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I’m guessing you don’t own the 32,000 page book, “Everything You Must Know About Engaging Volunteers, Part 1.” I have a copy, but I’m only on Chapter 73, “Volunteers who ask questions that are not really questions and how to address the criticisms hidden within.”

(for my take on this thorny issue, see when a question is not a question)

How do you describe our jobs? Engaging volunteers is in many ways like a growing tree. At first we struggle to understand the job. We’re green and new and easily blown by the wind. But then we grow, fed by the profound differences we see volunteers make, the sunlight of possibilities and the nutrient rich experiences our volunteers bring, not only to the work, but to us personally.

When one has taken root, one puts out branches

Jules Verne

We grow, stronger in our conviction, taller in reaching for the sky, broader in understanding. And then, we develop branches that reach in all directions, adding to the living ecosystem that supports a thriving community.

What a teddy bear taught me

I think about volunteer Cara, who sewed memory bears for grieving survivors (memory bears are made from a garment the survivor provides that belonged to the loved one who died). A young man had died while serving in the military, and his family requested a bear be made from his Marine Corps dress blues. I immediately thought of Cara because she was an expert seamstress and her work was impeccable. She accepted, but a few days later, Cara called me with a concern. I assumed her concern had to do with the difficulty in working with the dress blues’ fabric.

Cara came to see me and sat, tears welling in her eyes and told me that when she picked up the scissors and made the first cut into the uniform, she broke down and couldn’t go on. Her father was a Marine. So was her brother. She deeply understood what the uniform represented and cutting into it brought home the devastation the young man’s family was feeling. It was personal for her.

From experience, comes growth

In that moment, I realized that the volunteers who made memory bears didn’t just sew a bear. Through sewing, they entered a person’s life and pain when they cut into the cherished garment. They held a person’s grief in their hands, and stitched a lifetime of memories together in a teddy bear shape that could be hugged and talked to through tears. Those selfless volunteers experienced the aching loss a survivor felt for their loved one. And yet, they continued to sew.

After that day with Cara, I asked a grief counselor to attend our memory bear volunteer meetings. Not only did the grief counselor share the recipients reactions to receiving the bears, she was able to help the volunteers process their feelings. Had Cara not been brutally honest with me, I might never have thought beyond the volunteers’ ability to sew a stitch. Thanks to her, I began to look at not only the memory bear volunteers and their well-being, but it opened me to look for other ways to support volunteers. I sprouted a branch.

Hands-on learning grows branches

Experiential learning teaches us to apply knowledge from doing. It forces us to experiment until we get things right. It propels us to take initiative to solve challenges. It makes leaders of volunteers think like visionaries. It gives us branches that reach high.

Embrace your experiences. It feels like 2020 has given us way more experiences than we can handle, but it has also caused us to:

  • ask the hard questions
  • rethink systems and procedures and reimagine them in strategic ways
  • take initiatives to keep what is working and redesign what is not
  • be curious
  • look beyond the status quo to find better solutions
  • connect in new ways with peers, with staff, with the community
  • expand possibilities
  • examine our pre-conceived notions about the way things have always been done
  • evaluate our role in leading volunteers

As I thumb through “Everything You Must Know About Engaging Volunteers, Part 1,” I notice there’s no chapter on “World-wide pandemics and the disruption of volunteering.”

Maybe that will be addressed in Part 2.


P.S. I will be posting twice a month instead of weekly starting January 2021. Happy New Year all. I hope this year brings new joy, new experiences and new hope for our wonderful, complex and growing profession.