Ahhh themes. This week I have three themed get togethers for volunteers. Holidays are the easiest themes, because they are well, holidays, so yay, it’s a no brainer. The stores are full of holiday stuff to buy, maybe just pick a color or an elf or cute peppermint candy. “Brain, deactivate, the Dollar Store has it all in control!”
It’s the rest of the year that gets so hard. There’s the annual luncheon. There’s volunteer appreciation week. And then there are meetings, educational in-services, celebrations, nominations etc. Food becomes second nature. I can whip out a pot of coffee, hot chocolate, and a plate of yummy cookies with my eyes closed and my brain wandering into that little boutique window I saw on the way over. I even have a cute apron that says, (don’t laugh) “I’m serving YOU this time.” Clever, huh?
But every time there’s an event, it means figuring out what to call it, what to decorate with and what to say that ties it all in together. And what a lovely plethora of themes to choose from. You think LOL Cats is too cute? Let’s just look at some of our more common volunteer themes and the inexpensive ways we can decorate:
There’s “VOLUNTEERS, THE HEART OF (insert your organization)”. Hearts are great. If you get them after Valentine’s Day, they are really cheap. And we all learned how to cut out hearts in kindergarten, so this is an easy one.
There’s “VOLUNTEERS, OUR SHINING STARS”. Also a pretty easy one. There’s five-pointed stars to tape to the ceiling or you can staple clip art shooting stars all over the walls. My favorite is using movies stars. If you have a tween daughter, you can borrow posters of Justin Bieber or Katy Perry which costs nothing but then you’re living with an angry adolescent and it might take some bribery to make her happy again.
There’s “VOLUNTEERS, OUR TREASURES”. I’ve seen some pretty interesting attempts at treasure chests. But this is a good theme if you have a lot of junk, fake jewelry around that you can scatter about the tables. If you’ve made a trip to Mardi Gras and gotten tons of beads for doing things you regretted the next morning, this is the theme for you.
How about “VOLUNTEERING, A WORK OF HEART”. This clever play on words means you can put up random pictures of art work cut from that $1 art history book bought at a thrift store or you can raid your refrigerator door for some child art. Either way, it’s pretty cheesy so don’t plan on inviting the CEO.
“VOLUNTEERS ARE THE DIFFERENCE”. Tough one, but you can get free pictures of before and after pictures out of magazines. There’s a lot of before and after pictures of face lifts, so you can showcase the incredible results on the walls. If a volunteer should ask why you chose pictures of face lifts, you can slyly say that “Volunteers give us a lift.”
“VOLUNTEERS, A WORLD OF CARING”. Globes and atlases are fairly expensive so you might need to visit your local chamber for some free maps. That, and you can always swipe your son’s solar system science project for some additional punch.
“OUR VOLUNTEERS ARE CHAMPIONS”. I love this one. We all have random sports equipment in our closets. Personally, I use my work out equipment. All the brand new tags are still on it.
So, I was thinking the other day of some easy themes based solely on readily available and easy to get items. Here’s a few I might try.
“VOLUNTEERS HAVE CARING IN THE BAG”. I have so many of those plastic grocery bags, I thought I could just staple them around the room. I can make a game out of trying to throw wadded paper in the bags to amuse them.
“VOLUNTEERS, THE BRANCHES ON THE TREE OF CARING”. So, I can go into my yard and clip enough branches from my trees to scatter about the room. I might get scratched by a thorn or two, but at least it’s organic and free. Maybe afterwards I could start a small bonfire and we could roast marshmallows.
“VOLUNTEERS: THE PAY STINKS BUT YOU GET CUTE LITTLE PARTIES LIKE THIS!” This is where I will use all the left over stuff from all the other cute little parties that I’ve given. Cheap, easy and a good way to clean my back room.
“VOLUNTEERS: NOTHING CAN DESCRIBE HOW MUCH WE APPRECIATE YOU”. Yes, when all else fails, in keeping with the theme, I will use nothing. No decorations, no cute giveaways, nothing. I will act very avant-garde and when they leave, I will give each volunteer a handful of nothing while declaring “your worth is beyond paltry trinkets!” This probably would be the last time any volunteer comes to a function so I might have to save this one until I’m ready to retire.
So, please enjoy the upcoming holidays for what they really are: The chance to not have to rack your brain to come up with a clever theme!
As we approach Thanksgiving and I still don’t know if I will have the whole day off, thereby enlisting some family members to step up and stuff the turkey, I’m finding myself mentally slowing things down and actually thinking about what it is I’m thankful for.
