I’m a Frustrated Volunteer

My last blog, I’m a volunteer & you should just be GRATEFUL I’m here!, talked about the entitlement volunteer, that person who feels he or she shouldn’t have to go through an orientation for new volunteers, shouldn’t have to be screened at all or his or her credentials confirmed, and shouldn’t have his or her volunteer or pro bono work supervised nor held to any standards.

But there’s also another volunteer: the frustrated volunteer wannabe. He or she is the person who is happy to go through all the orientation and training required to be a volunteer, and would really love feedback on what he or she is doing as a volunteer – the feedback is more valuable than a pin or a coffee mug thank you. So why is this person frustrated?

  • He or she can’t find information about volunteering – at least not easily – on an organization’s web site
  • Organizations this volunteer contacts because of postings on VolunteerMatch or other volunteer-matching site or volunteer centers never get back to him or her, despite the posting that said the organization needed/wanted volunteers
  • Organizations this volunteer contacts, by filling out their volunteer applications through their web sites or even going onsite, never get back to him or her
  • Organizations have orientations and trainings on a day and time this volunteer could never attend, and the organizations offer no alternatives that would better fit the volunteers’ schedule
  • The volunteer isn’t certain what he or she is supposed to be doing, and receives little direction or support when showing up for a project, an event or for a shift, or workig on a project from home
  • A staff person at an organization claiming to need highly-skilled volunteers puts the kabash on involving a volunteer he or she fears, because of the volunteer’s skills or experience, or because the volunteer asks questions that makes a staff person uncomfortable about his or her own job performance or skills

And I have a confession to make: since I’ve been back in the USA, for more than two years, that frustrated volunteer wannabe has been ME.

I have tried to volunteer sooo many times since September 2009, when I moved to Oregon. Key word on tried. Same for my husband, who has also tried to volunteer since coming to the USA. And then there are my friends, who have frequently expressed frustration to me at their attempts to volunteer – for instance, I got this in an email from a friend just last week:

I once tried to volunteer at some big music event that NAMEOFORGDELETED was putting on. I showed up at the assigned spot, and no one was there to tell me what to do, so I left. I volunteered again during their pledge drive, but generally found it unsatisfying. Never went back.

A benefit of my own attempts to volunteer, as well as the experiences that have been shared with me by others, has been the inspiration to write a lot of blog entries and web pages over the last two years, which I hope might help organizations who want to do a better job of involving and supporting volunteers:

I doubt any of the organizations I’ve tried to volunteer with know that these blogs are about, or inspired by, my experiences with them – it would never dawn on those organizations to follow their volunteers on Twitter or Facebook, or subscribe to a blog – even a volunteer who wrote on her volunteer application that she’s a trainer and researcher regarding volunteer management – or married to such.

But let me add that, on the rare ocassion when volunteering has worked out for me, it’s REALLY worked out – thank you, BPeace!

Trying to volunteer over the last two years has taught me more about volunteer management than any book, any workshop or any conference I’ve ever attended. I believe it’s made me a much better trainer and writer regarding volunteer management and community engagement. It’s also shown me, more than ever, why there has never been a greater need for volunteer management consultants

Also see: a listing of what I have done as a volunteer (and why I volunteer).

10 thoughts on “I’m a Frustrated Volunteer

  1. Tony Goodrow

    I can’t agree with you more Jane: so much so I would like to make this the topic of my next newsletter. I speak with enough people who are charged with the task recruiting / placing / managing / leading volunteers that I get a gut feeling within a few minutes about whether they represent the kind of environment that you would either love or loath. I hope managers of volunteers of all kinds to read through your material to either;- reenforce their current professional way of working with volunteers, – to motivate them to get to the next level above where they are currently, – to get themselves quickly to a minimum level of competence of working with volunteers, – or to get out of the arena of volunteer engagement because otherwise they are a boat-anchor to everyone doing a good job. Because I offer a product to managers of volunteers of all types above I don’t speak out often about my concerns in this regard. Thank you for being a catalyst for doing so.

