Tag Archives: retainment

Great reasons to involve LOCAL volunteer firefighters

It seems that, per the union for professional firefighters stance against volunteers in firefighting or any emergency response roles, a lot of fire stations are phasing out volunteers in these frontline roles. I’m seeing more and more stations across the USA scaling back the involvement and/or role of volunteers, allowing volunteers only in non-emergency-response roles, if at all: rolling hoses and cleaning equipment after a call, serving food and drinks to career firefighters at or after a call, staffing fundraising events, setting up for or cleaning up after events, etc. Those support roles to frontline responders are super important, and many volunteers are happy to fill them. But there are a lot of other people that want to volunteer in emergency response roles, and they are willing to go through extensive training, right alongside career firefighters, to do it. Unfortunately, there seem to be less and less opportunities for such people.

In addition, I’m also seeing fire stations that are still involving volunteers in first responder roles recruiting for volunteers only or primarily among people that want to become career firefighters and that see volunteer firefighting as a path to that. As with career firefighters, such volunteers are often from outside the town or city where they will serve, maybe far outside. They don’t stick around for long, because they are looking for a paid job: they leave the station after just a year or two for paid work elsewhere. That means such a fire station is forever recruiting and training volunteers to replace those that leave.

Career firefighters are not better than volunteer firefighters, volunteer firefighters are not better than career firefighters, and neither should be a threat to the other. Rather, these two kinds of first responders, working side-by-side, can make emergency management and risk prevention all the more powerful than just one kind or the other staffing a station.

Here are great reasons to recruit and involve local volunteer firefighters, even if a station is partially or primarily staffed by career firefighters, reasons that shouldn’t feel threatening to career firefighters:

  • Local volunteers live in the community or neighborhood, and that means they will often know things about residents, businesses, streets and locations that career firefighters that don’t live in the town or area may not know. This can be helpful, even vital, when responding to certain calls.
  • Local volunteers live in the community, and that means they can be more readily available to back up on-duty staff during an emergency than off-duty career firefighters that live outside of the town or city and have to travel several miles, even more than an hour, to staff a station when all the on-shift responders are on a call.
  • Local volunteers represent local community investment in the fire station and local support for career firefighters, many – and sometimes, most – of whom do not live in the community. Local volunteers demonstrate a kind of community endorsement as powerful as financial support.
  • Local volunteers can provide much-needed continuance and knowledge in a fire station with a high turnover of career firefighters.
  • Local volunteers aren’t career firefighters, and those that don’t have career firefighting aspirations can be a more neutral voice when making the case for a maintenance or increase in funding for a fire station or for a new strategy. They do not have a financial or career interest in funding or expansion, for instance, and that makes their voice incredibly powerful when advocating to elected officials and community members that may be voting on such a measure.
  • Local volunteers aren’t career firefighters, and those don’t have career firefighting aspirations can be a more neutral voice when addressing problems and complaints within or about a fire station, since they will not suffer financial consequences from speaking out about issues that need to be addressed. The key here is the phrase can be – does your station empower and encourage local volunteers to provide frank feedback about what they see and experience? Do you have a speak-up culture?
  • Local volunteers may end up serving on a citizen committee that advises government or even run for local office, and having a firefighter advocate in such a role can be greatly beneficial to all firefighting, fire prevention and emergency response in a community.

What are other great reasons to involve local volunteers in fire stations? What other scenarios, beyond fire stations, are good to have volunteers and career professionals working side-by-side? Please share in the comments.

And on a related note, here are four groups of questions every fire station should be asking itself:

  • If we involve career firefighters, how long are they staying, on average? Why are they leaving? Do we need to change how we recruit, manage or support career firefighters to reduce turnover? What are the costs associated with recruiting and training a new career firefighter?
  • If we involve volunteer firefighters in first responder roles, how long are they staying, on average? Why are volunteers leaving? Do we need to change how we recruit, manage or support volunteer firefighters to reduce turnover? What are the costs associated with recruiting and training a new volunteer firefighter?
  • How does the local community perceive the engagement of volunteer firefighters in first responder roles? If our station is scaling back or eliminating volunteers in these roles, how aware is the public of this change, and what are their feelings about it?
  • Does our web site have clear information about why we involve volunteers in emergency response? Are we limiting ourselves to recruiting only those people who have career aspirations and want to volunteer as a pathway to that career, or do we also have language that also encourages local people with no career firefighting aspirations to volunteer?