When it comes to my job, I’ve mentally deleted all the overwork and minutia and all that is imperfect and really thought about that which I am truly thankful for. Here’s is my list in no particular order.
I’m thankful that I took a chance twenty years ago and “tried” this job. I’m still trying it on.
I’m thankful that I’ve gotten to know thousands of people who want to give back. It’s like working in a bubble in some ways but I’ve gotten to see some remarkable people who fill me up with hope.
I’m thankful that I’ve had a chance be creative, and that since there wasn’t much of handbook on volunteering at my organization when I started, I got the chance to help develop one.
I’m thankful that volunteers are so open, willing to embrace the mission and that they put their volunteering lives into my hands. That’s a lot of trust. I hope I never lose their faith.
I’m thankful that thousands of hurting people have been helped by our volunteers. I hope that in some small way, I’ve had a part in that.
I’m thankful for co-workers who work hard to understand volunteers’ motivations and who ask for volunteer help, not demand it.
I’m thankful for Shirley, a co-worker who, in the seventeen years I’ve known her, has never said an unkind word about anyone. Her charitable spirit is my goal. I fail miserably every day when I mumble about the injustice of it all, but I want to be more like her.
I’m thankful for Jerry, my co-worker who I’ve known for nineteen years. He has my back and I have his. We don’t always agree, but we have a deep respect and liking for each other.
I’m thankful for Pete, our volunteer who was in class ten years ago. When I need some free therapy, I call him up. We spend twenty minutes doing Bob Dylan impressions, imagining a world in which squirrels are smarter than humans, and talking about what life will be like when boomers get into nursing homes. That time talking to him is like a week at a spa.
I’m thankful for Eva, who started as a volunteer five months after I started. She’s watched my family grow, I’ve watched hers. We are good, good friends. Not the boundary crossing kind, the lifelong kind.
I’m thankful for all the giggling, lively groups of students. Since my kids are grown, they tend to teach me what youth looks like now. I think the future is in pretty good hands.
I’m thankful for this evolving media. Before the widespread use of the internet, there was very little information on volunteer management. We all operated in silos so we had to “wing it” most of the time. Now there’s help and support out there if we look.
I’m thankful that the vast majority of volunteer managers take their profession seriously and that every night they can go home, look themselves in the mirror and be proud of what they’ve done. Sleep well each night because you’ve made more of a difference than you know.
I’m thankful for Dave, the captain. Even though he can’t volunteer anymore, he always calls me at just the right time to say hi and find out how I am doing. Coincidentally, he called me yesterday.
I’m thankful for all that I have learned. I never would have had this education in another profession.
I’m thankful for the nuances of life. If I have taken anything away from this job, it’s that life and people are many faceted, complex and fluid. Surprises always have a lesson tucked in there like fortune cookies.
I’m thankful for my failures and successes. Both keep me moving.
I’m thankful that my family understands how being involved in a mission is more than a nine to five job.
Lastly, I’m thankful for the chance to share.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
It is painful to hear the words. “I don’t recognize my organization anymore.” Dillon is not a volunteer manager, but he works for a major hospice in a huge metropolitan area. As a social worker, he has direct contact with volunteers and is a champion of volunteer involvement. As he said over the phone, “I love communicating with the volunteers and each patient I see, I’m always trying to figure out how volunteers can be of benefit to them.” Dillon has worked in the industry for 25 years, most of it in hospice. He settled into this current job about 10 years ago. “I loved that the manager that hired me asked me how I felt about working with volunteers. I realized that this was an organization that truly cared about their patients and their volunteers. I was all in!”
But Dillon’s organization underwent some major changes four years ago. A new CEO, new marketing team, restructuring of disciplines and new logos and slogans all shook up the norm. “The perspective changed,” he mused, “and as competition heated up, I saw my organization shift dramatically, away from patient care to marketing and capturing demographics. It’s a business now and frankly I didn’t sign up to be a businessman.”
Dillon sighed. “And now, trying to get a volunteer is much harder. The volunteers are being asked to do things like find speaking engagements, set up health fair after health fair. And any volunteer that can sing or play an instrument? Forget it, they are being asked to perform. It’s all about the public seeing what the volunteers do rather than the volunteers actually doing it! It’s like we are advertising who we used to be, not who we are now, because who we are now is something I don’t recognize anymore.”
