Thursday, November 29, 2012

When a Volunteer is Cruel to Staff: My Encounter with Mr. Cruel & Critical

When it comes to people, some are kind and wonderful; others are not so delightful. Therefore, it is no surprise that from time-to-time you may encounter a volunteer who is overly critical, derisive or even outright mean. For that reason, I would like share a story about my experience with such a person.

My Encounter with Mr. Cruel & Critical

As I have noted before, I was once a Community Organizer and was responsible for starting a community group in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit. That's where I met Mr. Cruel & Critical.

I had just finished the arduous, two-month task of recruiting leaders and members for the group and had just organized the first big neighborhood meeting. It went went well, but, as you might imagine, there were a few glitches...and Mr. Cruel & Critical was waiting.

I ran into him a few days after the meeting while walking the neighborhood. He proceeded to list every small detail that wasn't right. Then he escalated into a more vicious attack on my competency. By the time he was done, I was badly shaken and demoralized. 

Later that day, I spoke with my head organizer, Madeleine. She shook her head knowingly. "Ah, Mr. Cruel & Critical! There's often one in every neighborhood. They do nothing to help organize the group..." 

I nodded and said, "You're right. This guy did nothing to help -"

"That's right," Madeleine said. "All he did was show up at the big meeting and sit in the back row. Right? And he didn't volunteer to do anything?" At this point, I was nodding vigorously in agreement.

"That's Mr. Cruel & Critical for you! All he knows is how to criticize. He is just a loudmouth do-nothing. Now think about the people in the neighborhood group who actually did something. Think about Floyd who hosted the organizing meetings at his house, Delores who went door-to-door recruiting people to the first neighborhood meeting and George who just agreed to be the spokesperson at next week's meeting with the Police Department.

"Who are you going to believe? Mr. Cruel & Critical? Or will you believe Floyd, Delores and George?" On reflection, I understood.  Furthermore, I realize that allowing Mr. Cruel & Critical to influence my emotions would undermine my ability to help the good people such as Floyd, Delores and George. They had confidence in me and together we were making a difference in the neighborhood.

Who Loves Ya Baby?

I hope this story will help if you ever encounter a Cruel & Critical volunteer. There are many good volunteers in your organization who appreciate you. The work you do does matter! For those you who remember the old Kojak TV series, just imagine the good volunteers are saying to you, "Who loves ya baby?"

This how good volunteers feel about staff!

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dealing with Volunteers...It's a Tough Business!

"It's a tough business requiring ridiculous amounts of
resistance to self doubt and a skin made of Teflon."

Today's post will be more on the philosophical side (as opposed to pragmatic, how-to advice). The above observation surely applies (at times) to the association management profession and the challenges of dealing with volunteers. However, it came to me as encouragement from a successful author, not from an association colleague.

You see, in addition to being a consultant, I am also an aspiring author. My first manuscript has already been rejected by more than 150 literary agents. OUCH! This rejection rate is typical. It is also daunting, demoralizing and even heartbreaking. 

What should I do? Foolishly, perhaps, I just finished my second manuscript. Guess what? This means more rejections, lots of them. Each rejection hurts. But that's just the way of the publishing business; you gotta keep going! 

It does seem ridiculous for even as I write this blog post, I am planning my third novel!!!

I am sharing this experience because I see a number of parallels between the travails of dealing with literary agents and dealing with volunteers. It is just the nature of the business: it is hard to be appreciated and to feel valued for your effort. No matter how well you do, there will always be criticism. If you happen to catch an agent on a bad day, you can be rejected solely based on his mood. Likewise, volunteers get moody and, well, you get the picture.

The Bottom-Line: It's often tough going. Sometimes it ain't pretty. But when it comes to dealing with volunteers, hang in there. And when you're having a bad moment, just try to imagine my in-box filled with countless rejection letters from all those unappreciative literary agents. 

Until next time...onwards!

Related article:  Finding the Confidence to Deal with Volunteers

Monday, November 19, 2012

Finding the Confidence to Deal with Volunteers

Let’s be honest, the task of dealing with volunteers, though often rewarding, is very challenging.  From time-to-time, most association professionals will find themselves in a situation that is intimidating and even a bit painful emotionally. It can sap our enthusiasm and undermine our confidence.

