July 13, 2015

Volunteering: The Fit/Stretch Dynamic

On Saturday I was in Union Square with a clipboard and a petition, attempting to get strangers to sign. In recent months as I’ve become more involved with the climate change movement, I’ve found myself further and further outside my comfort zone, and this was just the latest example.
I believe strongly in the cause of fighting climate change, so I am happy from time to time to do this kind of work. I am a somewhat shy person, and it helps me grow personally. I also know there are other people—more outgoing people, for example—who will be a better fit for canvassing in the long term.

In any group that relies on volunteers, there will be times when its members will have to step outside their comfort zones. We’re not called to do only the things that come easily to us. This is as true in climate advocacy as it is in churches. 

However, if your volunteers are constantly asked to do things they do not enjoy or for which they have no aptitude, they will burn out. As I’m learning, sometimes we all have to say, “No, I’m not the right person for that.” As the group’s leaders or chairperson, you can empower your team members to say that. 

Recently, a friend of mine started a nonprofit and asked me to be on the board. Most of the other people on the board are lawyers (the nonprofit provides legal services, training, investigation, and consulting). I previously worked as the office manager of a similar organization, but they all know a lot more about the substantive aspects of the legal work than I do. 

At our board meetings, I often end up listening more than speaking. I’m the secretary, so I take notes. I’ve also taken on the task of contacting organizations to inquire about discounted office space. This work fits me. Give me a project and a deadline and a computer and I’m pretty happy. If you want someone to plan your event or brainstorm about how to improve our legal system, I’m not necessarily the right person. 

Any organization that is led by volunteers should, from time to time, assess whether its volunteers have the right mix of skills to run the organization. This is true whether you’re talking about a board, a vestry, or simply the people who plan the events or run Sunday school. 

Is each person matched with the right task? Or are you asking them to stretch themselves too much? Do you have someone who can help raise funds? Someone who is good at logistics, communications, or long-term planning? Do you need to recruit some more volunteers? 

Sometimes you have no choice but to rely on the people who are present, whether they have the skills or not, but it is often easier to bring in new people if you know exactly what you are looking for. Is it a person who can talk about stewardship, or someone who likes to plan events? 

Not every volunteer is right for every job. From time to time, look at your vestry and your volunteers. Are you using your volunteers to the best of their abilities? Do they feel free to say, “No, I’m not the right person for that”? Are you helping them stretch themselves and grow in just the right amount?

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