An Ending of sorts between me and the Volunteer that Volunteered (and Cared) Too Much

I had been meaning to write a follow up to a previous post "The Volunteer Who Wants to Volunteer All the Time" for a while but neither had the headspace nor capacity to write it out, especially with how COVID impacted my and my non-profit employer's work.

However, I wanted to close the loop, especially as we learned what had gone wrong after getting some outside opinions. And it's a valuable lesson to other non-profit volunteer programs…we made too many exceptions to a beloved volunteer to the point where exceptions became the norm for this volunteer. And while we were thinking the exceptions were helpful to a volunteer everyone loved and was dedicated to the organization, the exceptions creeped and bent to the point of over-accommodating this individual’s wishes and whims at the expense of staff and largely on for the benefit of the volunteer.

So after my first post, I talked to our ED about how the situation was becoming untenable for both me and the volunteer. The tense animosity between the volunteer and myself was draining for me, and clearly not a great experience for the volunteer. I prided myself on not bringing my ED nitpicky issues that I could resolve myself, but this was no longer felt like one of them. ED and I strategized a bit about what ‘acceptable’ terms were, and then ED led a conversation with the volunteer.

The convo between the 3 of us started went south quickly. The volunteer immediately became defensive and was generally irritated the conversation was ‘Let’s talk about how to help take some of the burden off you and create a schedule we can all live with’ instead of ‘You can come in whenever you want’. The volunteer was convinced we were inhibiting their work, and ‘if only we would just let {them} work, this would all resolve itself’. In the end, we set a 3 day/week schedule with set start and stop times. The volunteer wasn’t happy and let it show.

As their role required coordination and communication with me, every interaction always had the comment ‘Well, if I was only allowed to do my work’. We put no pressure on the volunteer to do xyz or have a quota for completion, and always communicated any overflow or left over projects can be handled by staff for things that had a hard deadline. They took that as an insult.

They would complain to other staff (some of whom were sympathetic, but most didn’t want to be involved but didn’t want to upset the volunteer more), so it slowly became an org wide issue. Within two weeks, the volunteer started bending the hours….they’d arrive 30 minutes early and wait for a staff member to arrive and enter with them (otherwise the exterior doors were locked). They would find out which staff members were staying the latest and then ask if that person can stay until the staff person leaves. The staff were accommodating (another issue) but then started to get annoyed quickly that the volunteer was never ready to leave at the agreed upon time. Then we had another ‘difficult conversation’ about start and stop times and frustratingly that more or less resulted in me escorting them in and out of the building (because of the locked doors). This was all in midst of busy season, we were short staffed, the winter greys had set in…It was becoming emotionally draining. I was functioning at a high level – and my work ranged from higher level strategy, process building, financial projects to helping load boxes into cars. I was all over the place.

Then COVID hit. Immediately our org paused all volunteering. The department the volunteer worked in was put on pause to allow us to focus on the most immediate needs. However, the volunteer would email myself and other staff members asking if/when they could come in (with some acknowledgement about COVID safety), but ultimately didn’t seem to trust us to reach out if/when they were able to come back. After any e-news update, within an hour, we’d get an email asking they could come back. Worth pointing out they did not have a smart phone, so it felt like there was obsessive email checking.

Towards the fall, the program that was put on pause was restarted…both out of external need but also risking having the valuable/important inventory become unusable (it had expiration dates that while seemingly arbitrary, had to be observed). I talked out a game plan with the ED. I was over-extended with 50+ hour weeks and couldn’t take anything else on and needed extra hands to help with this, so I was desperate. So again, we had an agreed upon schedule, the volunteer was excited to start back and it seemed like an unseen break caused things to cool down. But once on site, it was almost like the previous six months never happened. The volunteer was frazzled having been out so long and having upcoming ‘deadlines’ (again, all we asked was that they do what they can while in the building, and we’d finish the rest). They couldn’t adjust to changes we made in the program to expedite requests and would become so frazzled it became draining to try to guide and coach them. They had made/created/edited copies of documents at home which added to confusion with multiple copies/versions of the same document. Conversations were still tense with ‘if you’d only let me work the hours I needed’. They wrote a letter to the ED asking the same again, but only wanted to meet if their ‘demands’ were being met. I truly approached the volunteer every time in good faith, with respect and calmness, but between their frazzled-ness, frustration, and generally displeasure with not having the range of access they thought they should, it all became oh so draining.

After 2 months, due to COVID case increases, we went back to no volunteers. While my ED and I considered making an exception to allow this person coming in, especially to help with end of year inventory, which they usually helped with, I also realized managing them was taking more emotional energy then if I just had myself and another staff member throw some hours in. And it was fine and in a way relaxing. I turned the tunes up and did data entry…no having to negotiate with the volunteer, converting their work into what was usable, etc. It was a nice change of pace.

And since COVID kept on strong through the Winter, we maintained the ‘no volunteers’ policy for everyone’s safety…and in this case, sanity.

WHAT WE LEARNED:
We talked through this situation with a volunteer manager at a local health system, who manages a significant volunteer pool. What we learned was simple: As an organization, we had constantly made exceptions for this volunteer for YEARS. Schedules, access, input into the program they helped in, etc. They had everyone’s ear and used it, and we did what we could to keep them happy including changing how staff worked. Yikes. This set us up for enabling this behavior and trying to course-correct far too late. After talking it out with the volunteer manager, it seemed the only realistic solution was to disallow the volunteer to keep volunteering in their specialty task, but they were welcome to join the regular volunteer activities.

How does the story end?
I’m not entirely sure. Through the winter, the org maintained the 'no volunteers during COVID' rule. Like many non profits, COVID forced the organization to change focus quickly to meet the local need. And I’m proud of the work the org and staff did and how we were able to support our local community, but it was draining. 50+ hour weeks, consistent under-staffing and under-resourced even though we were pulling in significantly more funds due to the org’s exposure and local work. I left the org a few months ago for another non-profit job, one with fewer responsibilities and where I’d wouldn’t be as spread out in responsibilities. It was a hard choice as I believed in the organization and the work and rose in leadership and influence, but I needed something less stressful (among other things).

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