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Reader question #80: The problem of the enthusiastic (but disabled) volunteer.

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.

So sometimes someone volunteers and you look at them and say “Great, thank you!  I’ll let you know if I end up being able to use you!” and then you keep looking for someone else and you tell the person, “Sorry, we couldn’t use you this time, but thanks again for volunteering.”  (This is your situation right now, as you keep looking for the right volunteer).  You don’t have to use everyone who volunteers for you. You don’t have to accept all help as necessary or good or helpful. You just don’t.

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.

Sometimes you have to fire them.  It’s really hard to fire someone who is working for you for free, for long hours, on this story you made up in your head.  But sometimes you have to say “I’m sorry, this isn’t working out and we need to get someone who is a better fit into that job.  Thanks again for your help.”

And sometimes you have no choice but to groom them into someone you can use and try to get *something* out of them, which will be your situation if you end up taking this volunteer with you. So I am not a lawyer and I am not a disabilities expert and I may fuck this up but I’m going with the “This is how I’d want to be treated in her shoes” solution.

If you end up committing to her, type up a schedule and a list of tasks for the event.  Figure out what your main goals are, and write those down, too.  Is it to get a lot of people to take information & materials from you?  Is it to get more people on the mailing list?  Is it to meet certain other organizations and figure out if you can Hulk Out for Green People together?

Then have a meeting with her and go over the list.  The meeting is not about her disability and how to accomodate it, it’s a meeting of two professionals who have a job to do. Be up front with her about the day of lifting, hauling, standing, and being “on” with the public entails, but do it by asking questions rather than telling her what she can and can’t do, and do it with the tone of “I want to make sure that we can divide up the work so that it gets done but also so that you have a good experience. “

  • 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?

Treat her like your partner in this, divide up the work, ask her what she needs and what her limits are, and then go and make the best of it.
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16 comments
  1. kate said:

    Good advice. But I’ll also put in a plug for kindness, and generosity of heart. The volunteer is described as a lovely person, just not as spry as she presumably once was, and not as outgoing as you’d like her to be. Try and remember you’ll be an old lady some day (with any luck, the alternative being to die before you get there). The opportunity to be useful AND to get to attend this event probably means more to her than you can imagine. So if she’s your only volunteer, try to work with her as advised above. If someone comes along more suited to the task, great! But can you still bring her?

  2. This is the first time I’ve thought you’ve been too gentle with a letter-writer. A charity worth its salt really SHOULD be able to find ways to best utilize ALL the people who want to help, not just the young and vigorous.

    If the letter-writer regularly organizes volunteer workers for her organization, it really IS part of her job to learn to work with volunteers with various disabilities. This volunteer is described as ready and willing to give her all. The LW needs to do the same and not deprive “Hulk Associates” of a dedicated worker.

    • JenniferP said:

      I feel you, however, I am going to say: Sometimes working with volunteers (even the best volunteers) is a giant pain in the ass. It IS a job. It IS a big job – to keep them motivated, to channel their skills usefully, to keep them feeling good, to stay positive, etc. It can be a big time suck, especially if working with volunteers is not your main job or a main part of your job. I’ve worked for a lot of non-profits and sometimes that guy who came in to helpfully stuff envelopes for a mailing comes into your office 47 times a day to shoot the shit with you and it’s really not worth getting those 50 envelopes stuffed to put up with it, but you have to say “Thanks so much! Great you could come in!” and smile every time you see him.

      I think taking this lady along to the event is going to go just fine, and I think we are very quick to underestimate old people and should not do that, and it is a good goal to try to incorporate everyone as much as possible, and I don’t think you can say to someone “You can’t because you’re disabled” BUT you will never hear me say that you have to utilize ALL the people who want to help all the time or you are a bad person.

      • I agree that working with volunteers (or managing personnel in any way) sounds like a pain in the ass! I can only imagine the organizational and interpersonal skills involved. But the wording of the letter really raised a lot of red flags for me. It sounded like someone wanting to be told “it’s ok to blow this person off”. I freely admit that I’m extremely sensitive about disability issues; I doubt I’d have been as snappish about something I didn’t have personal experience with.

        • JenniferP said:

          You weren’t being snappish!

          There’s stuff the letter writer can do to make it work if (s)he wants to. Does (s)he want to?

        • Christen said:

          I was troubled by some of the wording in the letter as well — it seems like he or she may have been a bit quick to judge this volunteer’s ability to perform based on her age and disability status. I like that the Captain’s advice emphasizes asking the volunteer what she needs and involving her in making a plan for the event, rather than just having the LW make a call based on what she or he thinks the volunteer can do. With any luck (and some patience and open-mindedness) the letter writer will be pleasantly surprised.

    • Christen said:

      Agreed. The LW says her volunteer is very enthusiastic — just not very great at projecting it. Part of working with volunteers in an outreach context (which the LW will very likely have to do again) is to tap into their enthusiasm and TEACH them how to project it. Giving her a script, as CA suggests, is a good idea. I’d actually try to involve her in generating the script and some talking points she can use with folks at this event. Start off by asking her what inspired her to get involved with Hulk Associates in the first place. She may well respond with a boring platitude about how she just really likes helping green people, but she may also have a great story about how Hulk helped her when she really needed to smash some stuff but was unable to afford the cost of a demolition service on her own and now she wants to give back, however she can. Finding out what’s important to her will help you come up with ideas about things that will be true and sincere, and will represent the organization well. Once you have some talking points set up, you and your volunteer will probably proceed with a lot more confidence, and you will probably be able to recycle those talking points to write scripts for future outreach events.