Also see:

Mission statements for your volunteer engagement
(Saying WHY your organization or department involves volunteers)

New online resources to help recruit volunteer firefighters

Volunteers needed, but are they wanted?

why you can’t find/keep volunteer firefighters

Making certain volunteers feel unwelcomed because of your language

pro vs. volunteer firefighters

Fire station turns away volunteers – & how it could be different

International Association of Fire Fighters is anti-volunteer

for volunteers: how to complain

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI write a lot about dealing with problem volunteers – volunteers that are bullies (one of my most popular blogs ever), volunteers that are more focused on their vanity and selfies than service, (another super popular blog), entitlement volunteers (“you should just be glad I’m here!”), etc. But in response to some of these blogs, I’ve gotten comments from frustrated volunteers, and I’ve been asked some pointed questions, like:

what about when the problem is the volunteer manager’s lack of ability, or when the org is in need of upgrading capacity and the volunteers are the victims of that process?

Absolutely, not all community engagement problems are because of volunteers, and I would hate for anyone to think I’m saying that. I love volunteerism – I wouldn’t promote volunteer engagement and demand standards for such if I didn’t. All too often, people that want to volunteer are turned away by mismanagement, and people trying to volunteer are not properly supported. That deserves my sympathy and attention.

There are times when I’ve been a volunteer myself and I have been woefully mismanaged, I haven’t felt valued, I’ve felt ignored by the person that’s supposed to be supporting me, I was left to do all the work while the lead volunteer was a no-show, I was shut down when I tried to point out a problem or make a suggestion, etc. Maybe you, as a volunteer, have felt that too. Maybe you see problems with other volunteers that management doesn’t seem to see. Maybe you see inefficiency, even incompetence. Maybe you see things that have you worried about safety. Maybe you see violations of policy – or a need for a policy. Maybe you have a great idea that really could help dramatically – but the manager of volunteers turned you away.

How to complain, or make a suggestion for a management change, as a volunteer? And to whom? That’s trickier than it sounds. It depends on the nature of the complaint or suggestion, your relationship with the organization, your desired outcome, what’s best for those served by the organization, and more.

Absolutely, if you see or experience something dangerous while you are volunteering, something that could harm someone – or you suspect has harmed someone – document what you have witnessed or experienced: the date, the time, what you saw or heard, how it is dangerous, etc. Email this information to the person in charge of volunteers, the director of programs, perhaps even the executive director or anyone else within the organization you feel should know about it. Depending on the situation, you should also call those same people and tell them they should immediately read an email you have sent regarding a dangerous situation at the organization. Be ready to meet face-to-face to talk about the dangerous situation you have witnessed or experienced. Please don’t ever hesitate to report a suspected dangerous situation, where a client, volunteer, staff member or anyone could be, or has been, harmed.

If it’s a criminal situation regarding safety, such as harm to a child, I would also contact police, without waiting for permission from the organization. If I think a child or anyone is in physical danger, I’m going straight to the police, and if that costs me my volunteer position because the organization would have preferred I contact senior staff members first, so be it. When it comes to safety, I don’t mess around, I don’t hesitate, and the situation regarding Jerry Sandusky and Penn State a few years ago only intensified my feelings about this.

If you are being sexually, racially or culturally harassed, absolutely complain to your supervisor and his or her supervisor, in writing. Have dates, what was said or done and by whom, etc., and how you want the situation resolved. If your supervisor doesn’t act, contact his supervisor the same way, along with the date you first reported this to his or her subordinate.

