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The Hawk's Nest

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Confessions of a volunteer

In our culture, the non-profit organization fills a valuable role, and most of them function with a volunteer work force. Which has quite an advantage for the budget; however, without pay or promotion to compensate effort there is potential for complication. How do you get people to fulfill their commitments? It is true they must have a sense of dedication to the association; on the other hand, they are primarily working for a personal intrinsic reward. 

Let me tell you a story. This is, of course, a fictional story and only a figment of my imagination. If this story resembles any meeting you, or someone you know, may have attended it is purely a coincidence. 

I walked into a meeting for an organization where I volunteer, I wasn’t very excited about attending the meeting; still, I felt it was important for the organization so I showed up. I sat down and noticed there were ten chairs set up; four of the chairs were empty. 

Right away, I felt righteous indignation welling up in me. After all, those chairs should be full, if I bothered to get here so should they. They should have at least called. 

That is when the ‘should’ hit the fan. All six of us jumped right in and started flipping should all over those empty chairs and the folks who were not sitting in them. After all, they should know how important this is and we shouldn’t have to kick should all over them to get them there. It didn’t take long and the whole place was a pile of should and it appeared nobody wanted to join us. I wonder why?

As I separate from the story, my first thoughts center on reasons behind the frustration and anger. 

I have learned fear is the basis for all anger, and frustration is a mild form of anger. If this is true then what are my fears around this issue? 

Am I afraid people are not respecting something I think is important? If that is the case, maybe they do not respect me either. Do I fear that something I think is important really is not, and consequently, I am wasting my time? Am I afraid that this organization or project, which has value to me, will fail?

It doesn’t take long for that kind of thinking to turn into downward spiral ripe for destruction with no good possible ending.

It is even more dangerous when several people, in righteous anger, share these fears.  Their perceived problems may not allow them to see, or feel, the negativity. In fact, they may feel productive, when really they are not seeing or addressing the true issue. It is very possible they are looking the wrong way. Nothing is wrong; there has simply been an oversight or an out of sight. 

Here is another story of a volunteer meeting. Once again, this is strictly fiction and any resemblance to any meeting you, or someone you know, may have attended is… well, good.

I walked into a meeting for an organization where I volunteer, I wasn’t very excited about attending the meeting, still, I felt it was important for the organization so I showed up. I sat down and noticed there were ten chairs set up; six of them were full.

Before the meeting started someone in the group made sure five of the group looked at the sixth and thanked them for showing up. Then, that ritual moved around the group until everyone had thanked everyone. When they finished those who could not attend, for whatever the reason, were brought into the group through the thoughts of those there. Wherever they were and whatever they were doing, they were acknowledged and held with care and respect, and then the meeting began.

In that story, care and respect for everyone filled the place. The members there were recognized and thanked; those who were not there were also recognized.  It is a change of focus. There is no doubt in my mind that the meeting room filled with respect and gratitude will be more attractive and productive than a room containing a pile of should.

While it is true that a commitment appeared to be broken it is important for all volunteer organizations to create pleasant and inviting environments. We must remember these folks don’t have to be there. 

Let me tell you another story, again if it resemblances anything which may have happened to you, it is a coincidence, and I’m sorry. 

“Ernie will you join this committee? We desperately need your skills. We meet once a month for a couple of hours.”

Boy is my ego pumped. Because, what I hear is, “I am the only one with the skills they need and, it’s only a couple hours a month, for something I feel is necessary.”

I attend the first meeting and find out my skill set is needed on a subcommittee that is working on an important ongoing project.  

Do you see what is coming? The commitment has gone from of couple of hours a month to an important ongoing project. Guess who wasn’t there, when the first project meeting came on the same date I had another commitment?

Those who did show up start flipping should all over me. It doesn’t feel good. I said I would serve, but only a couple hours a month. I felt the task was not fully represented. Feeling valued got in my way and I did not bother to get clear on the task. In the end I started feeling resentful.

It is easy to say when someone agrees to a commitment, follow through is expected. However (and this is a big however), was the expectation made perfectly clear? Did a two-hour a month commitment become many more hours out of an already busy life? Remember these are volunteers with busy lives. 

When the people feel strongly enough about an organization to consider volunteering, they deserve to have a clear understanding of exactly what they are agreeing to. To assume they will know because they understand “how business works” is a disservice to the people and the organization. When the expectation is clear, before a volunteer commits, they have a better understanding of the job and its value. This creates a much better prospect for a quality member.

Unfortunately, sometimes commitments can’t be fulfilled. It is even more unfortunate when people need to be replaced because they can’t meet their commitment.  When that happens it is better, and far less frustrating, to have an unfilled position than to have only good intention sitting in an empty chair.

Then, at each meeting make sure, everyone is appreciated—even the leaders—and those who are not there are remembered and honored so the meeting begins in a positive uplifting light. 

Remember each of the stories used here are fictitious. But, if the should fits…

Next time try a more rewarding approach, isn’t that why we volunteer anyway?

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Author info

Ernie Hawks Ernie Hawks is a former theater director who has branched into the creative fields of writing and photography. He lives in a cabin in Athol with his lovely wife Linda, and feeds the birds in his spare time.

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time, volunteer, meetings

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