Looking Through A Volunteer’s Eyes

Do you volunteer for other organizations? Do you serve on any volunteer boards? Do you donate your time to a charity or service organization?

As association professionals, we tend to look at our respective organizations through a unique lens. We do this for a living…every day…and we generally get it when it comes to understanding and appreciating how all of these moving parts come together to keep our machine moving down the road.

For better or for worse, a significant part of our job requires us to work with a variety of volunteers on a daily basis. Those volunteers come to us from a range of personal, professional and additional volunteer backgrounds. Because we rely to various degrees on our volunteers, we tend to get frustrated (ok, I’m going out on a limb assuming I’m not the only one) when they don’t meet our deadlines, they don’t communicate, they forget the things we know we’ve told them a thousand times, they delay decisions, they change decisions, and they generally don’t act the way we would prefer. Well, before condemning them too readily, take a step back and try to look at your organization through their eyes.

I have always encouraged the staffs I work with to get involved as volunteers themselves. Whether it’s through the association that supports you professionally (ISAE, ASAE, MPI, PRSA, AFP, etc.), a service organization (Rotary, Kiwanis, Sertoma, Scouting, etc.), or any number family and local interest activities (local film festival, schools, church, chamber, etc.), your volunteer involvement isn’t only good for you, the community and the organization, but professionally you will develop a better appreciation for the expectations we tend to place on our own volunteers.

Consider this… On a good day, at best your respective association may rank 3rd on your average volunteer’s list of priorities. Most of your volunteers probably have family (or at least a significant other) in their life, and they have their own jobs that take priority over their volunteer commitments. Add to that the host of other potential distractions that we all deal with on a daily basis, and you can begin to see why our professional priorities and focus may not be met with the same level of urgency and attention by any given volunteer.

As a volunteer, myself, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have certainly been guilty of missing information the first time, overcommitting my ability to meet a deadline, asking the same question more than once, and I’m sure other blunders that cause us professionally to roll our eyes and bang our heads. I’ve been managing volunteer boards and committees for more than twenty years, but as I’ve gotten involved as a volunteer on more boards and committees, I have developed a better understanding and appreciation for the commitment we expect from our volunteers. As an example, I have the honor of currently serving on the Indiana Society of Association Executives (ISAE) Board of Directors. We are fortunate to have an incredible professional staff, any of whom I’m sure have had their share of colorful thoughts as I ask a question that they probably answered more times that they can count, or they hear me responding to something publicly in that not-so-correct way (sorry, ISAE staff!).

We need to remember that our daily world of acronyms, member questions, sponsorships, event management and association PR is not the same world that our volunteers deal with day-in and day-out. The answers and information we provide seem common sense and second nature to us only because we work with it every day. So, the next time you find yourself hitting yourself in the head with the phone or your laptop (I’ve heard people do that sometimes) because of your volunteers, take a deep breath, try and see it through their eyes, and remember they are the reason we have our jobs!