I already work for you for free!
September 4, 2011 7:12 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me navigate a conflict situation regarding differing expectations for my responsibilities as a volunteer?

Short version:

I volunteer regularly for a small organization, teaching a specific skill. I've been a good and reliable worker for years now. The head of the organization would also want me to participate in the general decision making within the organization (meetings, planning, brainstorming sessions, future strategies, developing the organization, etc). I have explained that I don't have time for that, only for the training itself which I'm happy to continue doing. She's pissed off with me, and everyone else seems to think I'm a free rider.

Very long version:

I'm a pretty skilled, um, let's say "ventriloquist", and I've now volunteered for several years at the, um, Herzoslovakian Foundation for Animal Ventriloquy, training ventriloquist dogs. Everybody's always been satisfied with the work I do as a trainer. Also, there's a constant shortage of trainers willing to work for free, and many of the current ones aren't quite as experienced or competent as I am, so the Foundation should be happy to have me. Or so one might imagine.

A couple of years ago, the old chairperson left and a colleague, whom I've always been on friendly terms with, took over the position. She's quite the perfectionist - very ambitious, very competent (albeit stress prone), and takes running this entirely volunteer-based organization extremely seriously.

The Foundation's being run in a democratic, cooperative spirit, and even the smallest nitpicky details tend to get thoroughly hashed out, debated and subjected to vote in the frequent, chatty trainer meetings, which I rarely attend. Their outcome almost never really affects me - as a matter of fact, the focus is often on the practicalities of teaching ventriloquy to cats. (Should we provide the decorative stickers for the litter boxes, or ask everyone to bring their own? Pink or yellow safety goggles for the tabbies?) It gets very frustrating and tedious, since I only train dogs and have nothing to contribute or gain.

I've explained that I don't have time for meetings (although I sometimes briefly stop by if my input is needed for any specific topic in hand). In return I'm always OK with whatever decisions they make without me; I think it's only reasonable that if I choose to not participate in the process I shouldn't grumble about the results.

I already donate a good chunk of my scarce enough spare time for the Foundation as it is. I just want to train the dogs as best as I can, and that's it. I don't have time or energy to do more, but even if I did, I frankly couldn't be bothered to get more involved. (Although I'd never tell them so; I've only ever told them I don't have any time for it.) I understand why they would like me to do more, but I don't think they're entitled to it.

A couple of days ago I did attend a plenary session of sorts, and things got pretty bad. At one point the chairwoman launched into an anguished soliloquy, seemingly aimed at none of us in particular (although some people started darting their eyes in my direction). She was visibly upset and literally in tears, asking us why she should be required to do more than the others, how she always has to be the one in charge who gets to deal with all the shit and listen to the complaints (not really sure what she was referring to there), how she has no-one to turn to or confide in....

It was hard to watch and I do sympathize, but nevertheless, I couldn't help thinking (but didn't say it out loud): she sought the leadership position of her own volition (and gets financially compensated, although definitely not in any proportion to the amount of work). And I think (but didn't say) that the bigger issue is her own inability to prioritize, draw boundaries and deal with stress, combined with her ambition and vision, as well as this unfortunate insistence on everybody participating and agreeing on everything, which must be time-consuming and also frustrating in itself.

As to the attending fellow trainers, one or two remained noncommittal, but the rest all agreed with her, and there were a couple of other impassioned pleas for everyone to make it their priority to participate from now on. And then all eyes were on me, the bad guy who really, really doesn't want to.

In the end I reiterated that I just don't have the time (I even mentioned all the other things I've got going - work, studying for a college degree and small kids), at which point someone else angrily retorted with a fighty list of their equally numerous activities, and I just kind of shrugged and awkwardly left it at that to avoid a fight. The atmosphere remains tense.

I don't want to walk away from the Foundation - I enjoy training those dogs, but this whole conflict is sucking my will to volunteer. I don't want to further upset the poor chairwoman. But I also definitely don't want to budge. Last spring this same disagreement reached a point where I actually asked if they'd prefer me to resign (while quietly thinking that would be insanity because they have no-one to replace me as a trainer), and the chairwoman replied she "didn't deem it necessary for the time being". As if she was almost threatening me, with what? Not letting me work for them for free anymore? OK, I'm getting a bit annoyed, too.

The Question:

How can I deal with this diplomatically? What should I say, or is it better to say nothing? There's no way to really make it go away, is there, but how to minimize the damage? (Today I had the impulse to send the chairwoman an email saying something akin to "btw, our disagreement aside, I think you're doing a great job", because I really feel pretty bad for her, hers is a thankless task and I suspect she rarely gets a pat on her back for all she does, which may actually be part of the reason she tends to get so upset. But in light of our ongoing tiff, I guess I probably shouldn't?)

