Loyal volunteers will do anything except attend a boring meeting

March 24, 2002|By Susan Reimer

Volunteers work for free, doing jobs you couldn't pay anyone to do, and one of the fundamental truths of volunteering is this: It is the same 10 people.

Whether you volunteer for your community, your church or your local hospital, you will find yourself working with the same core group on every project, whether it is mulching flower beds or raising money for a building fund.

And nowhere are the faces more familiar than at schools, where you not only will be working with the same 10 people, but also will be working with them for 12 years.

I am one of those school volunteers. Over the years, we have tried to increase our numbers by offering things like pizza and child care to get people to come out to those admittedly tiresome evening meetings. Although it worked once or twice, we never successfully freshened our blood.

Flash-forward 12 years. It is senior year for us (not to mention for our kids), and the core group of volunteers that met on a first-grade trip to the zoo is gearing up for one last push: the after-prom breakfast.

I am on the food committee and, as my friends learned long ago, when I am on a committee, they are on a committee. "I will do anything you want," they say reflexively when I make that first round of phone calls, "just don't make me come to any of those tiresome night meetings."

(That is the crux of volunteer burnout, I think. It has never been about the work, it has always been about the meetings.)

Another truth about veteran volunteers is that they can see a request for volunteers coming from a long way off, so you have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool them into volunteering for yet one more project.

So, harking back to those days when we tried to increase our numbers with pizza and child care, I put out the word that I was playing host to a girls' night out at my place. "Beer, wine and food you didn't have to cook."

It worked, and by 8 p.m. on a Friday my kitchen was packed.

The other truth about volunteering is that your projects often resemble a series of interlocking circles. For example, some church volunteers might also sell concessions at high school basketball games, but not all church volunteers also sell concessions.

That night, a number of women who have nothing in common but their friendships with me met for the first time. They were chatting amiably over their second glass of wine when I stood up to address the group.

"I suppose you are all wondering why I called you here tonight," I said. An audible groan was the response. I must be really predictable.

"I am on the food committee for prom breakfast, which means all of you are on the food committee for prom breakfast.

"There are a number of tasks: soliciting donations, cooking, shopping, baking, collecting the donations on the afternoon of the prom, or staying up all night working the food tables.

"Because you are in on the ground floor of this event, you have the first choice and, I might add, the best choices. Once these highly appealing tasks are gone, they are gone for good. Only really crummy tasks will be left.

"My advice is to get in now while the getting is good. Betsy? Dawn? What can I put you down for?"

In a mercifully short time, I had volunteer bakers, cooks, shoppers and someone to stay up until 2:30 a.m. making waffles. The evening was an enormous success from a volunteer point of view.

The only difficulty is that my approach required a round of next-day phone calls. I needed to make sure everyone remembered what they had volunteered to do.

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