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How to Get It Right with Volunteers and Supporters by Playing the Volunteer Hokey Pokey

A while ago, I enthusiastically volunteered for a political candidate. I phone banked, sent letters and emails, wrote letters to the editor. . .tasks like that. Tasks I could juggle in to my life, all things considered.

In my case, all things considered meant juggling my work and family life with my volunteering – and the campaign wasn’t my only pro bono cause. Work takes most of my day. My kids are very capable but still not truly independent. I have the day while they are at school, but evenings and weekends – when most volunteer events of any type I deal with, especially political, occur – I am flat out. There are kid sports, family events, house chores, family time, birthday parties and so forth every weekend. Evenings are chock full of homework, dinner, and bedtime.

This is the same sort of life nearly any parent with school-aged kids leads. In addition to my own interests – such as political or health causes – there are also my family interests – such as school events, PTO, and community volunteering. Like most other people, a lot of people and groups need a piece of me. I want to give it, as much as I can, too. It’s why I, like so many others, prefer the Volunteer Hokey Pokey.

What’s the Volunteer Hokey Pokey?

It’s what I call the spectrum and degree of volunteering each of us is willing and able to give to a cause at any given time.

Think about it – in the Hokey Pokey you can put one hand in, one foot in, both hands in, half of yourself or all of yourself into the Hokey Pokey circle. If you think of the circle as a cause, you can visualize how people volunteer by picturing a group doing the Hokey Pokey out of sync. Each person will have varying parts of themselves in – representing the different degrees to which we volunteer.

There are the right hand in (and out) type volunteers. For example, I have stuffed and mailed fundraiser letters for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. That’s a task I can do! It has a clear start and finish, fits around my schedule, and is a manageable size.

There are the both hands in type volunteers. For example, I volunteer for the American Cancer Society. They came to me on my level where I lived and asked me to contribute some of my expertise on the Blogger Advisory Council. It’s a regular gig that I really care about and am dedicated to.

There are the whole self in type volunteers. For example, after Hurricane Katrina I volunteered full time for a Red Cross shelter. I processed donations, ran errands, shuttled people and donations, helped people find housing, loaned my cell phone for calls, and more.

Different people don’t just vary how much they’ll put in to the Hokey Pokey circle; the same person can vary too! That’s because we all have our priorities, and sometimes we have to juggle them to make our lives work.

This can present a challenge for both volunteer coordinators and volunteers. For example, sometimes I might simply join in a meme or blog carnival instead of doing a fundraising walk. It might also mean that I take a shorter list of people to call or simply agree to forward an email. At other times, it might mean I spend a good deal of time on the cause. At all times it means I care, and each action I take is done from sincere good intentions. That must be considered and valued -- whether I am giving time, raising awareness or money, or taking action to promote, it all helps the cause.

Unfortunately, sometimes, differing priorities and agendas prevent valuing and appreciating the intent and effort. And therein lies conflict.

I thought I was doing a good job for that political campaign. At least one person disagreed, and let me know so, publicly. I’d never received – or per se expected – a kudo, but I had thought my efforts were valued. But then this campaign worker chastised me. The allegation was that I was a toe-dipper and not committed enough. Not sincere and true. Not taking enough action. Not dedicated enough. Not good enough. All because I wouldn’t skip my daughter’s soccer game for an event.

I marveled angrily at the temerity of the accusation and rebuke. I’m dedicating myself to this cause. I’m volunteering as much as I can, I thought, feeling fury build, sometimes at great personal cost. I’ve spent money, time, energy, lost sleep, and more importantly, asked my family to sacrifice me a lot so that I could be here helping. If the demand is all or nothing, well then, here’s nothing.

I continued to wish the candidate and campaign well but I quit knocking myself out.

I suppose the intent was to goad me into doing more, but it had the consequence of distancing me and instead, I did less.

Frequently the volunteer coordinator is a paid employee, so, no matter how low the pay may be, this is their job. We all know how most people rank priorities: family, job, friends, home etc. and then, hobbies/volunteer. The coordinator is operating from a top priority and most of the rest of us are operating from a below top three place. Even if the coordinator isn’t paid, it’s likely a whole self in type volunteer, who has made this cause his or her top – or possibly only – cause priority.

We volunteer because we care, and the remuneration is the reward we get from feeling good about advancing a cause we care about. We give what we can – whether that’s a hand in, then out, then another hand in…or a whole self.

The conflict arises when someone judges another volunteer’s amount of dedication and effort, as I experienced from one campaign worker.