For non-safety complaints – for complaints about inefficiency, lack of support, a situation mishandled, ongoing mismanagement, abrasive work styles, hurt feelings, etc.,  ask yourself this question: How is the situation or circumstances hurting the organization, volunteers, clients, public relations and/or the bottom line? Document answers to those questions. Be clear about what is happening, the dates of incidents, and, if possible, how it’s adversely affecting the organization, its clients, etc. Once you have this information clearly stated, ask for a meeting with the person in charge of supporting volunteers. You don’t have to present your written information – in fact, doing so may escalate emotions if you walk in with such a document and hand it over. Instead, you may want to keep the documents as just your own notes to speak from, at least at first. You want to stick to facts, like “When I showed up at the work site, there was no guidance on what I was supposed to do, in contrast to what you (or someone else) told me, and I just walked around for an hour not doing anything”, or “I was assured that the other volunteer had been trained, but when she got there, I realized she had not been briefed at all, and it really made the organization look poorly run to those in attendance” or “I have sent emails asking for guidance on these dates, and I have never gotten a response.” Avoid opinions, such as “the manager of volunteers is in need of upgrading her skills” or “I just really don’t like so-and-so’s style of working.” Opinions are subjective and easily dismissed, in contrast to dates and examples and descriptions of circumstances, what was said, what was done, etc. You want to preface complaints with “I’m concerned that…” or “I am worried that…” Make it clear that you aren’t there to just complain because of your hurt feelings – you are there to try to improve a situation that could be leading volunteers to leave, that could be making clients dissatisfied, even angry, that could be leading to a bad reputation for the organization in a specific neighborhood, that could lead to a negative review online, etc. Your goal is to stay fact-based and always emphasizing what’s best for the organization and all volunteers, not just you. Have in mind what you want as a result of this complaint: Volunteers to receive more immediate responses to their emails or phone calls? Volunteers to receive more information from the organization? Volunteers to receive more training? Someone in particular to be better supervised? Someone in particular to receive better training? Someone specifically to be dismissed? What would a resolution of this situation that you are reporting look like? Try to offer realistic ideas for solutions, if at all possible.

If you want to offer a suggestion about software you think the organization should be using, or a different way to support volunteers, such as training videos on YouTube, or a change in the minumum amount of hours volunteers need to give a month, or that the organization should better incorporate virtual volunteering, by all means, make the suggestion. You could make the suggestion verbally in a monthly meeting between volunteers and the staff supporting them, in an online community for volunteers at the organization, or in an email to the person in charge of managing volunteers. Think about how you would like to be approached if someone had an idea of how to do your work better, and do the same in making your suggestion. If you can show that this idea might save the organization money, definitely bring that up. Also think about what resources it would take to make this change: money? additional staff? time? training? Are you willing to commit to any of those needs to help make the change happen? It can be frustrating to make a suggestion for a simple change, like an additional sentence on a web page, or use of a particular keyword tag on Twitter, and never get a response, or be told it’s not possible to do. How you handle that frustration is up to you: Drop it? Try again in six months? Try again when management changes? Bring it up every time you get the opportunity? Leave the organization and try to volunteer elsewhere? Think about what would be best for the organization and those it serves by your actions first, and also what is best for you.

If you feel that you need to circumvent the person in charge of supporting volunteers and go to someone senior with your complaint or suggestion, you can certainly ask to meet with the head of programs or even the executive director, detailing the issues and being clear about why you are circumventing the manager of volunteers. However, know that it’s likely that the manager of volunteers will be angry with you or feel hurt by you for this circumvention, and your relationship with that person may be irreparably harmed. It may not be possible for you to continue to work together, and therefore, the organization may want you to leave rather than address the issue with the manager. You may decide that you can no longer enjoy your time there or that you would no longer be welcomed at the organization. I’m not urging you not to go to senior management if you feel that’s best for the organization – quite the contrary! I’m trying to be very realistic about what will happen if you do. Are you ready to put what’s best for the organization and those it serves above your desire to continue to volunteer with the program?

This is the point that I usually get asked, “But what are my rights as a volunteer?!” You have a right to be safe, to not be harassed, not to be harmed, not to be put into a situation where you feel harmed, not to be exploited, etc. But you have no right to be engaged as a volunteer. You have no right to have a volunteering experience that you love. An organization can dismiss a volunteer for any reason – or no reason at all. An organization is under no legal obligation to provide terrific volunteering experiences – or to involve volunteers at all. Some organizations value the input of volunteers very much, and others see volunteers as merely people willing to work for free and save the organization money. The organization may see dismissing you as a volunteer far easier than dealing with your complaint.

