Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Care and Feeding of Volunteers

Chicago URJ had a really good program last night on the subject of recruiting and retaining volunteers (with a clear recognition that a retained volunteer is a retained member too). Key takeaways included the reminder that you can't say thank you too often, that people want to help but typically don't want to serve on committees, that you have to be sensitive to mismatches between the volunteer and the assignment, and that you can't allow anybody to "own" a job.

That reminded me of a situation in a congregation I knew intimately, where the same guy served as treasurer for twenty years; and when he was finally asked to step aside, took so much umbrage that he left the congregation. (Side note: During the period between the time he left and the time he joined another congregation, he suggested to the URJ regional director that the Union should take the lead in creating a congregation for the unaffiliated!)

Although the excellent presenters all made clear that volunteers need to feel needed (as well as appreciated and thanked), and need to be slotted in their individual comfort zones, I didn't feel they gave enough attention to the various types of needs folks bring to their volunteer work. Let's look at some scenarios:

1. The networker gets involved to make business contacts. (For some reason, getting involved to make social contacts is kosher, to make business contacts is traif.) For some networkers, if they don't connect with potential clients quick enough, they'll drop away. For many, however, the talmudic maxim comes to pass: Im lo lishma, ba lishma. (Even if not begun for a holy purpose, the holiness emerges.) Or, as my rebbe used to phrase it, Never scorn the inferior motivation; always remember that Judaism is concerned not with what we think but with what we do.

2. The do-gooder gets involved to do good. The danger is that the good may be a diversion from the main purpose of the synagogue into a project that duplicates what other types of organizations can do, and are doing, better. Beware the boy scout who helps the little old lady cross the street when she didn't want to cross the street. One congregation I know was bull-dozed into "signing" its services for the hearing-impaired, even though there was another congregation a few miles away with special outreach to that community. Two months of well-publicized signing resulted in only one person being served: the young woman who was paid to do the signing. Even had she been signing as a volunteer, it was not a productive use of her skills, nor in the absence of a served community, was it effective in creating awareness in the congregation of a special need. We live in a world of infinite needs and limited resources; and we shouldn't let a volunteer's passion distract us from the congregation's mission.

3. The professional who wants to serve the community may or may not want to serve it professionally. If a CPA wants to serve on the finance committee, kol hakavod, honor him for contributing in his area of expertise. But what if he gets enough numbers gratification as work, and comes to the temple to talk Torah? I make my living doing PR, and when I take on a volunteer role, I want it to be something different from what I do all day. Part of this is that the laborer is worthy of his hire -- and this is what I get paid for; and the corollary is that my volunteer work is my recreation (such recreation!) and I need havdalah, separation, along with the chance to stretch and do something new. Make sure you're giving your volunteers what they want rather than trying to fit them into what you need.

4. The task-oriented doesn't want to serve on the board, doesn't want to be on a committee, doesn't want to make an open-ended commitment. When you try to recruit Mrs. Hard-to-get, you have to tell her why she and only she is the ideal person for this job, what will be expected from her, what kind of help from others she can expect, and when she will be done. Sometimes it is incumbent on you to complete the task, but when you have, you are free to desist from continued bondage.

Bottom line: Different strokes for different folks. Vive la difference, and don't forget the strokes.

1 comment:

Monica said...

Another type of volunteer is the one who's passionate about an avocation. This person wants to do a particular type of thing -- song-leading, teaching in the religious school, publishing your newsletter, whatever -- that he doesn't get to do any other way. This volunteer, like the task-oriented one, will not sign a blank check, but if you let him do the thing he's most interested in, he can be one of your strongest resources. Of course, he can also run the risk of becoming a do-gooder; you do have to monitor that.

It's a mistake to assume that people who are passionate about an area are only passionate about that one thing. They might not be willing to sign blank checks, but we need to not pigeon-hole them either. If we pay attention to what they say, we can learn what else they're passionate about, and maybe we have opportunities for them to pursue that too.

(This is Monica, but Blogger won't let me use that identity.)