      • JenniferP said:

        You sound like you’re great at this – thanks especially for the expanded instruction on how to help her write a script for pitching the organization.

    • Erika said:

      I agree that charities ideally would find ways for all volunteers to help, but I also feel that necessarily requires tapping into people’s strengths. I say this as a not-outgoing person who usually works behind the scenes. I would not be good in an outreach or fundraising role. I know it. Organizations I’ve volunteered for know it. I would be dismayed if they used me in a way that could actually hamper the cause just because they didn’t want to hurt my feelings.

  3. Jason said:

    I don’t know- maybe I see it different from the commenters. I’m not unsympathetic to the idea of creating a spot for the volunteer in question, but people have to be appropriate for the job at hand- I’m not going to ask an elderly person to help me cut down trees, for example.

    I don’t think that it’s inappropriate to have a conversation with her about what the job will entail, and to make sure that she’s going to be able to hack it. I have no problem with having her come along as an adjunct, but work has to get done, ultimately.

  4. Is there any kind of requirement that you can only have ONE volunteer for this (and it has to be the first one who says yes)? It doesn’t sound like that’s exactly the case so much as it’s custom.

    I think this one pretty much answers itself: if she’s the only one who signs up, that’s still better than absolutely no help at all, and if someone else also signs up, problem solved for the most part. Then just bring 3 people unless someone completely tells you you can’t.

    But if there is another volunteer and you are forced to pick one, that’s when this “I need someone who can lift stuff and I am not allowed to bring the both of you, sorry” kicks in.

    Is there a deadline as to when you’ll know that this is all you’re getting when it comes to volunteers?

  5. teabq said:

    Having read the letter a couple of times I’m not seeing anything that stands out as an obvious reason not to use her. Granted maybe details were left out, but I suspect if the issue was something like “Must be able to handle kryptonite.” and she’s Superwoman it would’ve been mentioned.

    Instead what we have is that she’s “slightly disabled*” and “really isn’t that good at Projecting Enthusiasm.” The first is definitely not a reason to reject a volunteer for a task that mostly involves handing out free pens and talking. The second, as others have already mentioned, can be taught.

    I’m left with the impression that the crux of the problem here is that for whatever reason you just don’t wanna hang with this woman. Which would possibly be okay if this was your personal vacation, but it’s not. It’s for your job.

    Not to be all Tim Gunn here but – make it work. Responding to less than ideal resources by throwing up your hands and not wanting to deal with it says more about you than it does her. She volunteered. She’s willing to do whatever she can. It’d be one thing if, as CA mentioned, it’s a volunteer who’s already put in some hours and shown that they have no work ethic or interest in being taught. You don’t know this about her yet so you’re writing her off without evidence.

    You can certainly keep the sign-up open for however long you intended it to be open and take someone already better suited to the task if they volunteer for it. But if she’s all you’ve got – make it work. Take the above suggestions on teaching her how to do the job. Then afterwords write it all up with using the benefit of your post-event thoughts and present it to your boss as the volunteer training manual that you took the initiative to create. Best case scenario you have a newly trained volunteer who’s set to do an even better job next time she signs up for something, worst case you’ve at least got something good about yourself to bring up at your next performance review.

    * And for the record, if you’re not talking something like firefighter, inability to carry stuff and needing to sit more often than the average person is a disability you accomodate the shit out of. Granted all disabilities should be accomodated for, but of all the types to mention as an obstacle that’s what is being considered as a monkey wrench? I can’t think of a more easily accomodated for disability for this scenario besides maybe “must be in environment with air.” Sheesh.

    • Yeah, it’s not super complicated. Bring a lightweight folding chair. If you have to carry stuff, include the chair in your first trip from the car to the event. Then she can sit and guard the stuff while you go back and get more stuff out of the car.

  6. Desperately Seeking Someone Else said:

    Thanks very much, Captain Awkward, and thanks, everyone, for all the great comments.

    The problem IS money (isn’t it always?) I can’t fund more than two people to attend this Event. If the other volunteer is someone who can carry boxes and lift stuff, that means I’m not carryng all of it, and while my back is in pretty good shape, I’m old enough myself to yearn for someone who will be helping me carry half.

    Fortunately the problem may have resolved itself – a second person has volunteered who lives locally to the Event, so the expenses can now stretch to three. *Phew*

    • JenniferP said:

      Sounds like the best of all worlds. I’m glad it worked out that you can take her with you.

  7. Xenu01 said:

    I have had good volunteer coordinators and less-than-effective ones.

    Good volunteer coordinators say, “Hi, what can you do? What would you LIKE to do?” Then they use you accordingly. If they see that maybe things aren’t working out for you in that area, they say, “I noticed you didn’t seem too enthused about _________. Would you like to try _______?”

    Ineffective coordinators assume your abilities and wait for you to perform to the standards they have set for you. For example, I am a portly lady. I am also a FIT portly lady, and strong enough to lift my husband. So yes, if I tell you I would like to do something physical, BELIEVE ME. Another less-than-effective tendency I have noticed in some is that some people have specific standards they wish to have filled but don’t make the effort to train you to those standards. For example, I was a volunteer in a shelter for a while. I loved the people I waited on. So lovely! They called me “absolutely lady” because that is a verbal tic that I have. It drove me nuts, though, that my supervisors would be all, “Why did you do this this way?” or “Where is the _____?” when I had never been properly trained. I’d never even gotten a tour! I just had to figure it all out. And I’m not shy about questions, but show me someone who wouldn’t be reluctant to ask questions when each one gets a sigh of exasperation and a dramatic gesture of showing?

    I have sympathy for those who utilize volunteers. I do! Just remember that we are none of us perfect and be a little flexible.

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