I could hear the chattering of staff in the background as Dillon continued. “I’m not saying that we don’t need marketing or we don’t need to compete. I’m saying that this shift is doing damage to the volunteer department. I already hear the rumblings of the volunteer staff as they stretch their volunteers more and more. On one hand, I need a volunteer to play the harp for my patients. On the other hand, they need that same volunteer to play the harp at a nursing home function. There’s only so much a volunteer will do. And I see the anxiety of the volunteer coordinators. They know which job is the right one for the volunteer, but when they continually say no to marketing, they are perceived as negative or uncooperative. They are in a no win situation here. The only thing they can do is recruit more advertising volunteers, but seriously, how many volunteers are out there wanting to do that?”
Dillon paused. “This puts me in a terrible position. I don’t want to ask for a volunteer because I know what stress the department is under. So, my patient suffers. At least though, the patient doesn’t know what he is missing. But I do. I talk to the coordinators frequently and some are new but the ones who have been here with me this long, they are sick about how their jobs are changing. Every time they try to explain why volunteers might not want to call bingo for a nursing home with no hospice patients in it, they get labeled as negative and uncooperative. Instead of listening to their coordinators, management listens to marketers, who have no idea how to work with volunteers. I’m seriously thinking about retiring and the sad part is, I think management would be happy to see me go.”
I asked him why he would think that and Dillon added wistfully, “one of the nurses who has been here longer than I have told me the other day that she thinks they want to get rid of everyone who has been here for a while. Not because of money or age, but because we know how it was in the old days and we are constant reminders that we are not that organization anymore.”
After we hung up, I felt an incredible sadness. I know that organizations need to morph to survive. But one has to wonder; once all the heart and soul has morphed out, then what exactly is left?
Last week I had the opportunity to shadow one of our volunteers. Leeta, a volunteer who visits nursing homes invited me to follow her around for a morning. I jumped at the chance because Leeta is one of those volunteers who is so quiet and reserved, that when she attended orientation, I sort of dismissed her in my head as not being a “sticker”. You know, those folks who will stick with it. I was wrong, thankfully and she’s been a sticker for eight years now.
I arrived at the nursing home early and she was already there. Although I had been there many times, I wanted to see the facility through her eyes so she gave me a tour. I have to admit, I had never before noticed the impressive painting of the founder nor the cozy little blue living room off the first corridor. Our first stop was the room of a tiny woman who talked about her years making pasta at her husband’s restaurant. Her deft hands mimicked the motion as she spoke. Leeta smiled knowingly. She had heard the story many times before. We then spent time with a gentleman who set type for the New York Times newspaper. He is 103. He slyly told me he got the news before the world did. Now, that’s impressive.
Then we came to a lady, Gwen, who was curled up in the hallway in her wheelchair. Under a collection of afghans, the world bustled around her as she sat among hurried staff and visitors on a mission. Though Gwen was deeply asleep, Leeta gently touched her shoulder. There was no response. Leeta whispered “Gwen” but nothing happened. Leeta paused for a second, watching intently then stood upright and I figured we were done. Nothing to see here. But instead, she walked into Gwen’s room and returned with a letter. “This was written by her granddaughter,” Leeta said as she unfolded the well used pages.
Leeta bent close, her lips nearly caressing Gwen’s wispy hair. “Dear Grandma,” she began, “I love you very much. I was in school yesterday and my teacher told us about..” she continued. My eyes were fixated on Gwen’s face. At first she continued to sleep, but I saw a flicker, then a stir as she took the words in. Her eyes fluttered and then slowly opened at the words, “Mommy says hello too.” She turned, so slowly that time seemed to stand still and she saw Leeta’s face, just inches from her. She blinked and recognized and the most peaceful look came over her that for just an instant, I felt that all was well in the world.
She drank in Leeta’s voice and kind eyes and the two spirits melded like batter for a decadent chocolate cake. Leeta stroked her hair and cheek and I felt tears spill onto my own.
No one will ever get to know that powerful moment. No one, but I. And there, in that chaotic hallway, I felt the power of volunteering, the reason volunteers do what they do.
Intimacy is borne from the establishment of bonds and our volunteers open their souls to that connection. They do it quietly, without thought of praise or recognition. But how we, volunteer managers, would love people to know about those intimate moments. How we’d love our fellow staff members to witness a volunteer’s humble gifts. How we yearn for senior management to be in that moment, to really grasp the nature of volunteering. How we wish prospective volunteers could feel that connection and understand how it would enrich their lives. How we want the public to see these tender moments so that they would stop caring about mindless celebrity sightings and start to embrace volunteerism.
But therein lies the irony of intimacy. A hundred pair of curious, expectant eyes would shred that blanket of intimacy woven by our volunteers. And so it becomes our duty to recreate, to celebrate in song and tale the forging of spirit to spirit. We use words, images, videos, gestures and heartfelt testimony because we, as observers of volunteers, know their value. The intimacy of volunteering is a story that needs to be told and we continually struggle to find just the right words.
