In last month's Hot Topic I mused about the effect of the economy on volunteering and this month I propose some ways to engage clients and neighbors in self-help. I have one more thought about the unsettling financial times we are living through and that is to pay attention to what is happening to the people around us, specifically the volunteers and the paid staff of our organizations.
In 2005, I wrote a Hot Topic on "Volunteers Just Want to Have Fun." Despite the title, I seriously proposed that we create an environment within which not only volunteers enjoy their work, but everyone else does, too. While I would not describe us as "cheerleaders," I do think that, as the staff member charged with mobilizing community resources, we have remarkable freedom to keep people productive in ways that go way beyond pay.
Are you aware of whether any current volunteers have lost their jobs or whether someone in their family has? What about the families of employees? Obviously you cannot pry or ignore confidentiality, but people do tend to talk about personal difficulties and being a good listener has always been a quality of the best leaders of volunteers. So let's assume that, simply in the course of the work week, you learn that at least a few people are dealing with crisis. What can you do?
First, you can make it clear that you care. You can ask if the volunteer needs to be more flexible with his or her schedule for a while - which, by the way, may mean giving more hours to fill long days without a paying job. If the unemployed person is the spouse or other relative of the volunteer (or employee), you might mention that you would be happy to consider her or him as a new applicant to be a volunteer, even on a limited schedule. Remember that self-esteem is damaged by a layoff and by issuing this invitation you are affirming that the person has talents to share.
If several people are in the same boat, or your community has suffered a major plant or company closing, host a "Want to Talk about It?" brown-bag lunch or long coffee break, giving people the chance to vent a bit or to commiserate. If enough people participate, turn it into a discussion of what people need and how you might be of mutual help. The holiday no-cash gift ideas I mention in this month's Hot Topic might be a place to start.
If there is a bulletin board in a private space not seen by clients or visitors to your facility, permit volunteers and paid staff to post what types of jobs they are seeking for themselves or loved ones. The larger your agency, the more likely someone might have a referral. Remember, even in bad times, some companies are hiring.
The bulletin board might also be a place to offer services for hire. You may be surprised at how many people earn extra money (even in good times) by an array of things from elaborate cake decorating to refinishing furniture. Not to mention letting others know that they have teenagers willing to shovel snow or mow the lawn for quick cash.
If this is done in a low-key, but deliberate manner, and not in any way obtrusive to the public, you may find that both volunteers and employees appreciate the chance you are giving them to reach out. And that appreciation translates into positive feelings towards the volunteer office and to building internal community.