Have you ever stopped to consider how many of the events you attend are planned or staffed by volunteers? People give of their time and resources to provide everything from family events to funeral dinners, Sunday school classes to transportation for no reason at all except that they want to do something nice for their neighbors.
My family has the privilege to serve our community in several different capacities. We've ben helped by caring neighbors more times than we can count and we know there is no way to ever fully pay it back. We can only pay it forward.
Volunteering can be rewarding in 1,000 different ways but it can also be a soul-sucking experience when you encounter people who say the "wrong" things. Whenever an event that we've worked on, be it small or large, ends, I find myself reflecting on these five comments that invariably get said to me. Consider that the person to whom you're speaking gave up a portion of their very lives to help out before you say these things!
#1 - THIS EVENT SUCKS.
What the volunteer is thinking: Really? For the last 52 weeks I've gone to planning meetings and worked my bum off every Sunday night while you stayed home on the couch with a bowl of popcorn watching Once Upon A Time and now you're going to come to my event and bash it? If you think you could do better here are my three file boxes full of contracts and information. Feel free to take over for me next year.
What you could say instead: You know what would be awesome? Maybe next year you could have a band. I know a group that would do an event like this for little more than gas money!
Volunteers are often in search of new ideas and contacts but vague, harsh criticism is just demoralizing.
#2 - THAT DECISION WILL SURELY PUT THE GROUP OUT OF BUSINESS.
What the volunteer is thinking: Do you have ANY facts for your statement? Because I never saw you at a single one of the many meetings we spent discussing the long-term financial implications of this decision and, by all accounts, we are going to save money and increase profits.
What you could say instead: Why did the group make that decision?
Organizations large and small face obstacles and challenges all the time. Sometimes a choice is made that may not make sense to a person who doesn't have all the facts. Usually, unless the information is legally confidential, volunteers are happy to explain why various decisions are made when asked. Blatant, uninformed negativity comes across as confrontational and judgmental.
#3 - THAT'S NOT WHAT I HEARD.
What the volunteer is thinking: If you'd rather listen to your local rumor mill why are you even talking to me about this?
What you could say instead: Thank you for sharing your first hand information. I'm happy to have the facts and not just a bunch of rumors.
In volunteering for a local group I recently had a conversation with a woman who expressed concern that our organization was preparing to disband. I assured her there was no truth to the matter. We were in the black. Sponsorship was up. Attitudes were positive and, though this year's event would have to be different because of circumstances beyond our control, it would still be great. Again she said, "but I heard…" and again, I assured her that I'd been quite involved and there was no truth to the rumor. At that point she just shook her head. If you're going to choose to believe random rumors don't waste a busy volunteer's time.
#4 - THIS GROUP WAS BETTER WHEN SO-AND-SO WAS ON THE COMMITTEE.
What the volunteer is thinking: Maybe so, but after 25 years of putting up with jerks like you So-and-so had a nervous breakdown and now she can't even drive past our building without bursting into tears.
What you could say instead: I remember that, under So-and-so's leadership, your committee was always really good at communicating with the neighborhood. These days I feel like I don't hear much from your group at all. Maybe you could start a Facebook page or something.
Different people bring different skill sets to a group and, often, when one person leaves a hole is left that goes unfilled. If you notice something like this, by all means bring it up. Constructive criticism is helpful and appreciated. New ideas (or old ones that have been forgotten) are welcome. Whining and complaining… not so much.
#5 - NOTHING AT ALL.
What the volunteer is thinking: Why did I work so hard to do this when no one even cares that it got done?
What you could say instead: Thank you for all you've done. How can I help?
Either of those phrases are rest to a volunteer's weary soul. Put them together and they are a little piece of heaven.
Looking for a place to lend a hand but not sure where to start? Try VolunteerMatch.org to get some ideas.
Are you, too, seeking to save the earth, promote world peace and raise productive citizens without expending too much effort?
If we work on our goals together, they may be a little easier to achieve!
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