Our jobs include showing the value of volunteers. Statistics, money saved, papers filed, number of calls made all show value. But what spreadsheet can show those intimate moments that mean everything to the recipient?
I’ll continue to struggle to showcase the true value of volunteers to my organization because these are the things in this world that are so priceless. I just hope that all organizations, while combing through end of year reports, never lose sight of that which really matters.
Yes, I can blame getting older or I can blame having too much in my head or I can blame Earth’s shifting magnetic poles. But it doesn’t matter because I have to face the reality. I can’t remember every name, every conversation and frankly, every thing I was supposed to check up on. Gobs of information filter in and then just fall out. Sometimes I feel like an old junk wagon rolling down the road, stuff flying off the top and into the street because it was never properly tied down.
That’s the nature of volunteer management to me. We are like trucks and we have so much piled in the beds that no matter how we rearrange and organize, we can’t ever quite get it all sorted out unless we stay in our garages. I know when I leave my desk, I have people stop me everywhere to ask a question, tell me an important tidbit, invite me to a meeting, request a favor, pass on a message and so on. When you forget why you left your desk two minutes after leaving it, that’s volunteer management.
But stubborn pride tells me on many occasion not to let on that I did not remember the fact that you asked me to check on your name badge yesterday or that you introduced me to your grandchild last year when she was visiting. “My, how she’s grown!” And changed a whole bunch, I might add.
So, here’s a conversation I had recently with a volunteer I haven’t seen for two years.
“Hi Rita, er, Freda! So nice to see you again! We missed you. Welcome back, its been what, four, no two, yes, right, two years already. My it seems longer! How’s your son, George, oh…, right, Craig and his family? Really, that’s great! And your granddaughter… no grandson, is he good? Doing well in school… no right he’s only three, wow, sure, and your husband Sidney? Oh, Rod, right, how’s Rod? Excellent. Are you feeling better… no wait, no you were not sick, right, you moved, yes, I remember now, was it cold in Canada …no, right, Bermuda. Not cold there, huh, ha ha! Well, we have your job visiting nursing home patients… what’s that, no you never did that right! But you wanted to… no, you wanted to do office work. Well we have many jobs here for you and would love for you to come back. Are you still living on the river…or, yes, the golf course, right, it’s River Crest, no, right Spruce View, nice place, I’ve always loved their clubhouse, they have the restaurant where you cook your own steaks, no, no it’s a breakfast place, right, love it. Well, miss you, you’ve always been a great volunteer and would love you back!”
Yes, I can’t admit I don’t remember. I do, however remember running into a volunteer one time in the hall when I ventured from my desk and she asked me, “So, did you find anything out regarding our conversation last week?”
I remember staring at her as if she had landed from Neptune. My brain froze. I thought, did we have a conversation about something? Was I in it? I know that I know you because your face is very familiar, but if my life hung in the balance, I have NO idea what we talked about. So pride of course stepped in and I hedged. “Well, now, I’m glad you brought that up, I was just thinking about it. As a matter of fact, I thought about it a lot and was wondering if you thought more about it too. Uh huh, yes, well, since we’ve both been thinking about it, tell me your thoughts on it now.”
Ok, I got really lucky and her response jogged my memory, or should I say reached into the bed of the truck and pulled out the item underneath the pile. Of course I hadn’t done anything about what we had talked about in the hallway last week. I had forgotten 30 minutes later.
I can carry a notepad or a smart phone and most of the time I write on my hand. I have post its on my desk, two calendars, and multiple pads and binders of projects in varying stages of design.
I think of the adage, if we could put a man on the moon…, but that’s not it. If we could design a truck with a huge, huge bed and all these little gnomes inside who would organize things as we drove down the road, then yes, I could get a handle on remembering things.
Until then, I’ll sneak a peek at your name tag or ask a co-worker to discreetly go up and ask who you are and report back, or cough as I say your name, or hide behind the laxatives at the drugstore to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing you.
Or maybe I’ll just have to admit I can’t remember. Nah.
I was just thinking that with all the upcoming holidays, you know, we volunteer managers should have a day of recognition. It could be called “National Volunteer Manager Day of Recognition”. Or maybe “Day of Multitasking with Unpaid Help While Being Grossly Underpaid” or perhaps “Thanks to Those Who Herd Cats Day.” But then a little tiny flash of remembering hit me. It was sort of a dull toothache kind of a brain pain. There already is a day for us. November 5th is “International Volunteer Manager Appreciation Day. IV Mad. IV MAD, really? Now why did I forget that, I wonder?
