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The Volunteer Shelf Life

By Meridian Swift
From , Meridian Swift, 2011, pp. 55-7

The shelf life of a volunteer certainly varies. It may be immediate, because we deem the volunteer unsuitable for the work, or it might be natural, as when a volunteer moves, becomes ill, or has a change in status. A volunteer, though, may have several shelf lives within your organization.

Some volunteers will go away for a period of time and then return later. I once had a volunteer who came back eight years later. I recently had a volunteer come back after a twelve-year absence. She had a very stressful job that she retired from and remembered her positive volunteer experience from before; as she now has the time, she wants to do the work she started twelve years ago.

Sometimes, volunteers have no idea that they will not last. They have every good intention. They may have been helped by your organization and want to return the kindness. They may think of the spiritual growth potential, or may just have a big heart. But you can almost tell the minute you meet them that unfortunately they will not last. They are keyed up, busy, scattered a bit, involved in so many things, from jobs to family to other commitments. They seem to flit as you speak to them, their wings ready to carry them off to the area that needs them the most at the moment. These volunteers have the shortest of shelf lives. They want to be with you, volunteering, doing good work, but they can’t. They can’t commit to a schedule and they can’t fill in on short notice. They want to volunteer, but they don’t have the time, not really. So, their own good intentions can’t save them. They constantly tell you no, but ask you to call again. Eventually, after offering every volunteer job and every conceivable schedule to them, you give up. You stop calling. They don’t call you either and they drop off. You may check in with them periodically, but all you get is their answering machine, and if you ever speak with them, they are embarrassed and hurry you off the phone. At that point, all you can do is remember their good intention and hope that they return when the time is right for them.

You can send them occasional greeting cards if you feel that they will someday be right for your mission. You can keep them in the back of your mind or on a list, and when something new or special comes up, you can call those volunteers. It works more often than not. Recently, I heard of a volunteer named Inez, who had tried to do the jobs that were offered, but couldn’t. She painfully explained that she thought the shelter she volunteered for was right for her, but couldn’t bring herself to do the actual work. She really wanted to help, but emotionally could not. She left, but the very astute volunteer manager kept thinking about Inez and her desire to help. They had once had a conversation about gardening, something Inez enjoyed doing at home. When the shelter looked into creating a butterfly garden, the volunteer manager immediately called Inez, who was thrilled to be able to do something that was not only very helpful, but right for her personality and state of mind. It worked.

Gathering as much information as you can on volunteers’ hobbies and interests can one day prove very helpful. Newsletters offering new opportunities will catch those volunteers who might have just developed a new passion, or would like a change or want to try something more advanced. The number-one reason people volunteer is that they were asked. We always need to be prepared to ask everyone, because the person who says yes is oftentimes surprising.

These are the volunteers who have not yet reached their shelf life. They may change focus, may need to take a lengthy sabbatical, or may stop for an extended period of time. They may eventually be the volunteers whose end comes naturally due to age, moving, or inability to continue. They are the volunteers that don’t quite fit into the traditional roles you offer. It may take a long time for them to find their niche or their rhythm, but they are willing to stick around until that happens.

There are always going to be certain volunteers that exist on the edges of organizations. They will be there to help when they can, but their journey is slow and spotty. You call them periodically and they appreciate it more than most, because they feel that you should give up on them. You make them feel special, because you tell them that you have faith in them and that your organization truly wants their help. All that faith and encouragement strengthens their loyalty and eventually you reap the benefits.

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