How NOT to handle Volunteers

The XYL is always a problem solver and for years has quietly assisted with a charity to support higher education, at times serving as an organization’s officer.

She described to me how a newer officer she has been mentoring lost sight of the basics that a volunteer’s affinity with the organization they serve is more emotional and conditional than the relationship employees have with their employer.  Treating the volunteers as employees is not going down well.

Her “apprentice” also publicly forgot that when you need to criticize a volunteer you do so personally and privately, rather than in a broadcast email.  Serious bad bedside manner when handling volunteer’s critiques via group emails.  Bad stuff.

A lot in this case has to do with attitude.

The “apprentice officer” has a newly inked “adult executive MBA” from a tertiary school, and may not realize that those she is treating poorly are every bit as well educated, and have the added credentials of being schooled in handling volunteers the real world.

Having an MBA myself I have seen a lot of new MBAs let their diploma and the coveted extra letters on their business card really mess up their relationships with others, especially volunteers.

From early in my career on I often had two different business cards made up, one with my name in it’s most informal form, and often not even a title.  Then I usually had a full-bore big-gun card with titles, formal name, and all those extra letters after the name.  While working in England my employers often wanted trade qualifications, military medals and degrees included in those suffix string of letters.  There is a Monty Python sketch about the English fixation on qualification letters, though in a desk plaque .  With a bit of military time, prior trade qualifications, current business technical qualifications, three undergraduate and two graduate degrees, my full blown card was quite over the top by American sensibilities.  (Currently I use just my name an title, and also carry a personal card along with a ham radio card.)

Enough about attitudes, MBA-bravado, and letters on business cards – when you handle volunteers, especially those who already have done the job you are new into and those you hope will take over from you, some good rules of thumb are:

  • Golden Rule – every bit of the way. All the time, every time.
  • Type Once, Reread Twice and Edit before sending emails. Always.  Delete anything that doesn’t have the right tone.
  • Listen at least twice as much as you talk.
  • Call the Play – that is the role of a team captain – but NEVER dictate or order your volunteers around (only exception is for safety reasons).
  • If you need to criticize or discipline a volunteer, do it one-on-one privately, and always with a goal in mind.
  • If you mess up, own it and never blame it on your volunteers just so that you feel better about it by blaming them.
  • Your charge is to get volunteers to “want” to do things.  Attitude and enthusiasm are the special sauce.
  • Never forget to celebrate and have fun with your volunteers.
  • Praise them publicly both to them and to your peers.  In many cases that is about the only external reward a volunteer receives.
  • Make sure your personal timeline allows your volunteers enough time to do their parts.  Running everything late and against the wire puts unneeded pressure on your volunteers.
  • Have a Plan-B for eventualities, so if something comes off the rails you have a plan to suggest.
  • Be respectful of your volunteer’s time.  You cannot ask them to set aside their lives, especially if it is meaningless stuff.
  • Your volunteers really do not give a hoot how busy you are, or what sacrifices you make.  Those who did your role before already know (or know you are full of it) and those you want to groom will be scared off.
  • Never self-serve nor allow any clique to become self-serving.
  • Did I say it before? Make sure you have fun and your volunteers feel satisfied, or you will lose them.

All simple stuff.

Afraid one sees some of these rules violated often.  Our long defunct original area radio club broke many of these rules almost in an institutionalized way.  I’ve briefly played in unpaid music groups that the director had a dictator fantasy.  I’ve also briefly played with groups where there were two sets of expectations and enforcement of rules, and even though I wasn’t caught (often) in the crossfire my empathy with the typical student players who were being crapped upon lead me to play elsewhere.

All simple stuff, that the Golden Rule sums up best.



One thought on “How NOT to handle Volunteers

  1. Michael Coslo N3LI says:

    Ah yes – altogether too many people forget that we do not handle volunteers like employees. We forget that they are not getting paid, and are giving up their free time to help. I have worked with volunteers since the mid-1990’s and learned that lesson very quickly.

    What is more, some of the groups we work with can demand things that many volunteers do not care to provide. It is patent silliness to demand a security background and drug check for a volunteer. Yet some do. The answer is often “That’s just how it is”. Then followed by “How come we can’t get any volunteers any more?

    I recently went yet another background check for a paid position. That’s fine with me. But if I’m a volunteer – no thank you. There is a difference, and if the group you are being a servant for does not understand that, they will lose people.

    Then there are the multiple certifications required for some volunteer positions. In the end the prospective volunteer often decides that the hassle is not worth their time.

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