requests
  • babbling on and on about how wonderful the volunteers are
  • in charge of the fluff
  • not involved in the nitty gritty planning work
  • going along to get along

Being known as proactive vs. reactive

Taking control of the conversation surrounding your volunteer program begins by taking control of your reputation as the leader of volunteers. Look at it like this: Let’s say you go to a bank to open an account. Two bankers are working that day and as you wait, you listen to them talk to clients.

A tale of two bankers, or who the heck would you trust with your money?

One banker is animated, showing her client the various accounts available. She points to stats, but doesn’t rattle off numbers. She explains how each statistic impacts the client’s vision for financial success. She offers multiple paths to success so the client can grow their investments. She explains in detail how each account functions, their positives and their challenges and yet assures the client that with her expert guidance, financial success will come.

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The other banker looks harried. He fumbles through a stack of papers, dropping them on the floor and apologizes for the lack of available options. He grabs a board he obviously made himself that displays the various colors the client can choose for a checkbook cover and points to the blue one, saying “this color is really pretty, don’t you think? “

Who would you pick? (and if you picked the banker who spent his time showing checkbook cover colors, you’re most definitely a volunteer manager who has spent a lot of time “rescuing people,” am I right?)

Perceptions are created in the first few minutes.

And to make matters worse, once a perception is established, people then look for signs that reinforce the perception. (We all do it BTW, which is why I always gave this one pompous marketing executive the incomplete copy of a report-cause I figured he’d never read it and I always waited for him to ask where the rest of the report was, but he never did) So, if you’re perceived as being in charge of fluff, people will notice anything that reinforces that perception. Boom, you now have a reputation because people talk.

Establish the reputation you deserve

Start by doing small things that produce big reputation results.

  • Speak up in meetings in an advocating way-most of us get caught off guard in situations so create a few well-crafted opening statements and memorize them. For example, “Volunteers have contributed a lot to that program and here’s how,” or “This is a great opportunity for our volunteers to contribute, let me show you how,” or “Just a reminder that our volunteers are involved in that initiative and so far, they’ve…” Opening statements make it soooooo much easier to quell any jitters about speaking up. And you know what? Pretty soon, when you open your mouth to speak, others will chime in, “yeah, we know, volunteers are contributing because….” But that’s great, because the phrases will cement themselves and your professional reputation improves.
  • explain how volunteers are having fun because you are working at making a welcoming environment for volunteers. Say, “because we don’t pay our volunteers, their reward for a job well done includes having an enjoyable atmosphere in which to work. That’s why I work hard to create fun around them.”
  • explain the work involved in engaging volunteers (see Not So Fast, Captain Obvious for more on explaining volunteer engagement)
  • NEVER, EVER apologize because a volunteer can’t fulfill an assignment (see Volunteer Managers are better than These 3 Phrases for more about re-framing apologies)
  • flip the perception which means emphasize the positive versus reacting to the negative. When staff say, “I have a last minute request, so not sure if you can get someone,” instead of saying, “I’ll try,” say “Most volunteers are willing to do last minute requests because they want to help us reach our goals.”
  • offer solutions with this caveat: we can do more with me at the planning table
  • stop going along to get along to be liked. Instead aim to be respected as a professional. Being respected has little similarity to being liked. Liked is for your friends, family, dog, hamster, hairdresser, maybe the guy who rotates your tires cause he’ll throw an oil change in for free. Respected is the professional’s goal. Respected means you accomplish stuff and do the hard things without complaint. It means you are fair, mission focused and strong.

Know it or not, YOU are the face of your volunteer program and the perceptions of how your program is run, lies with you. It can feel overwhelming, but once you take control of the perceptions, you emerge with the reputation as… a leader of volunteers.

I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying it’s instantaneous. But it is doable.

And besides, when have you, volunteer professionals ever backed down from a challenge? (Uh huh, thought so)