Abandoning Niceness in Volunteer Engagement

We seem to confuse communicating directly or withholding bad news as being nice. And whether we admit it or not, many of us in nonprofits, especially in volunteer engagement, pride ourselves on being nice.

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The late volunteer management expert Susan Ellis used to tell a story about visiting a friend who engaged hospital volunteers. (We’ll call her Judy). Susan met Judy in her office before a lunch date. Judy opened the closet door to retrieve her jacket before heading out and grumbled as baby booties rained down. “What’s the problem?” Susan asked. Judy shared that a volunteer group knitted baby booties for newborns. Unfortunately, the hospital had closed its maternity ward. No one had the heart to tell the volunteers, and so the staff had been stashing the booties in the closet.

Why not tell the volunteer knitters that the hospital services changed?

Perhaps that wouldn’t be nice.

After all, here were these volunteers spending their time and money to knit baby booties. It would be disappointing to tell them their service was no longer needed. That wouldn't feel very nice. And whether we admit it or not, many of us in nonprofits, especially in volunteer engagement, pride ourselves on being nice.

Yet, I think many would agree that it’s not very nice to keep people who consider themselves part of the hospital family in the dark about a critical change in service. I imagine that if (or more likely, when) those volunteers found out that there was no longer a maternity ward, they wouldn’t describe the omission of this important detail as nice.

We seem to confuse communicating directly or withholding bad news as being nice. Timothy R. Clark recently observed that this type of behavior happens in every sector but especially in organizations with benevolent underpinnings. He is not an advocate of nice, noting that “niceness is often nothing more than the veneer of civility, a cute nod to psychological safety”. He suggests that leaders are covering “a thin layer of politeness over a thick layer of fear.” Ouch.

Nice Nonprofits, Nice Volunteers

What does it mean to be nice when it comes to volunteerism?

Nice means we:

  • Focus on the positive.
  • Celebrate volunteers.
  • Try to make volunteers feel good.
  • Accommodate volunteer wishes.

Nice means we don’t:

  • Impose on volunteers.
  • Make volunteers uncomfortable.
  • Address poor volunteer behavior.
  • Challenge harmful volunteer assumptions.
  • Hold volunteers as accountable as paid staff.

I don’t want to suggest that everyone involved in volunteerism defaults to nice (or that giving consideration to volunteer needs and perspectives is not important). I work with plenty of executives and leaders of volunteers who are having honest conversations with their volunteers and each other. They are working hard to find the intersection between community needs, volunteer interests, and staff capacity. Yet, I also work with many nonprofit staff who are surprised to learn that niceness doesn’t have to be their guiding principle for service. Given how many are taken aback by this news suggests that there is a norm of treating volunteers with kid gloves. 

We might be telling ourselves that we are protecting the volunteer. However, it is just as true that we are protecting ourselves. We don't want to deliver bad news or offer feedback that might not land well. As Clark observed, niceness can be a cover for fear. We fear hurting volunteers’ feelings. We fear they will stop volunteering. We fear they will say bad things about our agency. We fear they will not give us money. We fear (clutches pearls) they will not like us. 

Nice as an Obstacle  

Of course, there is a different type of nice in volunteerism: the idea that volunteers are nice, but not necessary. Despite volunteers providing critical services and bringing in needed resources, they are often seen as sweet and well-meaning amateurs. Less charitably, volunteers are perceived to be more trouble than they are worth.

Perhaps the veneer of niceness is getting in the way of volunteer efforts being taken more seriously. Maybe the perceived inability to have brave conversations with volunteers and hold them accountable is an obstacle to volunteers being viewed as true partners in the agency’s work. Which begs the question: If nice isn’t serving volunteerism and volunteer engagement, what would? What is a more meaningful understanding of and engagement with volunteers?

Right Relationship as an Alternative to Nice

One way to re-orient the way we engage volunteers (or donors and other partners) is through the concept of right relationship. Right relationship reminds us that our agencies exist as part of a community. It helps us consider everyone who is influenced and affected by our work (not just the funders or volunteers whose needs often drive decisions). It puts the mission and community front and center. As such, it provides permission (and a mandate?) to create new rules of engagement that serve everyone involved in volunteering better.

Here are initial recommendations and examples for shifting the emphasis from niceness to being in right relationship.

Putting Mission and Values to Work

Our agencies exist to achieve a mission. When volunteers sign on, their efforts should align with the mission and values. If they don’t, we can use the mission and values to take meaningful action.

For example, a small, all-volunteer agency’s mission was to feed neighbors who were hungry and to do so with dignity and respect. They recruited volunteers to assemble and distribute meals in partnership with local agencies. During a meal distribution, a new volunteer was disrespectful to the participants. One of the founders witnessed it and pulled the volunteer aside. She reminded the volunteer of the organization values covered in the orientation and noted that his behavior was out of alignment with those values. He argued that some of the participants were not deserving of the meals. The founder expressed disappointment that he felt that way. She suggested that meal packing might be a better focus for his service. He did not want to pack meals. So, she said she appreciated his time and suggested that other organizations might be a better match for him.

