When a Volunteer is “OK,” But Not OK

Guest post by Meridian Swift. This post originally appeared on volunteerplaintalk

I have this friend who prides herself on “being OK” and always adjusting to whatever the situation presents. However, at the same time, she often makes side comments about having to adapt or being uncomfortable.

So, I’m confused — is she OK or not?

It makes me think of certain volunteers I’ve known who do the same thing. “Oh, that’s fine,” they’ll say, or “No problem,” when, in fact, it isn’t fine and it is a problem. And here’s the thing with these confusing messages: the people who tell you they’re OK when they’re really not believe that they’re making it easier on you.

In fact, they’re making it way harder, because here you are, spending mental and emotional energy trying to figure out what they need through the cryptic verbal and body language clues they’re giving!

When you ask them to be honest, they brush it off, saying “It’s no big deal.” But you know better. So, what can we do with these volunteers? Banish them from our programs? Continue to play a part in their game of emotional hide and seek?

For what it’s worth, I’ve developed a few methods over the years when dealing with the “I’m OK but really I’m not” crowd. Here they are:

Be direct by addressing their verbal or body language clues. 

Say to your volunteer, “I appreciate you telling me that you’re fine with the change in assignment, but I’m sensing from your comment [or body language or tone] that you’re not, and that’s OK. I want to make sure we address your concerns because you’re vitally important to us and play a huge part in how we achieve our goal.”

Lay out your ability to spot clues up front.

Tell volunteers in training sessions or meetings that it’s your job to observe them. Make it funny if you’d like, but get the point across that you can spot bull#$@ a mile away from years of working with people. Call it a curse, your fib-o’meter or something else. Tell them you’ll call them out and then jokingly yell, “The fib-o’meter says you are not OK!” Everyone will laugh, but the point is made.

Then add the serious element. Let volunteers know that it’s your job to make sure they’re giving their time free of annoyances. Their experiences should enhance their lives, not complicate them. And volunteering by grudging acquiescence doesn’t help anyone, themselves included.

Check in with them. 

Ask questions. Ask clients, other volunteers and staff. Checking in to see how volunteers are faring is part of our job. If you hear that “volunteer Jules is complaining all the time,” then by all means, address the issue with Jules directly. Job satisfaction is a key component to not only volunteer sustainability but also to bringing out a volunteer’s best work, which is what we want our clients to have.

Enlist staff.

Enlighten them on the effects of changing volunteer assignments, timeframes or requirements. Let them know changing or cancelling an assignment at the last moment creates volunteer acquiescence, which leads to volunteer fatigue and ultimately to volunteer burnout.

Make it clear that this behavior is unproductive. 

If you’ve had multiple conversations with a volunteer and the behavior is still affecting job performance, then you have to weigh whether this volunteer is irreplaceable and whether you’re going to accept any and all behaviors. But also take into consideration the ripple effect. How does this behavior affect other volunteers? Your clients? What message would the acceptance of negative behavior send to your team?

I vividly remember this one volunteer when I managed a thrift store. Our team was pretty happy most of the time, but then this new volunteer came in and complained continuously to other volunteers but would tell me, “Everything’s fine.” The team’s mood shifted.

One day, I just couldn’t take any more “I’m fine” talk. It wasn’t so much that this volunteer annoyed me; it was the fact that she was destroying the volunteer team’s productive balance. So I took her aside and pointedly asked, “Are you happy here?”

To my surprise, she hesitated and then said, “Not really.” She told me she thought the store was poorly run and the other volunteers were incompetent.

I said, “Then I don’t think you should be in a place that makes you this unhappy.” I didn’t fire her; I gave her my opinion that she should take the steps to quit, and she did. On the spot.

From simply being accommodating to acquiescence to out-and-out hiding displeasure, there are many levels of volunteer flexibility. And it falls upon us to determine where flexibility turns into grudging compliance and burnout. The more direct we are with volunteers (all with kindness), the closer we can get to their motivations and true satisfaction.

And ultimately by investigating the emotions behind the words, we can achieve the intersection between volunteer sustainability and mission transformative work — the place where volunteers give of their time and talents freely, where volunteers also get back the intangible rewards that fill them with joy, and where the volunteers’ contributions have a profound effect.

It’s a magical place where everyone wins.