Was it in effect last year? Yep, according to the website, http://volunteermanagersday.org/, we had a day last year and the year before.
So, why did I forget that? I mean I forget things like paying my bills or where I left my footed pajamas. I might have just banished it from my memory like the night that pimply Dave stood me up for the homecoming dance. Shudder, I can’t hear “Wooly Bully” without tearing up but that’s another conversation.
I decided to sit down and try to recall last year’s IVMAD. What I remember is something like this.
I got up that day and immediately started thinking about what to wear. I wondered, should I be understated so that I could act surprised when everyone came to thank me? I’d just look up from behind the pile on my overloaded desk and gush, “Oh my, I’m just doing my job, but thank you everyone so much you’re making me blush.” Or should I dress up, look my very best and be the consummate professional? Be all aloof and corporate and well, above lowly celebrations? How patrician. I decided to wear my best dress, the one that zips all the way up. Id have to skip lunch but it would be worth it. Maybe I’d put on some power high heels. I’d have to sit down for most of the day, because the last time I had to dress up, I fell while getting into the elevator and knocked over a cart full of files.
On the way to work, I practiced my responses to all the praise I was about to receive. I certainly wanted to be gracious, but amusing so that everyone would later talk about how clever I was. I decided on a simple “thank you, this is my dream job. And believe me, I dream about it every night.” Ha Ha, I was thrilled with my cleverness. I could almost hear them talking about me. “She looks so fresh for being as overworked as she is.” “She’s so clever and droll, I’m always uplifted when I see her.” “My, I wish I had her enthusiastic spirit and did you see those fabulous shoes?”
When I arrived, I discreetly backed my car up to the side door so that it would be convenient to haul out all the flowers and balloons after work. There would probably be left over cake too.
I walked in, confident that it would be a wonderful day. Even though there were no balloons with WE LOVE YOU and all the staff yelling “Surprise” to greet me, I did not despair. They were all probably still out picking up my gifts, trying to decide whether to get red or pink balloons. As I sat down and got to work, I knew that my organization and system would come through. Why wouldn’t they? I thought back over the year to all the recognition days we celebrated so that everyone had at least one day to feel appreciated.
We had an ice cream social for Administrative Professionals Day in April. I made sure I told one of the secretaries that I loved the artistic way she made spreadsheets.
We had a pot luck for Pride in Food Service Week in February. I brought some Dunkin Donuts.
For National Nurses Appreciation Week we had a big party complete with catered food. I wore white that day.
And during National Social Workers Month there were coffee and muffins every morning for a week. I tried to not act too crazy around the counselors.
I loved National Nursing Assistants Week in June because we ate all week and most of them are really nice.
I especially like Payroll Appreciation Week in September. You can’t be too nice to the payroll people.
There’s even crabby coworker day (Oct 27)which is so much fun until you come back from lunch and find some dead flowers on your desk. “Hey whoever put them there, I’m not crabby, I’m just stressed out!”
The day wore on, my feet hurt and I was tired of holding my stomach in. I watched the door for the balloons or cake or dancing clowns, but finally a co-worker came in and said,”hey, tell your volunteers thanks from me.”
Like I said, we should have a day of our own. Maybe it could be called, “Hey, for once, just throw me a bone day”
But, maybe this year will be different. I’m not going to dress up, but will practice a surprised look. Actually, good news, I won’t have to practice that!
Have a happy International Volunteer Manager Appreciation Day everyone!
My friend, Ellie is the sole volunteer coordinator at a large hospital complex. She oversees 500 giving souls who run the gift shop, man the information desks, fill ice water, organize fund-raising events, staff waiting rooms, help cashier at the coffee shop and other as sundry jobs. The hospital auxiliary is the governing body for the volunteers, so Ellie does have help in the form of a volunteer hierarchy. Because she is the only volunteer manager, Ellie has to rely on educating the various hospital departments’ staff on how to work with volunteers. It is exhausting and Ellie tells me that some departments are exemplary at treating volunteers, while others just don’t get it at all.
She said, “There’s medical records, who sadly use volunteers less and less because of electronic charting. But they still use them. The people in that department really like their volunteers. They know each of their volunteers’ birthdays, and when they are sick or have a family crisis. They treat them as people, not as pieces of equipment. They are a pleasure to work with and I find myself sending them the volunteer’s who are really great.”
But Ellie has other departments to deal with as well. I talked to her on Friday and she said, “yeah, it happened. One of our really good volunteers, Peg quit. Peg works, or rather worked in accounting. She has mad business skills and is funny and smart. She loves this hospital because we took care of her husband while he was going through chemo. She knows how precise our records need to be and just wanted to help where she could. And,” Ellie’s voice rose, “they keep talking about volunteers with professional experience, so Peg is perfect for them. Or was.”