Please don’t think that because you have volunteered for 10 years at the organization while the manager of volunteers has been there for just a year or two that your opinion is somehow more important that hers or his. Also, it is very likely that complaining creates tension at the organization for you and others. Things may get worse before they get better. If you have visions of the manager of volunteers being put through a performance improvement plan, or dismissed, while you are celebrated for your complaints, think again. As a whistleblower, don’t be surprised if you feel coldness from others at the organization, even if your complaint was absolutely justified. You may want to leave and find another place to volunteer once investigations are complete – or even before. Whatever happens, don’t be a volunteer bully . The priority of any organization, and everyone who works there, including a volunteer that complains, should be the mission of that organization and those the organization serves. Nothing except for safety should be more important than that. Keep that in mind as the consequences unfold from your complaint and if your complaint means you will leave the organization.

Regardless of whether or not you complain to the organization, or make a suggestion for change, what might be best for you is finding another organization with which to volunteer. How you leave an organization is up to you: you can make a formal break with a meeting or an email, you can just stop signing up for tasks and disappear, or you can say you want to take a break and just never come back. Just please don’t abandon an assignment before you have completed it. I know a lot of managers of volunteers are reading this and thinking, “It’s so unfair to just leave without explanation!” To which I say: if a volunteer does that to you, maybe it’s because you don’t take complaints well. Maybe you don’t create an environment where a volunteer feels comfortable offering a complaint or suggestion. Volunteers will often show you as much respect and attention as you have shown them. If you want volunteers to tell you why they are leaving, ask them.

What if you are asked to leave an organization as a volunteer? First off: you aren’t alone! It happens. It happened to me! It can be hurtful to hear, “I just don’t think I can work with you anymore” or “I think it would be best if you found somewhere else to volunteer.” It’s entirely your decision at that point to complain, if you haven’t yet, to more senior management. All the previous rules apply: stay fact-based, have dates and descriptions of what was inappropriate or should have been a better experience, keep opinions to a minimum, and be clear about what the consequences could be for the organization if the situation is not addressed.

Should you, the disgruntled volunteer, blog about your negative experience, or write a Yelp review? I won’t tell you not to. What you need to consider is what is best for those served by the organization and what is best for you. If you truly feel that those served by the organization would be best served by your going public with your complaints, then that would be a valid justification for doing so. Otherwise – why would it be worth it? In the moment, it may make you feel great deriding an organization online via your blog or an online review, but if another organization where you want to volunteer reads that, or potential employers reads that, will it hurt you in some way? If you do it, be prepared for a call from a local media organization – they may want to do a story about your experience and investigate further. If you choose to do it, be fact-based – no opinions, no insults, no statements like “Stay away from this organization!” – and respect the confidentiality of clients.

You could even write a song about your frustration, as Dave Carroll did about his attempt to volunteer at his child’s school. I really do think Mr. Carroll was doing what he thought was best for the organization and the kids, and I hope authorities listened to what he was saying. I’d be happy to have him as a volunteer (with the hopes I would get a really nice song about his experience out of it).

I have blogged about negative experiences as a volunteer myself, but without naming the organization. As a consultant regarding nonprofit management, including volunteer engagement, I wanted to use these experiences to educate others, but I saw no point in naming the organization I was complaining about – in some cases, I made my feelings clear directly to the organization before I left, and in some cases, I just quietly disengaged – and they never called to ask me why I had stopped signing up for gigs. Here are some examples of my blogs about or inspired by my own bad experiences as a volunteer:

Some volunteers have become so frustrated that they’ve left a nonprofit and then started their own rival organization, and that’s fine too – though it’s easier said than done. Funders may be reluctant to support you if you are an organization born of anger.

When you leave an organization as a volunteer, you may want to let people know if they closely identify you as being a volunteer at that organization, if they might go to the organization looking for you, if a lot of your friends are also volunteers at the organization, etc. You may want to draft some messages for social media or to send out via email. These messages should be unemotional, with no accusations or blame at all. For instance, for Facebook, your message could be:

Yesterday was my last day at xxxnameoforganizationxxx. Very proud of all I did there. On to a new volunteering adventure! I can be reached at xxxemailaddressorphonenumberxxx.

