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In the last VPT podcast, Laura Rundell wisely chats about resilience, a subject we have been forced to examine in the past year. Laura asks: What is resilience? What masquerades as resilience? How do our volunteers show resilience?

What can we learn from this year?

We were unprepared for the magnitude of the pandemic and how it disrupted volunteerism. But, you know what? We, LoVols, deal with disruption all the time. Changes in volunteer assignments, policy tweaks, staff shuffling, new projects implemented, tasks taking precedent over other tasks, organizational restructuring, and then there’s the personal changes in volunteers’ lives that create disruption. We live in the Upheaval Hotel. (Too many volunteers answering that old add you forgot to remove in your room? I’ve got one on the 10th floor with explaining the new policy changes you might like better)

Because volunteer resilience is key to not only surviving major disruptions, but key to surviving and thriving during more minor disruptions, we are knee-deep in encouraging resilience. Nurturing volunteer resilience is necessary, regardless of a pandemic or a change in policy. So, going forward, what can we learn from this experience?

I recall a few years back, we had a near volunteer mutiny when a beloved staff member left in a hasty manner. It was not pretty. I was unprepared for the upheaval that followed. But through a series of dialogues, adjustments and extensive follow-ups that centered on resilience, the volunteers stayed. It proved to me that resilience is a mind-set we can help foster.

How can we help volunteers be resilient?

  • Make change normal: Use change language and lay a foundation that says change is natural and an evolving strategy to move forward. Make the distinction from the need to adapt and pivot (change) on operational issues from the solid core values of your mission that remain foundational and say, for example, “we are adapting and learning to navigate the changes we must make to grow, but we never lose sight of our mission which is the foundation on which we operate.” Make sure volunteers know that the mission is their anchor.
  • Present change as an opportunity: Present change in a positive light by encouraging volunteers to think about opportunities such as, “now that we have to re-think our in-person services, let’s look at the opportunities to utilize different skills, find new talents.” Get volunteers to brainstorm, be part of the process. Change is received more readily when volunteers are part of the change process.
  • Connect to purpose: Offer stories of how the volunteers’ can-do attitude helps those being served. Tell volunteers how they inspire staff and clients to keep going. Use humor and inspiration as stress relief.
  • Debrief and reflect: Always elicit feedback. In change management, feedback is key to navigating change. Not once, but repeatedly, so when you hear the volunteers say, “We get it, you’re always asking how are we doing with these changes,” you’re on the right track. Reflection is a way to embrace the difficulties, to acknowledge the loss of status quo. Reflection is nonjudgmental and healing and allows for the volunteers to express their frustrations and loss. When I experienced the volunteer near mutiny, reflection gave the volunteers a space to grieve over losses without feeling judged. I learned so much by just listening to them.
  • Survivor attitude: Make surviving a badge of honor. We tell volunteers how special they are, so add surviving into that mix.
  • Introduce scenarios into training: I love scenarios because they apply knowledge to real situations. Adding a change scenario is a great way for volunteers to think about how they might act when change is inevitable and a great way to encourage resilience.
  • Admit the struggle: As a volunteer manager, you are good at being honest. Admit the “work in progress” because it’s easier to be resilient when you know everyone else is struggling to be resilient too. It’s the team mentality. We will get through this together.

Resilience is not…

Resilience is not forcing volunteers to accept the unreasonable without question. That’s being a door-mat. And it’s good to let volunteers know that you understand the difference between resilience and being taken advantage of and will work to make sure they are treated with respect. That way, when proper changes occur, they will likely be more resilient.

Oh, and what about you? How’s your resilience holding up? Do you, as Laura says in the podcast, practice self-care and find joy in our profession? Do you seek out other volunteer professionals to vent to? Laura and I chat often, and I have to say, I get so much out of our chats. We’re not alone. We are strong and resilient. Finding another volunteer engagement professional to chat with, laugh with, cry with, or vent with is one of the greatest ways to steady a wobbling boat, to adjust your sails and take a moment to enjoy the journey.

And feed your resilience.