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My organization developed a solid volunteer strategy. One volunteer even referred to it as a rescue team of angels who would swoop in and take care of all the patient and family members’ needs. Wow, how can you say no to that?

As a new believer, I trained volunteers to operate in the tried and true methods my organization had set. Our leadership had learned so much and were the experts, after all.

What we offer might not be what someone wants

That is, until the day a family member pushed back. One of our experienced volunteers, a volunteer who helped train new volunteers had arrived at the patient’s home. “I’m here to sit while you go shopping,” Essie told the patient’s husband.

“I don’t want to leave her.” He was holding his wife’s hand. “Thank you, though. I’ll make do.”

“It’s ok,” Essie assured him. “I’ll take good care of her and you’ll be back soon. You need to get supplies and may not get a chance until I return.” She then added, because the experts always said this, “you can get out for a bit, come back refreshed, be a better caregiver.”

His eyes were on his wife’s face. “No,” he said, “I’m not leaving her, but thank you.”

And so, Essie used her intuition, thought about what he needed versus what she was trained to offer and asked for the shopping list. She went to the store for him, apologizing if she got the wrong brands or the wrong size. He didn’t care. He was where he needed to be. Essie didn’t care either and we worked out a way for her to be reimbursed. She said as she left for the store, she watched him tenderly stroke his wife’s face and knew that her instincts, not official training nor volunteer job description told her she was doing the right thing.

Roles may be the problem

See, our training didn’t include “sit down with the people adapting to your presence and work out with them what they need.” No, our training relied on the volunteer roles pre-determined to be the best option for the people served.

The point is, our volunteers understand that programs are only effective if the participants/recipients are part of the process. They’re only effective if the participant is in control and not made to feel that “this is what you need.” Volunteer after volunteer operated outside the norm because they listened to and respected what people wanted from them. I changed training after accompanying volunteers to homes where I learned what collaborative volunteering looked like.

As we experience upheaval in the volunteer world due to circumstances we could not control, we can view this as an opportunity to change everything for the better. We can introduce collaborative volunteering and show how volunteers can work with, not for a recipient of our services.

We could ditch titles that speak to roles, such as “visiting volunteer,” or “companion volunteer” and instead, offer collaborative volunteering by letting volunteers forge a partnership with the folks we serve.

For more information, check out this study, “Putting Participants at the Center of Managing and Leading Nonprofits” here

Collaborative volunteering: It’s time.