The policies of the organization may prevent you from staying in contact with clients after you leave. Respect those policies if that’s the case. If clients do get in contact with you, think very carefully about what you are going to say to them, if the relationship is proper to continue, etc. Regardless of official policy, you are ethically bound to make it clear to them, if they contact you, that you are not affiliated with the organization anymore, that you are not a volunteer with the organization anymore, that you do not represent the organization anymore, etc. If volunteers want to discuss their experiences with you after you leave, make sure you continue to adhere to those confidentiality policies, and absolutely speak up and say, “I really don’t feel comfortable talking about this, because I think it’s a violation of the organization’s confidentiality policy.” Let the question what is best for the people served by this organization guide you in any communications and relationships with clients, volunteers and staff of an organization you have left.

How do you talk on your résumé or online profile about an organization where you volunteered but, in the end, you had an uncomfortable or frustrating experience? The same that you would regarding an employment situation that didn’t work out: you list it only if it was a long-term gig, or if you accomplished something at the organization that you are really proud of and that could not be denied by the organization. If you are proud of your work and feel comfortable sharing it, list the name of the organization and your accomplishments or duties at that organization and the time frame for such. Otherwise, leave it off. If you are asked in an interview for volunteering elsewhere, “Why did you leave that organization?”, you can say, “I was ready for a new volunteering opportunity at a different organization. It was time.” You could say, “My work approach wasn’t a good fit/was no longer a good fit for the organization’s work culture.” Be ready, in an interview, to talk about that work approach. For instance: “I believe in being very forthcoming and asking questions in staff meetings. My previous supervisor interpreted my questions as criticisms.” If honestly talking about your work style, a style you are unwilling to change, removes you from the running for a volunteering gig, then be glad you were up front about it before you were hired. That said, in an interview for volunteering elsewhere, you can ask some tough questions of your own, like “What is moral like here among your volunteers?” and “How do you handle complaints from volunteers? Can you give me an example of that process?” and “Do you regularly get new volunteers? Do they stay long? When they leave, why do they leave?”

Should you sue if you are fired as a volunteer? There are two scenarios where you might want to sue: (1) when you can prove that you have been financially and/or physically harmed by the organization’s actions, or inactions, regarding your volunteering. If you have been sexually, racially or culturally harassed while volunteering, and you do not feel the organization responded the way they should, you could explore bringing a suit, but think about what you want as a result of the suit: a court-ordered, public apology? a court-ordered training for all staff and volunteers to prevent this in the future? Money for yourself? And remember that your name will become public, and there may be media coverage of your suit – this can affect your future employment, not just your future volunteer engagement. (2) when you can prove that you weren’t a volunteer but were, in fact, an employee who wasn’t paid. In a small number of cases the UK and in the USA, the courts have found that a volunteer was actually an employee or a contractor who should have been paid, and the volunteer won back wages.

One last thing: when a volunteering situation ends in anger or sadness, take time to mourn and to let any raw emotions heal. You may need to cry. You may need to spend some time being angry. That’s absolutely fine and completely normal. Make time to do that. If you have a very trusted friend or two you can talk to, that would be good to be around and talk to about how you are feeling, do so. Definitely stay off social media at such times.

This is a lot to consider. I’ve tried to be realistic and think about a variety of scenarios. If I’ve missed one, or your want to ask an additional question or make an additional point, I hope you will comment below.

Also see:

Creating a Speak-up Culture in the Workplace

Safety of volunteers contributes to a shelter closing

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

A grassroots group or nonprofit org = disorganization?

