A reader writes:
My wife and I volunteer extensively at our church, especially with the children’s activities. We have a small issue with the staff member in charge. We have been professionals for quite a few years, yet, this person treats us like high school students working at a fast food restaurant. For instance, we are early every Sunday to help corral kids to their classes. One Sunday we were planning to miss and emailed her. The response was something along the lines of “OK, but let’s not make this a habit.” I’m not sure if I took that response too hard or what, but my wife and I felt pretty small. We thought maybe that we had left her short-staffed so the NEXT time we had to miss, we arranged for a replacement couple (who also volunteer in the same role there, just less often) to help out. Her response was a curt, “I will take care of the staffing, thanks.” Well, that just pissed me off. It’s like I can’t win.
I recognize that organizations really want to treat volunteers differently than employees for the simple fact that the organization NEEDS volunteers to stay fully staffed and volunteers can be flaky and can be put off by the smallest thing and not come back. I guess my question is two parts: What key attitude changes do you make to manage volunteers versus employees? And how best do we give critical feedback to the staff member regarding her behavior?
This woman needs some remedial training in how to manage volunteers, because this is not how you treat them.
Anyone managing workers — volunteers or paid employees — should speak to them respectfully, but it’s especially true when a worker is donating their time for free. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when volunteers need to be corrected or talked to about a problem or even separated from the organization, but it does mean that you go about all of that with extra care and with the recognition that they are doing the organization a favor by working for free.
So what does that mean in practice here? Well, if missing a shift caused problems, it’s certainly appropriate for her to speak to you about it — but not in a curt email. She should have called you or talked to you the next time you were in, explained what she needed and why, and checked to see if that was something you’re able to give.
Her “let’s not make this a habit” email after one instance of canceling was incredibly condescending and unwarranted. She shouldn’t say that even if it had happened multiple times (instead she should have a conversation; see above), but it’s especially inappropriate in this context.
The same thing goes for the second incident: There are legitimate reasons for why she might prefer to handle finding a replacement herself, but again, that’s something she should explain to you politely.
It sounds to me like she’s not clear on the role of volunteers and how to best manage them — and the fact that volunteers are people who are doing her employer a favor.
I would do two things:
1. Talk to her. Say something like, “Jane, we really enjoy volunteering our time here, but we’ve had a couple of email exchanges with you recently that left a bad taste in our mouth. When you said X, it left us feeling like we’re not being treated as conscientious adults, and that there’s not much appreciation for the fact that we’re donating our time. I certainly understand and expect that you have standards that you need to hold volunteers to, but if there’s a problem, I’d rather you discuss it with us in a different manner.”
2. If she reacts badly to this, or if her behavior doesn’t change, I’d take it up with whoever manages her. This is the kind of thing that person would want to know about — because otherwise they’re going to start losing volunteers and not know why.