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Do you ever gush, “Thank you to of all the wonderful volunteers who have inspired me, enriched my soul and taught me compassion?” Yeah, that’s my go-to line because I mean it and I bet you do, too. Besides, isn’t thanking what we volunteer managers do best? (well maybe next to being annoyingly humble)

Volunteers shape us and teach us how to be better leaders. So, maybe we should also thank the volunteers who taught us the lessons that strengthen our characters. You know the ones. Their memories are seared into your psyche like the time you dropped your phone when you learned a trusted volunteer called a client “idiot.”  You slunk back to your office when the CEO told you a volunteer tried to sell his daughter’s beat up Chevy to a client’s son. You found a seat way in back and kept your mouth closed in meetings after a volunteer wrote that oddly kind, but wildly misguided letter to the editor, calling your staff “an army of swat unicorns who invade with guns shooting helping dust.”

Mop-up lessons are hard when they occur

You never intended a volunteer to try and convert a client’s family to their religious or political beliefs. These are the mop-up lessons. You mop up the mess, apologizing profusely, hoping no one thinks that all volunteers act this way, while explaining that you never gave volunteers permission to move in with a client or take out an ad in the local paper and alter the logo to make it look like it was smiling.

But, honest mistakes aside, think about all the clients saved from unscrupulous volunteers because you learned a hard lesson. Think about all the necessary precautions you take because you were put through the wringer. Think about the watchful eye you developed because you were caught unaware.

Mopping up after mistakes equips us with vigilance.

Many years ago, volunteer Jacob lied to my face. Again and again. I believed him, not because he was charming and convincing, but because I wanted to believe him. I believed in the romantic notion that all people would set aside their personal agendas for the greater good. I lived in a faerie world in which all volunteers understood the mission and eagerly awaited my instructions so they could change the world.

Jacob showed me that I had to be realistic if I truly wanted to do right by our clients. He showed me that healthy watchfulness did not diminish my job, but rather elevated it to a higher level of purposefulness.

Matching volunteers to vulnerable clients takes more than kindness

You’ve been through this. We struggle to explain all the carefully measured thought and actions required to match volunteers to clients and programs.  Faeries are lovely, but we live in the real world. In the real world, placing volunteers with vulnerable clients takes discerning judgement, careful pairing and keen watchfulness. 

I’ve had volunteers who stole, volunteers who pushed an agenda, volunteers who wanted to take over and volunteers who were just mean. I’m still surprised by volunteers who talk a good game and then cause real harm. I’ve also had volunteers who messed up royally because they did something nice, but so misplaced that it caused real harm.

So, I thank Jacob and the others for giving me a discerning nature, for strengthening my resolve to do right and for teaching me that compassion takes the courage to be a sentry.

The volunteers who cause harm never intend to teach us anything. Their intent lies deep within their own needs.

But every one of these volunteers teach us lessons that mold us into a better leader of volunteers. They teach us to trust, yet verify and to protect the vulnerable people we serve. A successful leader of volunteers must be strong. Conviction means doing what is right, even when it is hard. It means saying no with kindness.

So, let’s silently thank them for those often painful lessons that shape us into stronger leaders.

They never intended to teach us something valuable, but they did, so thanks, you guys.


This is updated from a 2017 post.