For that reason, I would like share a valuable lesson in confidence building I learned when as a Community Organizer.

An Intimidating Neighborhood

My first assignment was in one of the worst-off neighborhoods in the Detroit: abandoned houses were everywhere, a few blocks looked more a war zone than a neighborhood.  In addition, my first set of contacts with residents went poorly; it seemed the rats were more interested in my activities than were the neighbors. I was feeling intimidated and afraid.  

Then, with a little coaching from a fellow organizer, I found my voice. I began to speak in the following manner:
My purpose for being here is because your neighbors want better policing (and other city services). 
"I am a trained Community Organizer; I can help you put together a neighborhood group to improve conditions in your community.
"I am doing this because I want to see good things happen for the people in this neighborhood.”

Learning to speak in this manner helped me stand my ground and sell myself to people. It was a powerful way to articulate my purpose, my competencies along with my genuine desire to help people.

An Intimidating Chairperson

A few years later, I found myself employed on the marketing staff of an association. One of my first assignments brought me face-to-face with a rather headstrong member who was chair of the Membership Committee. He had been described as a bit of loose cannon with little interest in or the patience for planning.

With that in mind, I harkened back to my organizing experience and prepared myself our first meeting. Here is what I said to him and the entire committee:

My purpose is to make sure the committee has a well thought out, comprehensive membership plan.
"I can help you because of my expertise in this area; I have seen what works and what doesn’t work in other associations. 
"Six months from from now, I want to see the members of this committee armed with the knowledge they need to help grow the membership. I want you to have a plan to pass along to future members of this committee (as well as provide valuable data to the staff). ”
The simple act of being able to articulate this statement gave me confidence and allowed me to stand my ground with the Chair. As a result, I was able to gain his support to proceed.

Renewing Your Confidence

Why not practice this approach so you are prepared the next time you have a challenging or intimidating encounter with volunteers? Use the following template; practice what you might say to your volunteers. In fact, get together with fellow staff to practice and improve.
"My purpose is to: ________ [describe the outcome or priority that needs to be addressed].
"I know I can help because: ________ [explain how your skills and experience as an association professional are of direct value to the situation].
"I want to see: ______ [describe a favorable improvement or successful scenario that is desirable to the volunteers]."
Good luck finding your voice!

Contact me for information about a Partnership Tune-up to improve relations with your volunteers or chapters as well as coaching and training. 

Related article:  When a Volunteer is Cruel to Staff: My Encounter with Mr. Cruel & Critical 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why Don't Volunteers Do Their Job? Use the ACORN Test to Diagnose Why.

In my previous post, I listed four reasons volunteers may not be doing the job we ask of them. Today I would like to borrow another technique from the field of Performance Management, the ACORN test. It was designed to help managers develop a clear statement a job's mission. I have modified it so it can be applied to associations and nonprofits. If you find volunteers are not doing their jobs, the ACORN test may help you diagnose why. 


There is a definable result (i.e., as opposed to volunteers simply attending a certain number of meetings). 


Volunteers have sufficient ability/resources to achieve the desired outcome.

Overall Objective

The accomplishment represents the primary reason a member volunteered.


The volunteer’s duties must have minimal conflict with other responsibilities (e.g., job, family, etc.).


There is a way to measure/determine success.

Check out my guide to helping volunteers succeed

Click here to download

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Four Reasons Volunteers Don't Do Their Jobs

I was recently rereading a textbook on the topic of Performance Management (which deals with the topic of using positive reinforcement to improve performance). It noted four basic reasons why people don't do what we want them to do on the job. When modified for volunteers, the reasons are:

There is nothing profound about these questions and that's exactly the point! So ask yourself:
  • Are volunteers clear about the outcome of their assignment?
  • Do volunteers know how they will work together, and with staff, to achieve this outcome?
  • What issues or problems might discourage or prevent volunteers from accomplishing their goals?
  • Is the assignment seen as desirable by the volunteers? Is it a good match for their interests, passions and talents?
'nuff said!

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Contact me if you need a Partnership Tune-up to help improve volunteer-staff relationships in your association!