The Care and Feeding of Volunteers

When my kids were young, I wanted to volunteer and give them the experience of helping others. So, I went to my local St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. The store sold donated clothing and household items at a low cost, which gave those in need the dignity of being able to make some choices. Proceeds from the store were channeled into helping the poor with rent, utilities, medications, and food.

Gretchen ran the local store and was its only paid employee. Whenever I visited to drop off gently used items, there were always busy volunteers happily doing what the store needed. I asked Gretchen about the possibility of me volunteering with my kids in tow, promising that I would keep track of them and do my best to put them to work too. Gretchen not only welcomed me, she was happy to get my kids involved.

When we showed up on our appointed day to help out, Gretchen had a job ready-made for a mom with her six and four-year old. She quickly put us to work sorting hangers for clothes. She explained to us that the people who sorted the clothes needed to hang them up so that they could be sold in the store. But all the hangers she had, and she had thousands, were all mixed up together. If the hangers were organized, it would be much easier to get the clothes into the store faster. The customers would be able to buy what they needed, and the money they spent would help people who didn’t have enough to eat or needed medicine to stay well.

I marveled at how Gretchen elevated that simple job into something noble—and my kids responded by enthusiastically sorting hangers for about an hour. They took great pride and pleasure in seeing their piles of hangers grow. Gretchen stopped by every so often and praised them for their work.

After about an hour, Gretchen brought the children a small glass of Coke (with my permission) and a couple of cookies. It was break time. She sat down on the floor with them and talked to them. Then it was back to work for another half hour.

Right before it was time for us to leave, but, Gretchen had one more job for the children. She asked them to strike a pose in the store window for a few minutes. Can you imagine how much fun it was for my kids to be live models in a store window?!

Of course we returned to volunteer a number of times during that summer, and my children sorted mountains of hangers. We even brought trash bags full of hangers home to sort. I never had to drag them to the store. They wanted to go.

A few years later, when I worked in a school, I got my kindergarten class to sort hangers too. Gretchen taught me how to communicate this simple task in a way that excited them about being an important part of something that helped others.

As I think about those experiences, I realize that Gretchen offered the perfect model of how to attract, treat, and appreciate volunteers.

Let’s look at what she did.

  • Gretchen accepted us as we were–a mother with two young children. I’m sure we weren’t her idea of the “dream team” of volunteers. However, we did have something to give and Gretchen recognized this. She kindly and with gratitude invited us to share in her work, and we felt honored.

The lesson: Even if  your volunteers aren’t what you’d “order” if you had a choice, they can still help your organization.

  • When we came to the store, she was prepared! I’m sure Gretchen had a list, at least in her mind, of the jobs that needed to be done. When my children, who had a particular set of abilities, talents, and limitations, presented themselves, Gretchen had a job for them to do!

The lesson: Volunteers come to us with talents, abilities, and limitations. We need to be ready for them when the come to work.

  • Gretchen explained why even the simple job of sorting hangers was important. I’m sure if I had told my kids that we were going to the store to sort hangers, they would not have been happy! Yet, Gretchen showed them that sorting hangers was crucial to the success of the store.

The lesson: Volunteers want to do something important! Even the most mundane tasks must be communicated in a way that makes them understand that their help is vital.

  • Gretchen made volunteering fun. The kids wanted to make the piles of sorted hangers grow because they wanted to please her. They also enjoyed their snacks.

The lesson: With creativity, even the hard and boring work we asked volunteers to do can have elements of fun.

  • Gretchen recognized and rewarded my children in a way that meant something to them. While a verbal thank you is important, it’s not enough. Everybody likes to be appreciated, and we need to appreciate volunteers by respecting what is meaningful to them. My kids LOVED posing the in window. Gretchen figured out a way to thank them that would THRILL them.

The lesson: There is no “one size fits all” for recognition of volunteers. A gift card, a thank you letter, a listing in a program, etc. are all “tools” of recognition to be deployed in a way that should THRILL the recipient. This means that we should be creative and really get to know what would make our volunteers, as individuals, happy.

Two More Things!

While life has moved on and I don’t actively volunteer at the store now, I have donated clothes, household goods, and money for many years. Volunteers are often the most dedicated financial supporters. The time we spend giving them a good experience while they help our organizations is truly an investment, not only in goodwill, but often in financial support.

And finally, I’m proud to say that both of my college-age children are “good” volunteers today. Because Gretchen invested in them and made them feel important, she helped them experience the joy of helping others. This type of engagement is life-changing. Should be settle for anything less in the volunteers who come to us?

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