“If no one is complaining, we don’t have to change how we do things”

handstopOne of the most common defenses I hear from an organization or program not addressing issues regarding diversity, communications, and accommodations is this:

We’ve done it this way for years, and no one has complained about that. No volunteer / client / member / donor has ever said they don’t like how we do such-and-such. You are the only one. So we’re not changing.

My observation might be about the way something is worded on a web site. Or the process to submit an application for volunteering. It could be about the lack of mass transit access to a location of an annual event or training. It could be about a lack of representation of various groups amid volunteer ranks. Or about a prayer before a volunteer recognition event at a secular organization. It could be about a lack of certain information in another language. Any of the aforementioned, and more, often incurs that defense when I bring up an issue related to diversity, accommodations or communications.

Often, when I do a little digging myself, talking to people that wanted to volunteer at the organization but didn’t, or to current members, or to former clients, and on and on, I find that, indeed, there is dissatisfaction among a few, maybe even more, but no one says anything to the organization itself, because no one wants to be seen as ruining an event or hurting the feelings of others or not being “a team player.” Some even fear repercussions by friends, neighbors and others. So they don’t say anything about something they would like to see changed or improved because there is a culture within the program or the entire organization, that discourages complaints or suggestions.

In the 1990s, I worked for a really incredible organization called Joint Venture: Silicon Valley. While I worked there, as internal communications manager – very much a junior staffer – a board member arranged for a retired HR executive from his oh-so-large global company to visit our organization and do a survey and discussion with staff about the work culture and environment, and then report our feedback to senior staff, keeping individual comments anonymous. That HR executive handled those surveys and conversations with the greatest of care, making us feel welcomed and comfortable in sharing what we liked, and what we didn’t, about our workplace. Afterward, he revealed to us, then senior staff, that junior staff and assistants felt we operated from a place of fear, rather than a place of power. We, as an organization, were risk-averse and even suggestion-averse. We felt corrections were given out by management far more than praise and support. After senior staff got over the shock of the culture they created – they really had no idea – things changed almost immediately, under that HR expert’s guidance. It rapidly became a delightful place to work, because senior management changed the way they worked and talked to all staff. And we all felt free to suggest, even to complain.

Would your organization be so brave?

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3 thoughts on ““If no one is complaining, we don’t have to change how we do things”

  1. Jerome Tennille, CVA

    Great post!

    I too often receive feedback with a similar defense. I know volunteers often times struggle with delivering the ‘not so great’ news to the organizations they serve, because like you said, they don’t want to spoil the mood, or be seen as ‘that volunteer’ who ‘complains.’ But the truth of the matter is that type of barrier for volunteers is most times created by the non-profit. When a non-profit doesn’t have a mechanism that allows for feedback, or when feedback isn’t valued, the volunteers don’t feel like they have permission to say anything. I also believe it requires a culture change like you say, and sometimes changing the culture of an organization takes years because it requires buy-in and leadership to acknowledge that change is needed.

    One thing I began incorporating some years back, is a post-event anonymou survey soliciting feedback from both the volunteers who serve, and the staff who work with those volunteers. It gives me incredible insight to how a volunteer is feeling, and how the staff feel about the engagement working with those volunteers. It provides an avenue where people can be candid offering comments, suggestions, things they liked, or didn’t like. Even conducting an ‘end of year’ survey that’s more lengthy is important. It keeps the finger on the pulse of a volunteers experience.

    This all being said though, going back to your point, I think most non-profits forget how precious a volunteers time is, and they also forget how valuable volunteers are with advocating, the things they say, etc. Another element of this from what I’ve seen is that sometimes non-profit leadership are afraid of getting negative feedback, and they let that fear cloud their ability to recognize that with every piece of criticism, there’s an equal opportunity to make an improvement. I’ve received both good and bad feedback, but with every piece of bad feedback, I see it as an opportunity to make it better.

    Brave is the key word though, it takes bravery, and the leadership to show the courage.

    Again, great post!

  2. jcravens Post author

    “I think most non-profits forget how precious a volunteers time is, and they also forget how valuable volunteers are with advocating, the things they say, etc.”

    I don’t. I think most nonprofits get it right. I think most nonprofits are *amazing*. I think most nonprofits do things in such a way that corporations and other for-profit businesses could learn from. And I think the problem I’ve outlined above, about not valuing *people*, is a problem that is not unique to nonprofits. Therefore, I take exception to this comment:

    “But the truth of the matter is that type of barrier for volunteers is most times created by the non-profit. ”
    It’s created by two things: the management style of the people at the nonprofit and the funders. Founders are especially vulnerable to this type of thinking – founders that, often, are from the FOR profit sector. Funders also can perpetuate this kind of culture – it’s certainly true of organizations like the United Nations.

    When *any* organization, nonprofit or for-profit, doesn’t have a mechanism for feedback, and for responding to that feedback, whether it’s a car dealership or a restaurant or a nonprofit or a government, it’s going to find itself in trouble.

    1. Jerome Tennille, CVA

      I understand this problem doesn’t exist only in the non-profit industry, I used non-profit as an example because the first two-thirds of the blog was specific to organizations and their volunteers. I do believe there are many amazing non-profit organizations that exist. I also believe that some for-profit companies need to take adopt some plays from the non-profit playbook. I would also contend that some non-profit organizations can learn a lot from how for-profit companies function. I agree, when feedback isn’t accepted, it’s trouble, regardless of type of organization or company.

      We’re in agreeance.


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