VA: a culture of fear, silence & misplaced priorities

Excuses, excuses

why you can’t find/keep volunteer firefighters

I’m one of the few – and maybe the only – consultants regarding volunteer engagement that regularly delves into the subject of volunteer firefighters. I’m not sure why most DOVIAs and other associations of managers of volunteers avoid the subject. Surely the fundamentals we volunteer management experts believe are essential to success in involving volunteers also apply to involving volunteer firefighters? Yet, go to a conference on volunteer engagement and you will find few, if any, workshops related to engaging and supporting volunteer firefighters. Go to a web site with resources about volunteer engagement, and you may not find any information about the particular environment of volunteer firefighting. Likewise, walk into a fire station which is staffed fully or partly by volunteer firefighters, and you probably won’t see any books related to volunteer management, in general, and few managers of volunteer firefighters attend DOVIA-related meetings or conferences.

This gap really bothers me.

I’ve been interested in the reasons fire stations involve volunteer firefighters, and the challenges faced in recruiting and retaining such volunteers, since 2001, when I started dating a volunteer firefighter in Germany. He’s now my husband (and now a volunteer firefighter in the USA). It’s been fascinating to compare Germany – with the highest number of volunteer firefighters, per capita, in the world – with the USA. Both are facing similar challenges regarding volunteer firefighters – and both have far more people complaining about “the way things used to be,” rather than addressing the realities of the day and leveraging our times many strengths to recruit, involve and support volunteer firefighters. Earlier this year, I compiled research and case studies regarding recruitment and retainment of volunteer firefighters & justifications for involving volunteer firefighters that do NOT relate to “money saved”. It was my tiny effort to get stations that are staffed wholly or partly by volunteers to quit complaining and start changing so they can flourish in the world we live in now.

I also try to track issues related specifically to volunteer firefighters that are talked about in the news. Recently, a colleague passed on two articles to me:

Without volunteers, rural fire districts wouldn’t exist, laments the lack of volunteers in several rural areas of Oregon, and blames the problem on the attitude of young people, with comments like:

  • Young people don’t believe in an expectation that they will volunteer for their community
  • “Most of the younger folks say, ‘We don’t have time,” or ‘We’re too busy with class,'”
  • “It’s hard to get the volunteers to show up (to calls)…It seems like on training night they have something else better to do. If it’s in the middle of the night, the younger guys would rather sleep, so it’s just two or three of us that show up on a regular basis.”
  • “They want to be firemen and (then) they see something they don’t like. Like a wreck.”

The article never interviews any current or former volunteers, to find out why they have volunteered, challenges to their volunteering, why they left, etc. It never interviews young people to find out their attitudes about volunteerism and community service – it just takes the word of a couple of guys that do not represent that demographic. And those comments wouldn’t make me want to volunteer there if I were in my 20s or 30s, as they obviously don’t like people from that generation – they say so! 

And in the same publication is this: Coos Bay trying to buck trend of declining volunteer firefighters. It attributes lack of volunteers to:

  • the community’s aging population
  • economic problems
  • stricter standards for volunteers regarding their training
  • lack of monetary compensation
  • busier lives
  • lack of social interactions – it’s just work to do, no fun aspects, like there used to be when you could drink alcohol in the stations

Again, no current or former volunteers are interviewed.

These articles also leave out some other factors that are, no doubt, affecting the numbers of volunteer firefighters:

  • Firefighters don’t fight fires all that much. They don’t even do rescues all that much. The vast majority of their calls are medical calls. They do far more ambulatory/paramedic work than they do true firefighting work. Ask your volunteer firefighters, current and former, which calls they find most appealing – most will tell you fire fighting. Perhaps it’s time for the USA to look into the German model, where a separate, dedicated agency handles emergency medical calls? That greatly reduces training costs for firefighters – as well as equipment costs – and means firefighters get to be, mostly, firefighters.
  • The national union for career firefighters has stated it is against volunteer firefighters and would like to see all volunteers eliminated and replaced with paid people. A career firefighter in a big city is not allowed to be a volunteer firefighter in the small rural area where he or she lives, because of union rules as well. Volunteers feel this animosity from some career firefighters, and it creates a very unwelcoming environment in many stations. Unless this animosity is addressed, and statements about volunteers being valued because they save money stop, the number of volunteer firefighters is going to continue to drop.
  • Firefighters haven’t changed how they recruit. AT ALL. A sign out in front of a station that says “Volunteers needed” just isn’t going to cut it anymore. If there are young people in your community, there are potential volunteer firefighters, and you have to go where THEY are. You also have to have an ONLINE volunteering application. You have to be posting videos on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter of your firefighters in action, and reminding people via social media what volunteers do, how to do be one, and WHY to be one. And you have to reach out to people that speak languages in addition to English to make sure they know about volunteering opportunities and how to qualify.
  • Many stations do a substandard job of responding to inquiries aboutvolunteering, and applications from potential volunteers. Are you sure that EVERY person that calls or emails the city, the county, or your station about volunteering as a firefighter is getting a prompt, courteous, encouraging response? And are you sure every application is being responded to rapidly? Read Volunteers needed, but are they wanted? and Fire station turns away volunteers – & how it could be different for more on this subject.