The founder didn’t like terminating a volunteer, but the organization did not have other roles that were a fit, and the volunteer did not exhibit a readiness for a dialogue that might support change. Ultimately the organization’s mission and values gave her permission to let him go.

Being in right relationship calls us to consider the impact of everyone’s actions in volunteerism. Overlooking harmful volunteer behavior or attitudes gets us out of right relationship.

Problem Solving as a Team

Niceness can get in the way of another tool of right relationship: shared problem solving. One of the most powerful ways to engage volunteers (and other community members) is to invite them in as partners to think through and address issues together.

Let’s revisit Judy and her closet full of baby booties. She likely didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news to the knitters. In avoiding the conversation though, she missed an opportunity to enlist the volunteers as partners in determining thoughtful next steps. She could have invited in the lead volunteers for a coffee date to thank them for their long-time service, share the hospital’s decision to close the maternity ward, and discuss options. Maybe the group’s participation had been declining, and the change would be a welcome opportunity to sunset the work and host a celebration for all those who had been involved over the years. Perhaps there was another hospital or program that could put the booties to good use, and the group could identify and reach out to new partners who aligned with their goals.

Trying to do the so-called nice thing and protect volunteers from bad news takes away their voice and agency. Involving them in planning and decision making invites them into relationship by demonstrating trust and honoring their perspectives. 

Creating (and Maintaining) Boundaries

A commitment to right relationship also means developing healthy boundaries, including saying no when necessary. Giving everyone permission to establish and honor boundaries can be a powerful way to redefine nice on multiple levels.

For example, an agency held a walk each year that relied on dozens of volunteers to supplement the small paid staff. The new program coordinator was excited to work with volunteers. As a result, she accepted every volunteer who expressed interest. It didn’t feel nice to turn people away. Unfortunately, they ended up with way too many volunteers for the event, many of whom ended up standing around with nothing to do on the big day (which did not feel nice at all). The next year, the program coordinator limited the numbers of volunteers and was able to ensure that everyone had work to do and a meaningful experience. (It also encouraged volunteer prospects to sign up early in the future.)

Another agency had a different issue with volunteer-related boundaries. The volunteer team conducted all of the screening and placement for volunteers who then reported to a staff lead in another department. These staff leads were merely assigned the new volunteer. Sometimes it worked out; sometimes it didn’t. As a result of this approach, the staff felt stuck with low-performing volunteers and were not too excited about taking on new volunteers who may or may not work out.

To address this issue, the volunteer department teamed up with the program departments on screening and placement. The decision to move forward with a volunteer became a joint decision between the volunteer and program departments and the volunteer. The program team also was encouraged to reach out to the volunteer team for assistance with any issues and given the authority to recommend a volunteer for a new placement when the fit was not good. Creating this new boundary improved the experience for everyone involved and helped move into right relationship with each other.

Maintaining boundaries is an important task for volunteers too. We can get closer to right relationship by giving volunteers permission to set and speak up about their own boundaries. Too often, volunteers think it isn’t nice to complain about a project or ask for a different role. So they do something that doesn’t feel nice at all to the agency—they stop showing up.

This dynamic might change if we invite them into an ongoing conversation about what they can and cannot do in terms of skills, interests, and availability. We might build this expectation in during the initial placement conversations, reinforce it through orientation, and demonstrate it with periodic check-ins to see how things are going. Ideally, this approach brings the volunteer into relationship with the agency and community so they feel more confident about talking through options when their circumstances change or they discover their role isn’t what they expected.

As one volunteer shared with me, she says no to new tasks or roles if they are beyond what she can deliver. It’s difficult given how much need there is and how much she wants to help, but she knows it feels terrible to not meet a commitment. Being honest about what she can and cannot do supports her in being in right relationship with that commitment. In addition, the agency knows that asking her to take on a new project won’t scare her off; she will just say no if it isn’t a fit. And that feels a lot better than tiptoeing around and trying to be nice.

_______________

I didn’t hear the end of Susan’s story about the baby booties. However, I am confident that her counsel was not to keep stashing booties out of a misdirected notion of being nice. I imagine her response was drawn from the other qualities that she modeled, a practice of volunteer engagement that was fierce, courageous, committed, and action-oriented. As it happens, these are all qualities that can bring us closer to being in right relationship. Perhaps it is time to hang up niceness in volunteerism. Our communities deserve more.

Photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Sue Carter Kahl

Sue is the President of Sue Carter Kahl Consulting and has 25 years of experience in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Her work is infused with lessons learned as a volunteer center executive, state service commissioner, nonprofit board member, staff member, volunteer, and researcher. Her current projects include teaching volunteer engagement and translating her research on the value that volunteers bring to organizations into practitioner-friendly resources. Sue has a PhD in Leadership Studies and is committed to bridging practice and theory in the volunteer field.
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