The very worst message you can ever give to any volunteer is: not enough, not good enough. In fact, I think in general that’s one of the worst messages you can give anyone anytime. What could have motivated me instead? A number of things:

  • Hey Julie I know you can’t do X event, but if you can do Y, then that person said she’ll do X – can you help out that way?
  • I see how X doesn’t work for you, here are the tasks we need accomplished, is there anything on this list you would like to tackle?
  • I know you’re really good at writing…could you help us out with this brochure/blog post/etc.?

I realize X might be the most important thing to the campaign. I realize X might be crucial to them succeeding. I realize that they hope everyone can chip in and help with X. But there’s a long road between hoping and expecting, or at least there should be.

It’s crucial that groups that rely on volunteers see them as individuals, not a bulk entity. This brings better knowledge of identity, circumstance, ability and more, all things that can be more helpful to the organization, anyway.

It’s crucial that all level of volunteering be valued.

If I get burned too often, I begin to view the cause/group/organization as a stove and I shy away, such as with the one candidate’s campaign.

I believe most people are dedicated to something, and it may or may not be my group, so when I ask for support or help I try to keep in mind I’m approaching someone who likely has a full plate, is already dedicated or committed to some other cause, and who has their own set of priorities.

When viewing actions people take, I try to keep the same in mind. Recently I said that we are all individuals, and as such, what seems true and good to one person may appear misguided to another. What appears thoughtful to one can be insulting to another. It’s true, isn’t it?

However, telling people they didn’t do enough, their actions weren’t sincere or true, that they aren’t valued, or making them feel like jerks about what they did or didn’t do, either way, is unconstructive and detrimental to the cause and its goals with volunteers.

Ideally, a cause wants many volunteers and supporters, and/or motivated and dedicated ones. To achieve this, it must above all else value and respect these volunteers, and maintain a reputation for doing so.

Otherwise, the next time a request for help reaches that person who has been burned, the reply might be silence or a no. No help, either way, whether it’s an aggressive, “No way! I got the big smackdown last time and I’ll never help this cause out again!” or a more passive, “I’m not sure, it wasn’t received well last time, so, well I guess I’ll err on the side of opting out,” it ends up a loss for the cause.

I didn't let that one experience deter me from all campaigns, or all volunteering. I still donate my time and effort, and I enjoy that. I'm currently involved in several causes that are very valuable to me and rewarding experiences. These groups I work with now do a good job of doing things right with volunteers. They value unique and different contributions, and, when problems arise, they problem solve rather than handle with unconstructive criticism.

My fellow MOMocrat Karoli recently wrote a couple of great posts and guest starred on a news program discussing the negative consequence (or rather, lack of positive effect) of unconstructive criticism. Many progressives have been harsh in their criticism of the current administration, and on the news program, Karoli asked, “What’s your goal? What do you want to have happen as a result of criticizing the grassroots, OFA and the President?”

It’s a good question.

When we criticize volunteers, what do we want to happen? When we criticize actions and causes, what do we want to happen? And is making people feel badly the best route to achieve that?


Christine said…
great post, julie. i am a dedicated volunteer (helium hand) and am constantly trying to encourage my fellow volunteers with positive comments and praise for the work they do. being rude or overly critical only serves to drive people away.

and i've also been chastised as a volunteer on occasion, and it cuts deeply. when you volunteer your precious time to a cause having someone tell you it's "not enough" or that it is somehow not good enough is terribly discouraging.

that is not to say that constructive criticism should always be avoided, but it should be kindly doled out with large helping of praise and appreciation on the side. :-)
Julie Pippert said…
Hi Christine, thanks! yes, that's how I take it, too, absolutely. I also agree about constructive criticism. Your suggestion for how to dole it out is so true.
Wonderful essay. We should give what we can, and our dedication need not be judged if we cannot give more. All volunteers are dedicated, otherwise they wouldn't be volunteers.
Julie Pippert said…
Thanks, Corina! it's such a simple and obvious concept, and yet, so frequently lost in Big Actions or High Priority moments, as well as in the small every day ones, too. Thsi post had been building in my head for over a year, lol. Glad it's out, finally. Just needed a few final clicks into place.
Anonymous said…
So, it's not the point of your post, but I am shamed now by how little I volunteer... Because I'm not even sure you could say I have a toe in.
Flowersbyfarha said…
It's so easy for someone in position of supervising/management to forget to say Thank You for doing one's job.

So glad you mentioned the importance of asking what people can take on. This is important in the (paid) workforce--and life in general. Even when someone is given an assignment that is part of the job description, if asked "can you get this to me by..." rather than told "have this on my desk by (YESTERDAY)!" that person is much more likely to take ownership of the task and do their best as well as feel more comfortable bringing up issues or problems in a timely fashion instead of resisting, avoiding or procrastinating.

Paid or not, we all need to feel acknowledged and valued. When that is the only "paycheck" we get, those two little words are even more important.

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