  2. Anonymous

    Thank you for the VERY kind words, Tony! I know what you mean about that moment when you are talking with volunteer managers complaining about volunteer recruitment and you get that gut feeling… I’ve had it so often. I’ve had volunteer managers tell me, indignantly, that they should NOT have to contact every volunteer applicant – sadly, they also don’t think they have to read blogs…

  3. RobJConsulting

    Hi Jayne. You know already that I think you’re great but you’ve excelled yourself this time. This is a *must* read for VMs and, perhaps more importantly, for senior managers who think they can get away with investing minimal resources in their volunteer programmes.

  4. VASussex

    Hi Jane,This struck a chord with me as I help out at local volunteer centre and feedback e have had in the past says that volunteers have not found it easy to find work through lack of follow up as well as not knowing where to start etc. The ‘system’ is not at all easy. There are so many voluntary opportunities out there. But keep trying, as the quote earlier says once you do find a voluntary job it really is worthwhile. I myself really enjoy it.Hope that helps.Sue

  5. Anonymous

    A followup: It’s December 2012, and I’m still a frustrated volunteer wannabe! I schlepped over to a nearby school this year to fill out a volunteer application for the entire school system. The application is available only onsite at the school, though it is on a computer there, and your info is shared with the entire school system electronically. Now, I know that rosters-of-volunteers (also knowns as the binders-full-of-volunteers) system rarely works – most volunteers never get called – but I still had high hopes. Several weeks ago, I got a letter, saying that I needed to renew my interest – and the ONLY way to do that was to fill out a paper form and snail mail it. I wasn’t given the option to email it as an attachment, since no email was provided, and not even to FAX it (no fax #). Sigh…. thankfully, the local association of volunteer managers, NOVAA, has welcomed me as their frequent guest tweeter… and all these frustrations trying to volunteer keeps leading to more material for my blogs and web sites and volunteer management, so there is an upside! But again, volunteer managers, I challenge you: WHAT VOLUNTEERS ARE YOU TURNING AWAY?! Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?

  6. EH

    You said it! I’ve had the hardest time finding a decent fit volunteer-wise over the past few years.

    I would love to read the other articles you linked to, but Posterous seems to be gone. Are these hosted anywhere else?

  7. jcravens Post author

    All of my articles are now right here on my web site, where you read this blog and commented. However, many of the links on older blogs haven’t been updated – that’s something that didn’t automatically happen in the changeover. I’ll try to update the links here on this specific blog – using the search function can also help you find older blogs.

    Thanks for commenting!

  8. Cindy

    Amen and amen. I retired four years ago and have been trying to volunteer ever since. On my first attempt, I would spend half an hour driving to the place to volunteer only to be told that they had nothing for me to do. My second attempt was as a tutor at an elementary school, but it was a ridiculous situation guaranteed to fail: I was only given 20 minutes once a week to meet with any given student. Not much can be learned in only 20 minutes, and by the following week, the student had forgotten it all anyway. I’m currently on my third (and probably last!) attempt to volunteer. Working through the public library, I decided to offer to be a volunteer for their adult literacy program. That was two months ago. I spent three weeks working my way through their online training program. I then met with the director of the program and filled out a demographic form and a background check form. Next came another background check form that was emailed to me by their human resources department. Somehow they lost that form, so a couple weeks later I had to do it all again. Finally I received word that I was approved, but I’m still waiting for a tutoring assignment. I’m tired of wasting my time with these people and think I might be better off just getting a part time job.

    1. jcravens Post author

      Oh, Cindy, I’m so sorry. I wish I could say this is an exception, but it’s not. This is THE most common complaint I hear from people that want to volunteer and are answering ads on VolunteerMatch or notices on the organization’s own web site that volunteers are needed: they try, and the organization drops the ball. I bring this up when I train, and I’ve had some nonprofits get offended at the idea that I’m unsympathetic to their oh-but-we’re-so-busy excuses.

      I also wish I could say things have changed since I wrote this, but they haven’t… at least not for me.

      Thank you SO much for writing!


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