Ellie paused. “About a year ago, several accounting managers retired and a whole new group were hired or promoted. They set a different tone, and the first time Peg came to me, I assured her that the new managers were just getting settled in. The second time Peg came, I paid them a courtesy visit. They all looked at me like I had two heads. This happened numerous times and because Peg had a long work history here, I knew it wasn’t her. It was them. They were unclear. They did not have the courtesy to call her if they did not have her work ready. They had their own territorial problems and tried to pull her into arguments.”
Ellie sighed. “I talked to that department oh, maybe five times in the past year. At first they seemed genuinely willing to try to do better. But then, each time I would go to see them, they grew more and more uninterested. And the trouble is, their manager is a senior manager in the system. I asked my boss about recourse, but he just told me to do the best I can. “
I could hear Ellie tapping her pencil in the background. “Peg and I just talked. I offered, no pleaded with her to work in a different department like medical records where they would treat her good. She said no. She said she loved her job and it was just time to go. She said she knew that the people in her department wouldn’t change and she knew I did a great job trying to fix what couldn’t be fixed.
I stopped begging her. I could see the decision in her eyes. She was ok with quitting. Funny thing is, I’m not. I’m mad, really mad. How dare they treat her like that. Do you think they will ever, and I mean EVER get another volunteer? Not from me, not on my watch.” By this time Ellie was ranting the way she needed to. “Who do they think they are? Volunteers are not equipment you use and throw away! They’re people with skills and feelings and very few needs. Peg didn’t need anyone to fawn over her. She didn’t need tons of attention or praise. She just needed a decent working environment and some basic courtesy.”
Ellie drew a breath. “I know volunteers leave. They leave because they’re sick or they move or they change jobs or they retire or all kinds of things. But when they quit because of something that could have been fixed, I feel like we failed them. Our hospital failed them and I failed them because I could not fix it. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t quit because of something I did, it matters that she quit because of something I could not do.”
We talked some more and I pictured Ellie with a wound that would not heal, not properly anyway. I wondered how many wounds she had like that. I know I have several faded scars that have never completely healed on my volunteer manager body. They are mainly from the feelings of failure when a volunteer leaves or is mistreated and there was nothing more I could have done to prevent it.
I think we all have at least one or two.
I have to fire a volunteer. The first time I had to fire a volunteer was sheer torture. My palms itched so bad and my stomach felt like the volunteer in question had reached in and gleefully begun to twist my insides. How dare she act in a manner that MADE me have to do this? Why couldn’t she be a good little volunteer like all the other good volunteers? Why did she have to go and tell the people at her church about a client’s private financial status?
Honestly, as a newbie volunteer coordinator, it never occurred to me that firing a volunteer existed. That was bogey man stuff, not reality. My original boss way back in the day never fired a volunteer, so I was left to dive off the cliff without knowing what rocks lie below. And I didn’t know whether to wear a wet suit or armor.
I have to be honest, it didn’t go well. I babbled something about privacy and confidentiality and threw in a measure of “I’m sure you didn’t mean to say that the client was dirt poor,” but all in all it went horribly. She left, most likely confused, because I told her how wonderful she was, while firing her. Contradictions rained down and I had no umbrella.
That night I dreamt that she came back, completely unaware that I had dismissed her. I had to fire her all over again. While that did not happen, I could see how it might have, given the fact that I told her she was a great volunteer. (What?)
The second time I had to fire a volunteer, (which thankfully did not happen until two years later) was in some ways worse than the first. It conjured up memories of the original debacle. Unnerved, I searched for answers. The internet was just starting to yield expert advice and I found some theoretical help there. But I needed personal help. How was I (loveable, kittens and flowers me) going to fire this volunteer?
I was tasting yesterdays lunch.
Quite accidentally, if there are accidents, I found myself at a good friend’s house that evening. Her husband, a gentle man in private and a shark in business overhead me discussing my upcoming day of horror. I caught him listening and thought, “oh boy, he’s probably fired hundreds of people and thinks I’m some sort of cry baby.” Instead, he came over, sat down and asked me these pointed questions.
“Did this volunteer violate your rules more than once?
“Yes, several times and we’ve given her the chance to correct her behavior.”
“Do you, personally, think that she needs to be dismissed.”
I had to think deeply about that, but then I answered, “yes, I do. I don’t believe she is willing to change.”