Grateful for anything that might help me see things more clearly and/or figure out how to go forward. Throwaway email: unavailablevolunteer@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is this the only dog training organization around? I'd walk away. You're providing a valuable service for free. You get to choose the level of your own involvement. As director, she should be recruiting new volunteers, not bleeding the existing ones dry.
posted by headnsouth at 7:27 AM on September 4, 2011 [18 favorites]

I don't know exactly how to resolve this, since it sounds like there's a lot of problems in the organization if your absence alone is really pissing people off. However, as someone who volunteers for a couple of time-intensive things and is always trying to balance life, introversion and commitments, these are my thoughts:

1. It can actually be frustrating when someone doesn't participate in running an organization but wants the benefits of having a well-run group. Meetings may seem chatty to you but are rarely actually fun. It's easy for a feeling to arise of "I don't like spending my Saturday mornings at these meetings either; why does Anon get to duck out?" Seriously, meetings kind of suck, even meetings with people you like about a project you support. Also, no one at these meetings is interested in everything that happens. You're no more bored by them than anyone else, chances are.

I've been in groups with people who duck out on the boring stuff and it is easy to feel frustrated by them. Someone has to do the boring stuff in order to make the group work. Are you just ducking out because it's boring or do you really, literally not have the time/energy? If your primary reason is "this is boring" you might want to consider attending, say, one meeting a month (if they're weekly) or volunteering to take on some boring task that you can do at your own pace at home. I do the latter a lot because I'm a big introvert.

2. If you are really sure that doing more will burn you out, then don't do more. Over the years, I've developed a really good sense for when I just don't want to do something cause it's kind of dull and when I actually can't face it.

3. Don't communicate by email if you can avoid it - in my big volunteer projects we had to create "no conflict-ish communication over email" policies because so much could go wrong. Call the chairwoman and ask if you can get coffee, then talk it through with her. Explain what's going on with you, listen to how she feels. Be open to negotiating what you do, but plan your limits before the meeting - ie, "I'd be willing to do one more task/work the phonebank during the fundraiser (ick)/etc but not attend all the meetings".

4. If you don't go to the meetings, you don't know a lot of folks in the organization very well, and it will be difficult for them to understand your sincere time constraints. If it's possible to get to know folks a bit more - potlucks? group events? - that would strengthen your ability to say no, because people will learn more about your reasoning.

5. Groups like yours are often more successful when they have tiered involvement (as I know from experience) - a core group plus a free range volunteer group who say right upfront that they have no interest in governance and are just coming in to do one thing. Having two different classes of involvement helps keep the lines of responsibility clear. You might not be able to implement this yourself, but it would be great to suggest if there's ever space to do so.
posted by Frowner at 7:30 AM on September 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would send a back patty email.

I also think you made a strategic error in listing your other obligations. As you found out, giving a reason is an invitation to argument. In future, I would stick to a simple 'that's not possible'. Next time there's a 'poor me' monologue, shake your head and sigh along with everyone else.

And I'd begin emotionally divesting yourself from the organization in case the drama escalates.
posted by bq at 7:34 AM on September 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

IMHO, I'd say you should resign. Say something like, "I only have 5 hours a week (or whatever) to give to the Foundation. If the only way I can volunteer is to give 10 hours, then I'm sorry, but I will have to step down. That way, you can find someone else who has more time to give."
posted by LaurenIpsum at 7:36 AM on September 4, 2011 [16 favorites]

I wouldn't justify or apologize. I would just say, very directly and explicitly what you are thinking when this drama emerges and shut it down immediately: I work for you for free, and you're angry that I'm not doing more for you?

Then if things continue, again, just directly say: If you want more involvement from this position, I'm sorry but I must resign.
posted by unannihilated at 7:37 AM on September 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

It sounds like these meetings are conflating two things that in my experience work better kept separate. (I am on the board of, take classes at, and sometimes teach at a nonprofit karate school, so there's definitely the instructor/administrator dynamic.)

We have monthly board meetings where we hash out all the administrative crap - plan fundraising events, talk about building maintenance, the budget, that sort of thing. (And to be clear, we conflate board business and staff business because we're a tiny tiny school with one and a half fulltime staff - everyone else is a volunteer instructor.)

We also have monthly instructor training meetings, where we talk about the students, the curriculum, instructor scheduling, and that sort of thing. That group is just for instructors/instructor trainees.

Our Executive Director/sensei has to be at both, because she has two titles and handles two jobs. We finally (finally!) got her a part-time office helper to take some of the paperwork and email load off, because it was a ton of work and it was burning her out. But that was board business, NOT instructor business.

We have senior instructors on the board. But our most senior instructor, a woman who is absolutely devoted to the school and loves teaching and studying, has no interest at all in that side of the school. The next two most senior people served on the board for a couple years apiece and then resigned, which is what we expect, because being on the board can be boring and stressful and we expect people to have lives. They still teach, and they still come to instructor training, but they don't touch the business side of things. And that's fine.