As for the lack of a social aspect among firefighters today, that is HUGELY important for volunteer firefighters, particularly those that are not volunteering as a part of career exploration/advancement. Those volunteers hear all about all the work that needs to be done – but without some kind of social aspect, they aren’t going to last long. Also, social gatherings help to build cohesion among firefighters that can have benefits later during crisis situations. Could your station have a regular, unofficial meetup at a favorite pub once a month for all off-duty firefighters to play some darts, shoot some pool and just hang out socially? Would leaders at your station organize firefighter-only gatherings in their homes, such as potlucks or lawn games, even just twice a year? Would someone organize a rafting trip or a day trip to do bungee jumping for any firefighters interested in such? Creating a social aspect for your firefighters is tricky: activities have to be entirely unofficial, entirely voluntary, and regularly done in order to cultivate the kind of brother and sisterhood you want among all of your firefighters, volunteer and career. But without making a consistent effort, your volunteers will most certainly drift away, tired of being asked only to provide labor, and receiving no real value in return.

There ARE potential volunteer firefighters out there, even in your small town. You might be hearing a lot about how people are preferring microvolunteering, where they volunteer for only a few minutes or hours once, and have no requirement to ever volunteer again, but the reality is that there are also a LOT of people who are hungry to connect, hungry for a deeper, more substantial activity that connects them with the community and causes they believe in. Volunteer firefighting can have a great deal of appeal to today’s young people. But if you don’t have a welcoming environment, if you aren’t trying to reach them where they are, if you aren’t using social media, and if you are just talking about all the work that has to be done and the obligations to be fulfilled, those young people are going to go elsewhere. And that’s a shame, because they have a lot of energy, talent, ideas and strengths from which your fire station could benefit. Are you ready to evolve to involve them?

Of course, the only way to know for sure about the challenges for volunteers in any one fire department or association is to survey both current and departed volunteer firefighters – and perhaps those that applied to volunteer but never completed the process. And this kind of survey should be done at least every other year. Make a list of questions you want to ask these current and former volunteers, and then have journalism students from the local high school or management students from the local college or university ask the questions of the current and former volunteers – volunteers are much more likely to speak freely if it isn’t to the fire chief. Have the students compile all of the answers, and share it freely, openly, and welcome comments from everyone on what is offered. That’s your starting point.

Also see:

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).

How to get rid of volunteers

Last week, I signed up to help at a community event, held yesterday.

Just. To. Help. To assist.

Yesterday, when I arrived at the event site – a public school – I found out I was in charge of the entire event. More than 30 kids would be there in an hour, expecting me to lead them through 90 minutes of activities that were completely foreign to me.

I don’t like kids.1 And I noted this at the time I signed up to help. I care about the cause, however, and as I was new to the committee – I just joined last week – I wanted to prove myself as a reliable, helpful committee member. By assisting at an event. By helping someone else in charge.

But there I was, in charge of an event I knew nothing about. About to face more than 30 kids, all under the age of 12.

I wasn’t scared. And that was good, because kids smell fear. No, instead, I was angry. Kids smell anger too, but it tends to make them listen to me. And that played to my advantage during the event – they never crossed that line into chaos that a large group of kids can so easily dissolve into.

