The Best Advice I Ever Got – Not Just For Famous People

This post was inspired by the Nonprofit Blog Carnival.

Let me whisper some advice in your ear...
Let me whisper some advice in your ear…

I don’t know how they pulled it off, but when I was in 10th grade my tiny high school managed to get David Mamet to teach an after-school screenwriting class for one semester. As a bushy-tailed aspiring writer, I could not have been more excited.

Sadly, most of what he taught me about actual writing has faded over the years – or perhaps I have so completely assimilated his lessons into my daily practices, I can’t tell where his ideas end and mine begin. That just means the class was a success for me.

But this post isn’t about writing lessons – it’s about life lessons, really. And it was from Mr. Mamet in this screenwriting class that I got the single best piece of advice of my life.

I remember it clearly – it was a day he didn’t want to focus on writing, but on everything else. His lead-up was dramatic, as he said, “If you take nothing else away from this class, remember this one thing forever.” And then he wrote on the chalkboard in big, underlined letters:

“Be polite!”

Since that moment, these words have been in the back of my mind, pushing their way to the surface whenever I have a choice of how to react in a difficult situation. The server got my order wrong? Someone is frustrated with an online webinar’s bad audio? Trying to get a hotel upgrade? Nothing I or anyone else tries is ever more effective than a genuine smile, empathetic language, and the two most powerful words in the world: “Please” and “Thanks.”

The beauty of this advice is that it translates well across all of life’s difficulties, both personal and professional, and that includes volunteer engagement issues. Here are three general ways being polite can help your organization work with volunteers:

The Ask

We said it before (including during our Nonprofit Insights webinar with the Corporation for National and Community Service about volunteering data): The best way to get people to volunteer is to ask them. But be sure to ask them politely – keep in mind what your prospective volunteers care about, and approach them from a place of understanding and kinship. You’ll be amazed what a simple, well-thought-out “please” will do for your recruitment efforts!

The Work

Having trouble with your volunteers? Sometimes they don’t understand the importance of staying focused and on-task. Perhaps you’re working with young volunteers who spend too much time socializing. Perhaps you need to provide some constructive feedback on the job they’re doing. Remember to be polite by respecting the hard work they’ve already done, and expressing your support as they find more ways to make a difference for your organization.

The Follow-Up

Nothing is more important for your relationship with your volunteers than saying “Thank you.” Make sure you are sincere – you don’t necessarily need a fancy trophy or a gift card. But you will always need a bright smile for each person. Lead by example with your polite and appreciative attitude, and your volunteers will take their cue from you.

I hope this advice has been as valuable to you as it is to me. At this point, it’s unlikely I’ll be a famous screenwriter. But I’ll tell you one thing – I can always, and will always, be polite. In that respect, David Mamet and I have a lot in common.

Has a polite attitude helped you with your volunteer engagement? Tell us about it!