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There’s a long-term epidemic plaguing our profession: It’s the idea that Leaders of Volunteers are nice. Like fluffy, sweet as birthday-cake-fudge nice. Like dismissible, non-serious, inconsequential nice.

Been reading this great post (Abandoning Niceness in Volunteer Engagement) from Sue Carter Kahl and recalling Rob Jackson’s rousing keynote address, “Stop Being So Bloody Nice” at volunteer engagement conferences.

My “bio” says I was hired for a volunteer management position because I was nice. That is true because niceness was the requirement back in the day. But, what is “nice” anyway?

Nice: (adj.) pleasing, agreeable

You know what? I chuckle inside when people tell me I’m nice cause I hide my evil side fairly well. I’m not that gooey, everything is awesome nice. Nope, not at all. Bet you’re not, either. So, why do folks think that? Well, here are the attributes I believe most volunteer managers (VM) have that are consistently confused with niceness.

Shrewdness: (astute judgement). VMs calculate how to interact with volunteers in the best way to coach and mentor that volunteer so that the volunteer has a meaningful experience and in return, the organization benefits. That doesn’t mean lip-service, it means real work. What looks like niceness is actually a customized form of coaching.

Caring: (showing compassion). Every VM cares about the volunteers, personally and professionally. Caring takes work to understand the volunteer as a complex human being. It is way beyond and more meaningful than merely asking “how are you” while tuning out the answer. It is investing in the volunteer as a person which is the foundation for engagement.

Reasonable: (logical). VMs see the bigger picture and can pivot to attain bigger goals. That doesn’t mean agreeing with poor ideas or signing onto flawed requests. It means seeking common ground, working to make sure solutions fit for everyone, taking into consideration the various goals in play. Making sure everybody is happy is nice. Assuring everyone’s goals are met takes skill.

Flexible: (adaptable). VMs adapt all day long. Not because they “go along to get along” but because they realize give and take is part of volunteer management fluidity and the agile volunteer manager accomplishes more. Flexibility keeps everyone engaged and satisfied that their needs and concerns are heard. The agile volunteer manager then can “bank” the good will they’ve created by adapting to meet staff and volunteer needs. Then, in the future, VMs withdraw some of that goodwill to meet new goals. (yup, we bank that good will and make frequent withdrawals-which makes us incredibly forward thinking)

Curious: (Inquisitive). VMs want to know things, about volunteers, about staff, about the world. Why? Because VMs stitch information together into a garment that fits a challenge. So, when a VM interviews a volunteer for two hours, or listens to staff gripe about their workload, that’s information gathering for a purpose, not a nice chat or a good gossip session to get out of other duties.

Effective: (producing results). VMs understand the multiplication principle and how an hour of seemingly meaningless time can equal many hours of productive time. That means listening for an hour to a volunteer chat about personal things will exponentially multiply. Because the end result is, that volunteer, who the VM carved out an extra hour for, ends up working 100 hours, or takes last minute assignments, or recruits 3 outstanding volunteers, or donates money to the cause. Niceness is sitting and listening to a conversation just because. Effective listening begets a positive result.

Why not nice?

I was always calculating in my head. Is that manipulative? Maybe. But, see niceness is bland. It produces very little. It’s pleasant and isn’t that why nonprofits tolerate us in the first place? Because they want us to be blandly pliable, aka docile, manageable. They want to order up volunteers but not have to deal with our objections or suggestions or innovations. That’s why volunteer initiatives were created, right? So that there would be a supply of people who happily did whatever was asked while the nice volunteer coordinator made sure the supply never ran out.

This is 2021, soon to be 2022. We’re going through a freakin’ pandemic for goodness sakes. What “worked” in 1990 no longer works. Volunteer managers must stop allowing the notion that we are nice. No. Not nice. Not pleasant, not cheery, not sweet, not friendly, not genial, and especially not obliging, cheerful, amiable or agreeable. No, we are professionals with goals and proven methods of achieving those goals.

So, the next time someone tells you you’re nice, smile sweetly and say, “Nope, I’m not nice. I’m effective.”


woah, I sort of wrote about this back in 2011- Are we too nice?