The Volunteer Gig
In October of 2014, when I was a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, I began volunteering regularly at the elementary school in my neighborhood. Since VMC’s, as well as Peer Leaders, are allotted a certain amount of time monthly to perform direct service, this worked out great with my schedule and gave me time out of the office to refocus and regain the perspective of a volunteer.
When I rejoined Volunteer Maryland this fall as a Peer Leader, I figured I’d naturally continue serving at the school as I had in the past. Unfortunately, it was not that easy. Between my old volunteer position filling up without me, various program changes, and the travel requirements of my new position, it was November by the time I found a new volunteer position and time-slot at the school. Nevertheless, I was excited to get involved again with the students.
My first week of volunteering went great. On the second week, I was met by an empty classroom. After a few minutes of hanging around, the classroom’s teacher returned and explained that the kids had P.E. during this time every other week, hadn’t anyone told me that? Uh, no, but alright. Duly noted. On the third week, I explained to the teacher that two weeks hence I’d have to cancel because of a meeting I couldn’t move. The session after that fell on the 22nd of December. I emailed the volunteer coordinator to ask if they would be on Winter Break. They were.
On January 1st I moved to the other side of the neighborhood, and by the time the kids returned from their break, the school was out of sight and out of mind. It wasn’t until mid-February that I was reminded of my volunteering commitment there. By that time, I was positively unmotivated to return. I felt bad for not continuing my service, but it felt like no one had noticed I wasn’t showing up anymore. No one had reached out to me about it, so what was the point of going back? If my work was valued, surely they’d let me know I was missed. I felt that if I had been making a difference through my volunteer service, I wouldn’t be getting ignored.
As the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator for the Baltimore Urban Debate League, my arch-nemeses on tournament days were no-shows. Volunteers who signed up but never arrived threw the entire tournament system into disarray and made it incredibly hard for me to do my job.
When I returned to the office after a debate tournament, the last thing I wanted to do was communicate with these non-volunteers. Besides, I had a million other things to do, so I’d prioritize database updates and thank you emails and the unpacking of tournament supplies. By then end of the day, the transgressions of the no-show’s were firmly placed in the ‘Ignore’ pile, and I moved on.
Near the end of my service year, though, I attended a training at which the presenter urged us to send two types of emails to volunteers after an event: ‘Thank You’ emails to volunteers who participated and ‘Missed You’ emails to those volunteers who committed but didn’t show up.
I remember initially bristling at this thought. I was frustrated just at the concept of pouring more time into these no-show volunteers who I felt I’d wasted enough time and energy on already. I had added their names to sign-in lists, put them in the judge matching system online, emailed them updates and reminders about the tournament, and then they still chose not to come! They were obviously showing me that they weren’t worth my time.
It wasn’t just my anger that dissuaded me, either. There was an uncomfortable feeling around confronting a volunteer with their shortcomings. Some part of my brain was consumed by the notion that these people owed me nothing, so I should just be grateful for those who did come out to help my organization for free. Who was I to chastise the others for their absence?
The Light Bulb
What I wasn’t seeing was the volunteer’s perspective. This month, when I realized I had been forgetting to volunteer at the elementary school, I felt disappointed. I wished that someone had held me accountable for this commitment because it was something that I had enjoyed doing. It had benefited me as well as the students, and I regretted the strain this had unintentionally placed on my relationship with the school’s Volunteer Coordinator. I emailed an update to the coordinator and resolved to send ‘Missed You’ emails from then on.
This has been a story about imagined relationships and missed moments. It’s a story about how you never know what someone else is thinking unless you ask. Over everything, it has reminded me that instead of making assumptions about our volunteers, we must communicate with them as honestly and transparently as possible. Here’s to saving some volunteers from slipping away, and, moreover, to stronger relationships!