“Then,” he looked me straight on and asked, “who is the best person to dismiss her? Who will deliver the message in such a way that she does not feel wrongly accused and who will make her realize that your clients come first while protecting her dignity and self-image?”
I knew the answer. I had known it all along. I just never had thought of it that way. “I am.” I whispered.
“And,” he added, “I never fire anyone. I have a conversation with them about how my company and their expectations do not match. I’m clear, don’t get me wrong, but I dismiss them and wish them well. You can point out a person’s good traits but make it clear that there is not a place for them in your organization.”
With that he went back to his home office.
My friend smiled. I could see more clearly why she married him in the first place.
So, how do you do the hard stuff? Because of my friend’s husband, here’s the way I look at it now. If it has to be done then who better to do it than someone who feels some emotion about it; who better to deliver a tough message than someone who doesn’t want to do it? Do I want senior management to dismiss our volunteers? No, not really. It would be easier for me, but in every case, I realize that I’m the right person for the tough job. I will twist it over and over in my head to find the right words. I will have somewhat of an established relationship with the volunteer. I will call upon my years of volunteer involvement and treat this person with respect. I will do it justice, at least to the best of my ability.
Not every volunteer will work out. Some will not be appropriate on day one.
I know volunteer coordinators who like to use the “I’ll just not call that volunteer and they’ll get the idea eventually” tactic. But who benefits from that tactic? Only the coordinator who chooses to avoid the situation. Not me now. Let me talk to the volunteer and be clear. Volunteers deserve that and I’ve known volunteers, who after discussing concerns, turn out to be good volunteers. And on the flip side, I’ve had former volunteers call me years later because they were never clearly told that they did not fit in the organization. How cruel is that when you think about it?
So, as hard as it might be, I’m going to have the conversation. And I’m going to feel the pings in my stomach and not shirk my responsibility. I’m It.
I will be kind and I will be clear.
Last week I attended one day of a community forum hosted by a state organization that is a clearinghouse for non-profits. Featured were non-profit gurus with varying credentials and backgrounds, covering topics ranging from increasing donations to taking care of donors so that you will increase donations. (just kidding, there was a topic on staff burnout-presumably from trying to increase donations, I guess). I was able to attend two presentations; the first one by the vice president of marketing for a consulting firm. The topic was “Reaching Out Through Messaging”. The other presentation was by a volunteer, who had just won a state award for exceptional volunteerism. His topic was “Doing and Believing.”
As I stepped over the crowd to find a seat in the first presentation, I knocked several handouts to the floor. The room was packed. Our speaker, dressed impeccably in pinstripes, told us of the power of messaging, especially when knocking on the doors of potential donors. On screen, he showed examples of pictures that tell compelling stories about the good work our organizations are doing. Slide after slide showed grinning people with perfect teeth helping people who looked just enough down on their luck. Not dirty or disgusting, the pictured recipients had appropriate gratitude angled just right for the camera. All in all, I got the messages from the pictures. Donating money=nice scenes like this going on. Evidently, these pictures work, because he gave some pretty impressive statistics. Within a moment, the subconscious mind of the donor is invaded with good feelings. Nicely done, I thought. He did say that messaging would apply to recruiting volunteers as well. Paint the picture, tell the story. He showed one picture of volunteers. They were gathered together, arms around one another, smiling for the camera. They looked pretty happy. They weren’t sweating, so I’m guessing this was a before and not an after picture. I did notice they all had perfect teeth. Hmmm, maybe they all went to the same dentist.
I pretty much could sit anywhere I wanted to in the next presentation. I guess most of the attendees elected to go to the concurrent session, “Bridging the Donor Gap”. I looked around at my fellow seat mates and nodded. You can pick out the volunteer managers at symposium. We all pretty much get out our steno pads and wait expectantly.
The award-winning volunteer, Gabe, walked up to the front of the room and turned to look at us. He was tall, with raven hair and craggy features. His smile was impish, as if he had just sneaked into his father’s cocktail party. He thanked us for coming and then proceeded to tell us his story. A youth minister, Gabe began his ministry ten years ago. He had watched with concern the growing number of homeless folks in his area and so he began to collect basic essentials to give out, first on a monthly basis, then every week. This ministry, with the help of the youth of his church, added a soup kitchen, and a counseling service. He, and several youth members volunteered at a local thrift store in exchange for the unsellable items such as socks and kitchen utensils. He then grew quiet as he told us about one of his most memorable clients, “Ruth,” a homeless woman who had lost her job and with a ten-year old son, Jason, in tow, arrived at the church doorstep. Ruth had dropped out of high school when she was sixteen and pregnant and now, at 27, she found herself without a safety net after her mother died. Gabe walked quietly back and forth in front of us, running his fingers through his hair as he told us that shy little Justin loved Batman. His Batman sneakers were well-worn and the only sneakers the youth group had to replace them were plain. Gabe paused and told us what happened next. The youth group started texting all their friends, asking for a pair of boys Batman sneakers in size 7. By the time Gabe arrived at his church the next morning, not only were there three pairs of Batman sneakers arriving at church, but friends of friends brought Batman shirts and toys along with packs of new socks, food, underwear, dresses, diapers, jeans, and more. On those donations alone, his group was able to feed and clothe 5 homeless families. Gabe looked us in the eyes. “Believe,” he said. “Believe that you can do good work and you will.”
