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Stepping on Toes

I spent this afternoon working with a local nonprofit to implement a form automation system. They have been laboriously filling out and processing about one hundred forms a week, all by hand. They knew that there was probably a more efficient way to do things, but nobody had the time to research, much less implement, a new method.

Right off, they admitted that they weren’t tech savvy. My initial thoughts of online file sharing and database solutions seemed intimidating. So, after talking with their head volunteer, I devised a spreadsheet to be mail merged into a form designed to their liking. They were thrilled. This was exactly what they needed—straightforward, not too fancy, but still professional and easy to use. There was only one problem: Sally.

Sally (not her real name) has been volunteering with this organization for years. She’s the one that gathers all of the information that populates the forms. Sally barely uses email. She may or may not be capable of using Word, and there’s no way that she’ll use Excel. And with that, two hours of relating the problem, working together to solve it, and implementing a solution went down the drain. Enthusiastic smiles faded into eye-rolling slumps. The meeting was over.

Like many nonprofits, this organization simply would not exist without its volunteers. However, Sally is now costing the organization several hours of valuable time each week. Where she had been helping, she’s now holding them back. Volunteers who work with her are frustrated (and finger-cramped). By not addressing the Sally situation, the organization is putting her feelings ahead of its own best interests.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with volunteers like Sally:

Reassess: Talk to the volunteer. They may be as unhappy in their current position as you are with their performance. Who knows, maybe Sally is overwhelmed and would be relieved to have someone else take over this task. Maybe she doesn’t realize how things could be improved, or how she could make others’ jobs easier.

Reallocate: Transfer the volunteer to another task. Make them feel even more needed and appreciated in a new position. Perhaps, they have additional skills that aren’t being utilized.

Retrain: If a volunteer has the time and the motivation then teach them the skills that you need them to use. While teaching Sally how to use Excel would be daunting, you could recommend that she take a class if she wants to continue in her current role.

Retire: If a volunteer can no longer do the work that needs to be done, you need to address the problem before it becomes damaging to the organization or demoralizing to your other volunteers. Celebrate their service and help them retire with respect.


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