Then there were the other adult volunteers, who were also there just to help, just to be nice. And they just kinda stood there, watching me try to pull it together. And as I was bossing those confused volunteers around in a frantic attempt to pull the event together, I wondered: Have each of these people been registered with the school and had a criminal background check? Is it my responsibility to check into that before they participate? Come to think of it, no one at the school checked to see that I was who I said I was, or asked me for my school volunteer I.D. number. How do I know any of these adults are safe to be around these kids?

I pulled the event off, on a very basic level. I drew on my experience as a manager of people, projects and events, on my two years of experience volunteering with the Girl Scouts (I’ve noticed that troop leaders at events get the kids started on an activity immediately and have them keep repeating it until volunteers are ready to move them on to the next activity), my experience having coordinated and directed more live events than is probably healthy for any one person in one lifetime, and by channeling my ever-so-bossy-but-organized Great Aunt Cornelia, who is still a legend in my family for her management abilities.

Also, it turns out none of the adult volunteers were predators nor inclined ignore kids engaging in dangerous behavior. Lucky kids. Lucky me.

In addition, the volunteer that was supposed to be in charge did have all of the materials and equipment ready to go at the site – that helped tremendously. However, she was astounded, upon arrival just after the kids started the first activity, that the emails she sent in the preceding days weren’t understood by me and others as completely signing off on responsibility for the event (she had, indeed, said in those emails she would be late, and said myself and another volunteer would be the “leads” for the other volunteers until she got there, and some emails came with attachments… But, of course, I thought the school principal would be in charge, since she was cc’d on everything, since I have no experience at all with this kind of event, since I had made it clear I was just signing up to help, and since, to her knowledge, I have no experience doing anything like this. And I don’t like kids).

Was the event a success? In my opinion, no. It wasn’t bad, and the kids had fun and were kept busy, but the reality is: the kids didn’t really learn anything about the subject at hand. They had fun, and they walked away happy, and that’s nice – but they didn’t walk away retaining any knowledge, which was the entire purpose of the event. No minds were changed, no behaviors altered – and that was the mission of the event. A lot could have been done at the event to create that knowledge, to ensure things were remembered, to better ensure some behaviors would change, but I would have needed more than 90 minutes of prep to make that happen.

In addition, this could have been an event where not only did kids get some really essential knowledge, but also, some adults could be inspired to help at future events. And that’s why it was a stark reminder about why I – and others – train in volunteer management issues (as well as why there are so many books on event management). And why so many schools and other organizations struggle to find volunteers.

Let’s face it: a great way to drive away volunteers is to sign them up to help at an event and, when they show up, tell them they are in charge. Or have them confused about what they are supposed to do, and feeling generally unsupported. Or have them bossed around for a couple of hours by a very confused and angry me.

Volunteer management isn’t just mindless bureaucracy, with forms to fill out and procedures to be followed. It’s about ensuring that an organization or program or department mission is met. It’s about ensuring volunteers don’t show up and just do some seemingly random activities. It’s about creating experiences that lead to awareness and inspiration – not just getting some work done. It’s about ensuring safety – not just keeping fingers crossed and hoping everything works out.

And effective volunteer management is what keeps volunteers coming back again and again.

Volunteer management also isn’t just one person’s responsibility; some person at that school trusted a volunteer explicitly with organizing a safe, meaningful event for students from the school. Who was that person? What is he or she going to do about what happened yesterday? Does he or she even know what happened – and what didn’t happen? Did they just walk by and think, yeah, the kids are having fun, no problems here? Are they reading this blog right now?

I know the volunteer that was supposed to be in charge isn’t reading this blog: she also sent me an email last week proudly stating that she doesn’t read blogs and isn’t on Twitter or Facebook. Just like so many people I’ve met here in Oregon, I’m sorry to say…

Here’s a positive: I’ve never been more dedicated to the fundamentals of volunteer management and effective, program-based planning than I am right now.

I still don’t like kids though…

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1. Okay, I don’t hate kids. I sometimes find them quite amusing. I really love watching them learn. And I’m passionate about girls knowing just how many choices and opportunities are out there. But I do not think kids are automatically cute nor innocent nor sweet, and I also don’t like parents and other adults who think of kids as precious snowflakes who have every right to scream in a restaurant – though I cut a lot of slack on airplanes.