A Spoonful Of Sugar

Let’s start today’s blog by defining what a volunteer is in this context:

An unpaid, non-employee who gives of their time, money, and heart to see your endeavor succeed. Volunteers do such diverse things as paint pictures with small children in hospital nurseries, prepare meals for the homeless, missionaries teaching/serving in communities that need the help, airline pilots who ferry medical personnel or equipment in their private plane at no expense, and the kids from Scout Troop #4820 who plant the flags on veteran’s graves for Memorial Day. They man suicide hot-lines at 3:30 in the morning, visit the elderly, and paint the fence of a neighbor who broke their leg last winter.

Sometimes they are part of an organized team that a corporation sponsors. Sometimes they’re just a gal with some extra money who wants to help others. Or a guy who likes fishing and wants to share that joy with his park-and-rec association. But each and every one of them is holding two things in common:

1. They don’t get a paycheck.

2. They can walk away and never come back.

Let us ponder both in order, and see if we can find a way to offset #1, and avoid #2.

Leadership is they key. Whether you are a volunteer in charge of other volunteers, or you are paid staff, you are the one that the team looks to for guidance. You are the “man with the keys” or “the woman who directs us” to those people. Most volunteers, unless they are there under duress (*I’ve had a few of those, who were ordered by a drug court to volunteer to get their charges expunged.*) are rather joyful people willing to do most anything to help the mission of the day.

What volunteers hate is having nothing to do. This devalues them, but is sometimes an unavoidable consequence of you (the leader) doing a great job of recruiting people. Your volunteers bring a friend, or five, and when you expected 15 people you get 27. There is only so much deep cleaning you can do, and once the 18 paint brushes are handed out, you have 9 people to wipe up drips. Such is life.

On the other hand, there are plenty of things you can do to keep your volunteers happy. Mary Poppins had it right with this song: A Spoonful Of Sugar. Listen to the first minute (or the whole thing, because it’s charming) and ponder the words and attitude.

Isn’t that the point of your leadership? Don’t you want the tasks to be accomplished in such a way that your people are smiling, happy with their circumstances, and glad to be working hard? Some of the happiest volunteers I’ve known were out in 100 degree heat handing out water bottles to runners. I personally found great joy filling in a mud-pit on a Habitat for Humanity project site a few years ago. Why? Because someone needed to do it, it helped my team accomplish their job, and I had the skill set – a strong back.

There’s another kind of leadership that leads to the second volunteer option: walking away.

If you are abusive to your volunteers, they should clear out. Nobody needs to be there. The exception, of course, is in the military. There you get “voluntold” to volunteer and you don’t have an option. Or, if you do have an option, it’s so odious that you’d be insane not to volunteer.

But abuse is a rarity. Many other things will drive your people away. Primary among them, in my experience, is being short with them if you’re in charge. It is too easy to get wrapped up in your project and snap at people who ask stupid questions. The problem is that it’s not a stupid question to the volunteer: they genuinely are seeking guidance.

How do you avoid being overwhelmed? Appoint your staff as they arrive. The military has a concept known as “Commanders Intent.” What that means is that all of the subordinates understand what the ultimate goal is, and how it might be accomplished. If you (the commander) inform your people what needs to be done, and how it might be accomplished, you are ahead. If you have people you trust around you, you can give them some more in-depth instructions, and then have them manage the volunteers given that task. You can then turn to the bigger picture, or if you choose a specific task, and get the thing rolling.

If you fail to delegate authority (the responsibility sticks with you no matter what) your people will do exactly what they’re told – and nothing more. They have no idea what you might need done. But by having people around you that can also direct and delegate, you will meet your goals with less friction.

Having snacks, coffee, water, t-shirts, and so on for your people is also a morale builder. The odd certificate of achievement is also a nice thing, but may not fit with your activity. One thing you have in abundance to hand out is thanks. You can thank people as they go about the tasks, you can acknowledge them in front of the group, and you can praise the whole group. Any counseling for bad things should be done as privately as possible. Then the aim should be correction, not punishment, because they didn’t show up to make things worse in the first place.

How can you drive your volunteers away for good? Levy unreasonable expectations on them. Demand precision that paid professionals struggle to provide. Criticize them for their efforts if they fail to meet your high mark. (This is especially hurtful, and can be avoided with praise such as “You did a great job on that cabinet. When we do the next set, could you make sure the stain on the wood penetrates all the corners?” That sounds a lot better than, “The cabinets look horrible. The corners are nothing like the rest.”)

You can also drive your people away with silence. Saying nothing about their taking time to help is as bad as criticism for some. They want to help, and if you ignore them, they will find other things to do instead.

Perhaps the biggest morale killer is when you criticize them for doing too much. “You shouldn’t have trimmed the hedges at that house. Our program is just to mow the lawn. Don’t ever do that again, even if it improves the results.” Yes, those kinds of things happen. And they drive volunteers without a thick hide off the reserve and into the lush grass beyond. Where they can find another volunteer activity that pleases them.

It’s the Golden Rule that applies to volunteerism: treat others as you would be treated.

That’s about as simple as it can be.

Remember we all screw up.

The circular saw won’t be put away clean enough to suit you: clean it yourself.

The flyer won’t have the graphics perfectly centered, but since the volunteer did all the work and paid for the printing, it’s a lot better than having nothing, and should be viewed as a labor of love. Do you scorn people for love?

The dog-walker will occasionally miss a woodtick on your dog’s back. Pluck it yourself and be glad that they got your pooch out for a run in the park while you’re trapped in bed.

The list goes on. But your supply of volunteers won’t if you don’t show compassion and appreciation.

One final note that’s similar to the above: better is the enemy of good enough. In any task you undertake, there is a level of quality that is good enough to get the job done. To redo the task, or fret that it wasn’t better, is a waste of time and talent. Your volunteers are most likely giving it their all, and if it’s not up to your expectations it’s most likely your cross to bear. Don’t tut-tut over the paint that’s dripped a bit when the room had gone without paint for the previous twenty years. That ramp they built for the old woman’s wheelchair doesn’t need to be absolutely flat at the joints of the boards, it only has to allow her chair to roll over them with a little bump. Brownies without powdered sugar are still better than brownies that never got made at all. Keep that in mind when you begin to criticize the hard work that was done with the right spirit. Because if you keep shooting for “the best” you may be doing it alone the next time.

That’s all. Just had to say that since I volunteer a lot of places and I hope all of my various supervisors read this blog. Volunteers want to help: help them meet their goal.

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