So it sounds to me like your organization is trying to conflate what we separate, and it's causing exactly the problems it would cause for us if we tried it. I'm not sure this info is helpful to you - you could float splitting it out as an idea, but it would require some effort to champion - but I just wanted to express the opinion that you are not being unreasonable and a similarly-structured organization has figured out to make people like you happy and welcome.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:41 AM on September 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah... the nice part of me would agree that trying to compromise and attend one meeting a month or whatever would be nice. But the skeptical part of me feels like if they're already guilt tripping you like this, a compromise will just be an invitation to continue encroaching on your unpaid time and acting like they deserve it!

Are the other trainers that attend the meetings on the payroll? Do other volunteers show up for these meetings? (even if it's not required - are you the only 'outlier'?)

If you decide to talk with your supervisor, I would try to parallel your situation with hers, ie: "I think you're doing a great job. I know it's hard to take on all this stuff without getting a lot of recognition or thanks. Lately I've been feeling like the organization is more focused on getting me to do more than acknowledging what I already do here (List some of the instances you provided here). It's hard for me to keep volunteering my time in an atmosphere where I feel like people are hostile towards me. How can we resolve this so I can keep doing work I enjoy and you can keep getting well trained dogs for free?"
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:45 AM on September 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

If it were me, I'd probably not say anything until someone inevitably brings it up again (which will probably happen sooner than later) and then I would probably get a little bitchy and blunt, and say something like, "Look, I really enjoy what I do for this organization, but I don't have the time or energy to participate any more than I already am. I think I'm a valuable asset to the foundation, but I'm a volunteer and my time is very valuable; I'm giving away time from my kids and my education and that's not something I do very easily. So, if the foundation requires me to participate more, or if people are going to start treating me poorly because I can't give enough time or do enough to satisfy them, then I'm just going to have to regrettably step down and find another organization that appreciates every hour that their volunteers can spare them."

That's just what I would do, FWIW.
posted by 1000monkeys at 7:56 AM on September 4, 2011 [9 favorites]

I think some people like to be martyrs and you are obviously sensible and do not. Good! Just tell them you can't...just like you did here (and there obviously) and keep reiterating that. If you are just going in to train dogs (as opposed to socializing, attending meetings etc) then you probably won't have that much interaction- it seems attending the meeting made things worse. I would stay firm and let them know it's a non-issue and it's either just training dogs or nothing. Don't go to the meetings just because other volunteers do- you volunteer your particular skill and that is not 'meeting-attending'. Other people have more time and/or interest, you don't, that's fine.
posted by bquarters at 7:58 AM on September 4, 2011

Take it offline, definitely. It sounds like your supervisor will be calmer when she feels like you are acknowledging her hard work. There is no email that is going to substitute for you stepping out of the office together, you listening sympathetically while she vents, and then you getting a chance to express how very sad you'd be if you had to stop volunteering because the group can't accept the bandwidth you have to offer.

It also sounds like your supervisor has lost all perspective; I'd say if a friendly meeting like this doesn't result in a resolution, you should probably bail.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:03 AM on September 4, 2011

I agree with LaurenIpsum, you should be very clear with them. You are a volunteer, you can give x amount of time/do y activities, they can take it or leave it. The dirty looks and sly comments are not acceptable and must stop. If they don't appreciate the skills you bring to the organisation and the time you are able to spare, then they can do without them.

Stuff like this is why I don't give to charity any more (in any way that means they get my address), no matter how much you give, they always want more.
posted by missmagenta at 8:03 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're a volunteer. Any service you provide them is a gift. Perhaps your supervisor (and her higher-ups) need to be reminded of that.
posted by SPrintF at 8:14 AM on September 4, 2011 [11 favorites]

In a volunteer organization, you can't make anyone do anything they don't want to do. Everyone volunteers to the extent that they want to. That's the way it works, and IMO, that's the way it should work. You are committed to the extent you feel comfortable and that's fine. Your director does not understand these facts. She has apparently fallen into the trap of overcommitting (which is common), and expects everyone else to be equally overcommitted. This is unreasonable, and ultimately will be destructive to the organization if she doesn't figure it out.

I would not be particularly diplomatic about it, but I would have a face-to-face with the director and explain these facts to her. If she can't come to grips with these facts, then it's time for you to walk (which you should also explain to her).
posted by adamrice at 8:17 AM on September 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Your organization needs a better structure for its volunteers. It's okay for you not to want to get involved in the running of it, but it's also okay that they have requirements for their volunteers.

