Saturday, July 21, 2012

Volunteer Management: A Two-Way Street

I wanted to share this story about a phone call that I had last week with a woman  who has begun volunteering for Lost Dogs of Wisconsin. I have withheld her name and the name of the shelter for privacy's sake. She has a few hours to spare each week and has graciously decided to share it with us.

As we chatted, I asked her about her other interests and volunteer work. She has volunteered at a Wisconsin shelter for the last ten years but is very disturbed about the kill rate and the shelter policies. I asked her (as I always do if someone brings up these sorts of concerns) if she had sat down with the Executive Director and discussed her concerns. She said no. Volunteers weren't allowed to speak with the Director. Her concerns had to go to another staff member first. Except for staff turnover is very high, morale is low and nobody ever seemed to take her concerns seriously.

Ten years? You volunteer somewhere for ten years and you aren't allowed to speak with the director? You aren't allowed to have some sort of a voice in how things are done? This isn't a crazy lady. This is a soft spoken, highly intelligent woman who does a lot of research and reading on her own. This is a woman who probably has some very good insights and suggestions after having been there for ten years. Her suggestions might increase donations, streamline operations or save lives.

I saw this article on Linked In  about  non-profit management. It explains that when management interacts positively with volunteers, even briefly, the whole organization will benefit.

Here is the link to the article. I would like to email it anonymously to the shelter director mentioned above.

Here is a quote from the article: "Build on the elementary concept of greeting volunteers casually by finding ways to ask their opinions or give input about something."

I've had many mentors in my life that I will be forever endebted to.  A couple of forestry professors, a newspaper publisher, a horseback riding instructor - people who could always make time for my endless questions and my pesky enquiring mind.  One boss, way before email, made time to sit down with me once a week; to go over my list of questions, either over coffee or lunch.  His influence and inspiration still touches my life daily, even 25 years later.  Phrases he used and values he instilled in me have shaped who I am. My husband also still quotes things and talks fondly about one of his first bosses who helped shape his career.

Are those mentors still out there?  Are there shelter directors mentoring their shelter staff and volunteers?  Are there shelter staff and volunteers that hang around the office of the director, waiting to ask a quick question or catch a few words of wisdom? Are there directors that make the time to really get to know the staff and volunteers, asking for their input and instilling in them a passion for saving lives? And the big question: Are the shelter staff and volunteers of today going to be the Executive Directors of tomorrow?

Or are they uninspired, just putting in time because their input doesn't count. Because they've waited ten years for someone to listen, and nobody ever did.

"True leadership is contagious. People catch it and it germinates in their spirits." - Stan Toler


  1. when I was a nurse manager, my goal was to enable my staff so well I would work myself out of a job. No one is indispensable; volunteers as well as paid workers need chances for input and validation the work they do is noted and appreciated. thank you for this insightful post.

  2. Great article! I had a similar conversation last week with a long timer volunteer in a high kill shelter. We were trying to assess whether the shelter might try some new techniques to adopt more out. It was clear she is always walking on eggshells and has to be ever so careful not to get dismissed as a volunteer. That would crush her as she continues to save many lives (doing the shelters job for them at no pay). In my experience kill shelter directors are not mentoring staff due to inherent system dysfunctionality and high turnover. It's a negative, secretive environment, death ridden place,not conducive to many positive ideas.Every now and then a persistent albeit downtrodden volunteer who won't give up on the pets is able to push a good idea through. (So long as it a) doesn't reflect badly on any employees egos and b)takes up little to none of the shelters time or resources)

  3. Great blog. People who give their time should also be able to give their opinion/voice!