Dear Nonprofiteer, Does the punishment fit the crime?

Dear Nonprofiteer:

For the past ten years I’ve been a volunteer at a local art museum.  Because I speak both Spanish and French, I’ve been assigned to the front desk, helping to guide visitors where they want to go (even if that’s only the bathroom).  I’ve regularly worked Saturdays and Sundays.  It’s actually a fairly isolating activity: the only time I see most of the other volunteers is the annual volunteer luncheon, to which we all look forward.

A personal matter prevents me from working at the museum this summer.  I told the volunteer coordinator this, but also assured her I would be back on the job in September.  In response, she threw a fit, demanding to know the nature of my personal concern (which I declined to share), berating me for leaving the museum during its busiest season (which summer actually is not) and telling me she wasn’t sure they’d have room for me when I wished to return in the fall.  Despite this unpleasant encounter, I had every intention of returning to my post after Labor Day.

But I’ve just learned that the volunteer coordinator removed my name from the list of invitees to the annual volunteer luncheon, apparently telling her secretary (who told me) that I didn’t volunteer regularly enough to be eligible to attend.  I’m really disappointed at not being able to see my fellow volunteers, and really infuriated by this exclusion.  Am I just being petty?  Signed, Trilingual and Faithful

Dear Trilingual:

Someone’s being petty here, but it’s certainly not you.  The inability of volunteer coordinators to remember that they’re charged with a precious resource always amazes me, and your volunteer coordinator seems to be competing for some sort of prize in that regard: World’s Most Clueless, perhaps.  There’s no earthly reason to challenge a volunteer who needs some time off, nor to suggest that s/he’ll be unwelcome whenever s/he returns. 

For me, the exclusion from the luncheon would be the last straw.  But if you could stand to do one more service for the agency, consider writing a letter to the volunteer coordinator explaining that her dismissal of your work has made you decide to offer your volunteer services elsewhere, where they’ll be appreciated.  Be sure to copy her supervisor.  That way, whether or not she takes the hint to be more civil in the future, someone in authority will be aware that civility to volunteers is an issue.

A word to the wise manager of volunteers: virtue may be its own reward, but don’t expect to keep volunteers if you don’t make an effort to acknowledge their special contribution.  They’re not employees, and unlike employees they have little patience for the gallows humor of the workplace: "You can’t fire me; slaves must be sold."  They’re people who are offering some of their scarce time in support of your agency’s efforts.  The little gestures of appreciation and gratitude from you are all the recompense they get–so don’t stint them.  No matter how tight your budget, it can always accommodate another person at the volunteer recognition event; and if it’s at all a close call (the person hasn’t volunteered in the past two years but swears she’s coming back soon; the person is often late to her shift but does a great job once she arrives), err on the side of inviting rather than excluding.

It’s no accident that I’m responding to this incident largely with the feminine pronoun: women still make up a disproportionate share of the volunteer corps, and it may well be just good old-fashioned sexism that causes their work to be devalued and ignored.  Trilingual, in your shoes I would not only not volunteer at the museum again–I wouldn’t even visit it.  But you’re probably a bigger person than I.

Even if volunteer efforts weren’t important to the smooth operation of the agencies they serve, it would be worth treating volunteers well: they never fail to be among the most faithful donors.  And who among us doesn’t "have room" for one more donor?

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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Does the punishment fit the crime?”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Staggering. I feel certain T&F’s manager isn’t a regular reader–she’d have acquired a clue by now if so–and my craving for her side of the story will likely remain unfulfilled. My own experiences with this category have been mostly bad, but I know they MUST have their own perception to tell. When you warn volunteer coordinators that they cannot “expect to keep volunteers” if they don’t treat ’em right, are they rolling their eyes and hoping to be thrown in the briar patch? I mean, maybe even a trilingual and faithful ten-year veteran is a nuisance … could it be? I’d love to hear from someone who has been there.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I can’t, of course, provide that perspective but I suspect there are some volunteer coordinators who believe that they’ve been given a task–putting out a newsletter, say, or directing museum visitors– and, instead of staff, a group of lazy good-for-nothing amateurs to accomplish it. If that’s the case, the problem actually lies with the agency’s Executive Director: it’s his/her job to remember, and make clear to the volunteer coordinator, that the people (volunteers) and the process (making them feel valuable) are the product; any other product is just gravy. This is hard for overtaxed staffs to remember–they see help in any shape and grasp it like drowning people–but judicious repetition of “You’re not the tour coordinator, you’re the volunteer coordinator–the people are the product” should go a long way toward improving conditions for volunteers and the people who employ them.

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