Dear Captain Awkward:
The background: I work for Hulk Associates, a charity that does Stuff for Green People.
In a couple of weeks I have to take a box of our literature and a banner and some free pens and maybe some sign-up sheets to an event that’s being organised a couple of hundred miles away. And for various reasons, though our usual thing is for two members of staff to go, I’m going to be the only one able to do it. So I put an ad out asking for volunteers, making clear that basically they get a free trip to Event, their lunch and coffee paid for, and to promote Hulk Associates at this Event. They also get at least an hour or so to wander around the Event. (The point of having at least two people on the stall is so that you can take a break, after all.)
The first and so far the only person to volunteer to help out is a lovely retired lady I know well: she’s very enthusiastic, always wanting to help. She’s also slightly disabled – can’t stand for long periods of time, can’t help carry stuff, and really isn’t that good at Projecting Enthusiasm (I think she just takes for granted that we’re a great organisation and forgets that you really have to tell people, especially at an Event where people will be passing by who may never have heard of us before) or indeed getting people to sign up for things. In short, she’s really pretty far from being the ideal person for this job. And I have a sneaking suspicion that one reason she volunteered is that otherwise there is no way she could afford the trip to Event, and she probably wants to go.
But I don’t want to offend her. And I don’t want to hurt her feelings - she is a lovely person and even if she’s looking forward to a free trip to Event, I don’t doubt she will do all she’s physically capable of doing to help out. And I don’t want to put her off volunteering for us. And perhaps worst of all – while she is really completely not ideal for the job, it would certainly be better to have her helping me than no one at all – though I’m continuing to run my request for volunteers.
Captain Awkward, is there any way at all to convey the message politely and without offense that while she’s lovely to think of volunteering, I’d rather someone else, unless there’s no one else, in which case she’s it? I have a horrible sinking feeling that there isn’t.
Desperately Seeking Someone Else
Dear Desperately Seeking Someone Else:
I don’t know much about talking to someone about how their disability might affect job performance, so I’m going to put that aside for right now and talk about working with volunteers in general, which I do know a lot about.
I’m an independent filmmaker. At times, I totally depend on volunteers to get films made. Some are very skilled technicians who volunteer for me because they are students working their way up and want experience. Cool. Some are very enthusiastic beginners who don’t have experience but do have time and enthusiasm. Also cool. And some people are enthusiastic beginners who think they’re great and already know everything, or they are total flakes, or their personality or creative ideas just don’t mesh with yours, or they haven’t figured out that the ethos of working on a film crew is “If you say you’ll do it, find a way to do it. If you can’t do it, tell someone right away so that they can figure out a way to do it,” so they say they will do something that they can’t do and at the last minute tell you that they can’t when it’s too late to find a replacement. Awkward.
Sometimes you repurpose them, like, I need a more experienced person to be my script supervisor, but can I figure out some other way this person could help me out? Sometimes these repurposed people end up being the backbone of the crew – driving us, feeding us, scouting thrift stores for props for us, wearing pretty clothes in big party scenes, etc. They get a little more experience, and we hold onto the great ones and give them bigger jobs next time.
- Maybe you can do more lifting and she can do more sorting.
- Maybe you need to make sure to have chairs there so she can take breaks.
- Maybe she needs to stay on top of water and snacks and take frequent small breaks to keep her energy level up – build that in.
- Maybe you can work on her pitching skills by roleplaying and/or giving her a script to use when asking people to sign up for things.
- Maybe you can give her responsibility over one area – the mailing list? – and have her really work the hell out of it while you focus on other stuff?