Dear Nonprofiteer, What do I do with a prima donna?

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I just got a letter from a prospective volunteer, announcing her desire to “make a significant contribution of time and expertise to your organization.”  She went on to tell me about all of her accomplishments at various other agencies, for-profit and non-, and concluded by saying, “Please let me know when it will be convenient for us to get together to discuss my participation in your work.”

Oh, puh-leese.  What would be convenient would be for her to come into the office, find out what we need done, and start doing it.  What would NOT be convenient would be for her to imagine herself in strategy sessions with our CEO and our Board of Directors, or representing us in encounters with the press or major donors.  We’re an established social service agency with serious work to do, and it’s not like we’ve been sitting here for sixty-five years waiting for this woman to have some spare time.

I’d appreciate any advice you can provide as I prepare to let this woman down from her fantasies of changing the world.  I don’t want to turn her off but I can only offer her what actually needs doing, and that has very little to do with what I gather is her self-image.

Signed, Not Up For Babysitting

Dear Baby:

First things first: what are you so pissed off about? The e-mail you received didn’t say, “Any bimbo walking in off the street could do your job, so stand aside, honey,” but you’re responding as though it did.  Perhaps this is at the foundation of many agencies’ difficulties in using volunteers: resentment from the staff at the notion that just anyone could do what they do.  But if there is such a notion, it isn’t flowing from prospective volunteers, and they shouldn’t be the ones punished for its existence.

So okay, deep breath.  In, out.  Feel better?  Good.  Now let’s deal with the issue actually at hand.

As one of my much wiser colleagues points out, the key is to realize that everything Prima Donna wrote to you translates as, “I want to help,” and to screen out any component of the way she expressed it that seems to to suggest “I want to be worshipped” or “I want to be babysat” or anything else.  That actually is the point, after all: she wants to help, and she has some skills, and she wants you to know both of those things because she’s afraid that if you don’t know about her skills you’ll translate her desire to help into a willingness to file, or clean toilets.  And PD thinks, not unreasonably, that if you don’t have anything better for her to do than file or clean toilets, she should go somewhere else with her offer of help.

But here’s the problem: you know what needs doing, and very little of it seems to call on her skills.  So now what?

Well, now you make an appointment with her and set aside an hour to tell her what it is you’re doing and what you actually need help with.  It’s not the end of the world, or of your volunteer relationship, that what you need done isn’t what she’s skilled at, provided you acknowledge that while telling her that you hope she’ll agree to do it anyway.  Often people cite their accomplishments and skills simply to give you a hook on which to hang the work you want done; try playing along.  If a person says, “I have years of experience with logistics,” try responding, “We have to make sure every single client has a mentor, and matching mentors with clients and following up is a logistical nightmare.”  Even if what you need is mentors rather than a new way to track them, you’re more likely to get what you need by speaking the language of your interlocutor.

This person is not, the Nonprofiteer suspects, actually a prima donna: she’s a skilled laborer with an interest in your cause.  She has no way of knowing what tasks you have available, and she’s probably been accustomed to searching for employment by citing her skills and guessing which employers need them.  The fact that for a volunteer post you’re really better off thinking, “What lights my fire?” rather than “What am I qualified for?” is a well-kept secret.

So find out what lights her fire–what about the work of your agency made her choose it as a possible home for her skills and time.  Then talk about the things that go into that work until her response to one of them is “Well, I could do that.”

But this requires you to think not only about what you’re doing but what you could be doing if you had more/better people to do it.  Would you like the double the size of the mentoring program?  Would you like to liberate the social workers from their paperwork?  If you think you have no use for volunteers–because they can’t provide direct client services, for example–then you’re not thinking hard enough.

It’s your job–and I assume you’re an Executive Director or a Program Director, and not a volunteer coordinator or you’d already know what I just said about translating the stated desires of volunteers into what they actually mean–to figure out what needs doing and present it to your prospective volunteer.  Does this mean she’ll automatically want to do what you want to have done?  No: but the more straightforward you are about what needs doing (and, honestly, about the extent to which this person is overqualified for it), the more likely you are to hear “Well, I could do that” at the conclusion of your spiel.  And as s/he becomes more familiar with your environment–and more committed to your mission–s/he’ll become readier to say not “I have these skills” but “You have these needs, and I can fulfill them”–which will make both of you happy.

The Nonprofiteer has been on both sides of this desk: she was the prospective volunteer saying, “I’m a professional fundraiser and a freelance journalist and a lawyer; surely you can use me for something!” as well as the volunteer coordinator saying, “Those are all really useful skills but what we need to do is recruit volunteers and find transportation and housing for them.”  What she learned is that she’s unique in lots of ways but not this one: once she’s involved with an agency, she’ll do anything for it, but til then her first concern is not having her time wasted.  So the job of staff dealing with volunteers is, first, to have half-a-dozen tasks from which people can choose immediately; and, second, to think all the time about the work of the agency in terms of “What else we could do if we had more skilled hands.”

If you’re too busy to do this while you’re also being the Executive Director or the Program Director, you need to sit down with someone–a  volunteer?–and explain this to them until they can do it.  Because the task isn’t babysitting: it’s sharing.  And, as another much wiser colleague of mine observed at the end of a hard project, “I got much more out of this than I put into it.”  Put a little thought and kindness into volunteer management, and you will, too.


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