Eating Someone Else’s Cooking to Improve Your Own

When you finish your work day or work week what do you do with your free time? Do you spend it doing for free something you get paid for at work? Probably not, so you might wonder why someone whose full time job is working for a nonprofit organization would spend any of his precious personal time volunteering for other nonprofits. Well, in my case there are multiple reasons, like what purpose that nonprofit serves or what constituency it is helping, but one of the more selfish reasons is that it helps me identify areas in which I can improve at the day job.

A perfect example of what I’m talking about is a role I’m filling this year for a national trade association with which my organization is affiliated. I knew going in that it would be time consuming, but now that I’m halfway through the year I can tell you that I didn’t realize the half of it. There have been far more conference calls, emails, webinars and face-to-face meetings than I dreamed were possible. There have been unanticipated issues that have required extra meetings and consultations. And, of course, there have been “people being people” issues that have required a lot of attention and more than a little finessing. In other words, your average volunteer role in a trade association.

So how is this helping with my day-job performance? It’s reminding me what our volunteer leaders go through with our organization, and it’s making apparent the things I can do to make their lives easier. Here’s just a small sample:

  1. Communicate early and often, but not too often.
  2. Remember that they have day jobs and family lives, so they may not be able to respond to requests immediately and they might not remember something they’ve committed to doing, and thus you need to remind them. That’s why the first part of point #1 is so important.
  3. Make sure you save “urgent” messages for when you really need them. If everything is urgent, then they begin to believe that nothing is really urgent OR you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s why the second part of point #1 is so important.
  4. Be aware that at some point volunteers are going to feel unappreciated. Maybe not by you or your staff, but by other volunteers and the complainers in particular. The other volunteers don’t see all the time you’re putting into your role – the phone calls to discuss agenda items, the debates and decisions regarding organizational policies, the preparation for meetings, the follow up to meetings, the meetings to plan meetings, etc. After a while it grinds you down, and at some point the complaint or offhand comment from another volunteer threatens to push you over the edge. It’s amazing how a simple “thank you” or “you’re doing a great job” from someone, ANYONE, helps get you past that “f*&^ it” moment and makes all the work seem justified. It might be a good idea to have someone make that call to your leaders (of course you can do it yourself, but it’s better coming from a peer).

Much like a chef benefits from sampling other chefs’ cooking, those of us who work for volunteer led organizations can learn a lot by volunteering for other organizations. I’ve truly benefited from being the volunteer who works with staff and observing how they do things, taking notes on things they do that I don’t – and should – and noting things I wish they would do, or not do.

Here’s an interesting learning point: I’m hesitant to share with them the things I wish they would do, or not do, because I don’t want to seem like I’m telling them how to do their jobs. Yet, I’d very much appreciate my own volunteers giving me that same feedback and now I worry that they won’t/don’t for the very same reason. Thus, probably my biggest takeaway is that I need to actively solicit their feedback.

As for my fellow volunteers/members I can say without hesitation what my most significant takeaway is: no matter what I do, or how I do it, someone is going to disagree with me or dislike what I’m doing. That feedback loop is a constant and it can wear you out, so it behooves me to remember that my volunteer leaders are experiencing the exact same thing.

Note to self: increase my budget for “counseling” sessions at local watering holes.

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