When Gabe finished, we all stood up and applauded. He smiled reluctantly. I didn’t check to see if he had perfect teeth. I was too busy being mesmerized by his message.
Coretta is a striking 85-year-old artist. As she enters a room, images of her as a young, startlingly beautiful woman trail her like ethereal mists. Her blue eyes take one in from a perfect face and I feel like a mouse scrutinized by an eagle. Her husband Glenn, is a commercial artist and they have shown me pictures of his artistic product designs for major companies, most of them from the 1960′s. They shared these pictures to show me they are legitimate. Luckily, they seemed to like me.
Coretta offered to design a journal for our use. The journals would be given to patients or family members who would like to record their thoughts. The journal would have poetic prompters to help them visualize things to say. Coretta has written short haiku poems to be incorporated into the sides of the pages, giving the journal a professional quality. She and I corroborated often about how to distribute the journal, types of patients and methods of discovering how the journals were utilized.
As we worked together, Coretta told me in her breathy voice that she had gone to another agency and was initially welcomed with enthusiasm. She was going to paint a flowering vine for their lobby that would be filled with pictures of the clients served. She mused that it would be not only a lovely welcoming addition, but also a therapeutic exercise for the participants. Trouble is, as with many short-staffed, overworked organizations, no one at that agency could take the time to help her get started.
Frankly, if I let myself say it, I’m also too busy for the fluffy projects. But, there was something about those blue eyes that compelled me to scratch out the time from somewhere. And besides, I have gotten a bit self-serving. I need breaks from all the minutiae that weigh me down. Coretta let me float for just a bit.
My plan was to ask some very crafty volunteers to put these journals together and to begin by distributing them to select patients. Over the years, I’ve found that asking for permission to do a project takes forever, so by experimenting and proving that a project works, it makes it easier to sell. Anyway, we finalized her designs, complete with a Coretta sketch of a rose adorning the cover.
She stopped in the other day to talk to me. As we were chatting, she said, “I have been thinking about this whole project. I’m certain that other organizations would like to have it for their clients too, so I think that I would eventually like to market it. That is, after we’ve seen how it is received here and after some modifications.”
Boom, the eagle swooped in and ate me as I was nibbling some cheese. “Oh, how interesting,” I managed. Now, at that point, my brain started shrieking at me, “What!!!! Are you kidding???” And as I let those initial thoughts burst and flutter like confetti in my mind, I looked back into those blues and said, “Coretta, that is your prerogative. This is your work, your ideas, your poetry and art. You own that.”
She nodded with an artist’s smile and I continued, “if you want to do that, then we absolutely can’t use it here and stamp our logo on it. It is yours and you are entitled to keep it and protect it. But I cannot in good faith continue with this project.”
She studied me for a bit and said, “yes, well, I appreciate your honesty.” I could feel her talons caressing me, the me that spent precious time helping her. “I appreciate all your hard work and have thoroughly enjoyed learning about your organization.”
I didn’t say anything to anyone, especially anyone (well, everyone if you must know) who has been making fun of me for wasting my time with this pompous (their words) lady. Honestly, they wanted nothing to do with her.
See, here’s where I sometimes get myself into big trouble and then sometimes I uncover a golden volunteer nugget. I have to do more than just get to know people who want to volunteer. I have this weird side that feels like I’m digging for the next great volunteer. I’ll bet you have a side like that too.
While I’m not sure what will happen, because Coretta may rethink and decide to give her works to us, but really, I doubt that will happen. Did I waste my time with her and did she just want to use me to develop a product to sell? Maybe, but I’m choosing to think not. I’m choosing to think that she had good intentions, at least at the start. And we all know that there are plenty of volunteers with good intentions that don’t continue for some reason. We can only move on.
So, the question becomes, do we continue to dig, oftentimes alone for those volunteer nuggets even though we occasionally come up empty-handed? Until the day volunteer nuggets rain from the sky, I guess we’ll have to.