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Why Abusing Your Volunteers Is So Stupid

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Sadly, I must take time out of my busy schedule (from lounging on the beach) this Monday morning to open up a discussion about appreciation and reverence for the unpaid volunteers who so generously and selflessly donate their time to further your cause.  I’m shocked and saddened that this is even a conversation we have to have when the weather is this beautiful and I’m in such desperate need of a tan.

I know that most of you think that you’re good to your volunteers.  You say thank you.  You send them a nice little note after an event and some of you may even have the forethought to throw a volunteer appreciation day.  If you’re not, I’m not surprised.  These are the most underappreciated people in your organization.  It costs very little to throw a pizza party or toss some dogs on the grill for the people that have built the foundation of your organization.  I’ve been known to pay for such things out of my own pocket after an event because, after all, without all of those charitable souls my events would have fallen flat on their ritzy little faces.

I have many volunteer horror stories in my career relating to organizations that fail to acknowledge the important work of their volunteers.  I could share a story about a board member’s wife actually screaming at 2 young college kids to “get out of her way if they weren’t going to be doing anything helpful” at a gala (with donors standing right in front of her, true story) or I could regale you with the idiocy of a board member who actually got a hold of the volunteer list and called every single person who didn’t show up to our event (it turned out to be a rough night) to bitch them out for stiffing us on game day but I think I’m going to turn my attention to something that happened to a colleague of mine just this weekend.  I find it just as horrifying.

She had been asked to join a committee for an upcoming networking event.  She wanted to help but knew she had a very busy schedule and relayed that to the other committee members.  She has this to say about the way this went, “I was clear that in 2011, I was unable to make a very large commitment because of a big event and client commitments therefore, a simple networking in this “club” would be acceptable and beneficial. Signing on to go sell sponsorship for free and without any history/emotional attachment to this industry group of strangers was NOT an expectation I was going fulfill.

“I was happy to help with a letter and things, but I could NOT reach out to corporate contacts to ask for funds to sponsor a group (of under a half dozen ppl, mind you) I had only 2 meetings with. I was unable to fulfill even the letter I agreed to draft (due to the chairing of a large $1 million dollar landmark fundraiser) and owned up to that, immediately profusely apologizing.

“Over the next month or so, obviously, it did not sit well that I had shirked on my one tasks. I get that. VALID? ABSOLUTELY. But are we in 7th grade?  Act like adults, express your qualms and move on to progress.  In the meantime, I watched as the documentation, emails and messaging boards came together: Slip ups about meetings I was not informed of, waiting for an hour of my time for administrators never to show for conference calls, wasting time in my day reading every message, communicating to recruit other volunteers, etc. In reality, instead of the lame festering that obviously happened (only found out about this the day of the event), I would have been happy to be told they did not need/want me and I could move on to more beneficial ways to contribute my VOLUNTEERED time.”

In the end, she had recruited 3 volunteers who received little to no communication about what was expected of them during this event and she was actually verbally accosted by one of the networking members who felt that my colleague should have helped bring in sponsorship dollars, although she had clearly communicated that she wouldn’t be doing that.  Right way to deal with the situation?  Sure, if you’ve just escaped a mental institution and/or you’re Charlie Sheen.

Again, I shouldn’t even have to say it but be VERY careful about how you treat the people in your community.  Whether the organization felt that my colleague had fulfilled her duties or not is not the point.  If there was a miscommunication, fix it and move forward.  To wait three months to bring something to light while wasting everyone’s time is borderline schizophrenic, not to mention horribly unprofessional.

I know I’ve said this before but every single time you communicate with someone in your community, you have the opportunity to turn them in to a champion for your cause.  I think the next time you start to feel that you can run these types of events by yourself; you should give it the old college try.  I think that you will quickly realize what a spastic moron you really are.  If your volunteers aren’t living up to your expectations, that’s on YOU not them.  How about anonymously polling your volunteers the next time you have an event to find out what YOU could be doing better?  I mean you do realize that they’re not being paid to put up with your BS, right?



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  1. Marie Daniels

    May 2, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    I think this is an interesting comment considering that their is honest assessment of personal blame in this post. If you work in non-profit, which is who these posts are aimed at, dear incognito, you would understand that this is a continuous issue that comes up. Clear communication and realistic expectations to and from volunteers consistently is a downfall of organizations across the country.

    I also find it interesting that you aim your answer mistakenly at the author rather than the actual person who had the experience. This type of communication is precisely the example of what we as non-profit development teams encounter regularly. I am sure we could instead have Tami write the organization name and names of the individuals and let them publicly drag a good meaning organization through banter over an error in judgement on how adults should communicate when asking for favors from volunteers you either know or are hoping will become brand ambassadors. As the saying goes, there are 3 sides to every story.

    The point for our audience to hear is listen to your volunteers.What is the amount of commitment you ask of a volunteer or new member? What is their level of attachment? Are they there to explore a new group, network, become potential donor, add a few hours of service or CHAIR the whole kit and caboodle?

    Are you respectful of your own time and theirs? Have you communicated with all your volunteers in a timely consistent manner? Have you been honest with them about your needs throughout the process? Your teams and your blood pressure will be very thankful when this type of stress is avoided.

    You will earn much more respect from your volunteers and colleagues by considering these points.

    Good Luck to yourself. We appreciate your feedback and hope you can respond and contribute about the subject matter that development teams deal with day in and day out — blame is usually not one of them but communication certainly is when you are wearing many different hats.

    Thank you.

  2. Marie Tahan Daniels

    May 3, 2011 at 8:59 am

    We had a very interesting comment back this morning and I thank the visitor for their response. It is quite an emotional response so I can only assume that the responder who refuses to be known is probably involved. Tami and I have decided it would NOT be in the best interest to name this person because the possibility that the name the organization might be implied. The group is made up of much more substance than perhaps this one scenario and has higher goals to think about. The organization is a fledgling chapter of a networking awareness group, not an event production company. Please be assured that the organization in no way is responsible for the lack of tact that has been displayed. If there was a true concern for a non-profit organization out there which was misrepresenting itself to donors in the name of social good, rest assured we would then find it pertinent to name the organization.

    *To the person who wrote the response: I am sorry this blog post was such an agitation in your day. The post does admit blame intentionally in the quote.The real barrier here for many organizations is a choice to communicate freely so that progress is made for the true goal. The word sabotage is strong. Use it wisely. The organization is by no means hurt by our restraint in naming it. We have gone to great lengths to NOT taint this very helpful, active international group. As with many situations, a brief talk between adults probably would have cleared many things up in the early stages. Good Luck to you.

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