You should tell them that you have 5 hours a week (or whatever) to give them, but not more, and how would they like you to use those hours? Maybe they will say that they expect you to spend an hour a week, or 3 hours a month, or some other number in planning meetings. Then you can decide whether you are okay with that setup. An organisation is not obliged to take all volunteers, and it's allowed to say that volunteers have to do specific things and not do other things, and maybe you two are just no longer a good fit.
posted by jeather at 8:21 AM on September 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

You've had a lot of good advice so far, so let me just chime in to say: this director's inability to manage her or anyone else's time should not be your fault. And quite frankly, I'm insulted on your behalf that she tried to guilt you into volunteering more.

There are two ways to do this, in my view, that don't involve walking away from the volunteering that you so obviously derive pleasure and benefit from: 1) Ignore her and her histrionics, and continue to volunteer as you always have. 2) Sit her down privately and state, in no uncertain terms, the parameters within which you are able to volunteer.

I had a choir director do this to me one time, haranguing me on the phone because I had missed the beginning of rehearsal. I told her sternly and bluntly that I was picking someone else up at the airport, and I would only be making it to rehearsal at x time. She blustered, but finally had to accept it.

Don't let this woman walk all over you.
posted by LN at 8:25 AM on September 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

I worked for a school district. I left that district to more than double my salary doing the same work, but I wanted to see a project I was working on through, so I finished that by working both jobs for awhile (the schedule permitted me to work one day at the old job). After I was finished with that project I decided I was having fun doing work that I no longer depended on to live.

After a bit I realized people were continuing to treat me like crap (one of the reasons I went elsewhere). Then it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn't getting paid enough to be treated like crap, so I quit.

As a volunteer you get to decide how many hours and what you are willing to do. If they don't like that you don't have to keep working there.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:35 AM on September 4, 2011

I volunteer in a very public and time consuming way in my community. I cannot tell you how often a member of the town or community assumes that I am at their beck and call. After four years of it, I finally made the decision internally that I love volunteering at this, but I am doing it on my own terms if they still want me. No one was ever going to look out for my interests and I am volunteering about 20+ hours a week. I sat down and after much thought came to two conclusions. One, was along your lines. Hey, I am a volunteer here not a punching bag. I know my skill set and my level of interest, and they will not easily replace me, but they can and will replace me. Two, I can do the job well if I set limits on my time and priorities and stick to them.

It is very liberating when you get to the point that you are WILLING to walk away. The simple knowledge that at any point you can whip out that letter of resignation and move on always makes the tough times go away. The key though is that you need to be willing to follow through and resign if they demand more than you are willing to give.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:56 AM on September 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're a rock-star trainer, the organization would love to have you be a rock-star administrator/board member as well, even though that's not logical. I agree about the back pats, but I think that you have to establish boundaries and explain that you're not good at the admin stuff, have no interest in working in the organization that way, and indeed, the more time you would have to spend on that side of the organization, the less time you would have to do the actual tasks that you're best at doing.

They want you to be a white knight. You're not.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:37 AM on September 4, 2011

It might be worthwhile to take the chairperson out for a one-on-one "thank you for all you do and let's clear the air" lunch, and use the time to both express your appreciation for all she does and to delineate your own boundaries of what you can give. It sounds as though your contributions are very valuable (but people aren't always great about showing appreciation).

My uncle is fond of saying, if they find you do the work better than anyone else, they'll keep trying to give you more work. The trick then is 1) set boundaries so you're not overworked and 2) to set things up so you're doing the work you're best at. Seems like that applies to this situation.

The other thing I've found helpful in volunteering is letting most (or nearly all) of the interpersonal stuff just roll right off my back.
posted by vers at 9:37 AM on September 4, 2011

Absolutely agree with everyone who's said that your time is a gift to this organisation and should be appreciated as such. You certainly shouldn't be asked to take on a role which management and the board should be carrying out (and they are paid for it, I'd wager)

I volunteer as well and that is the attitude of both my line manager *and* my tutee; if it wasn't, I would leave. Good luck!
posted by veebs at 9:38 AM on September 4, 2011

You're a volunteer. Any service you provide them is a gift.

Um, not always. Managing volunteers can take a significant amount of time and energy, and many people really don't have a clear understanding of the resources required to run volunteer programs. I personally have worked with many volunteers who require far more in investment that is gained in returns.

Having said that, it doesn't seem like you're one of those volunteers, but it is the organization's perogative to set out requirements around commitment for their volunteers. It's up to you to be assertive with what you are willing and able to give. Set up a clear statement - "I am willing to do x and y for this organization, to the tune of z hours per month. If this is acceptable to you, I expect that requests for additional input from me will stop. If it's not okay, I will willingly move on to an experience that is a better match for me."

You don't need to give reasons, or to justify your terms, you just need to be crystal clear on what they are. Don't let the conversation be derailed by everyone else's tales of woe. Regardless of the their inclination to play the victim, it is their choice to commit that much time, and it has absolutely nothing to do with you.
posted by scrute at 3:22 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Different organizations work with volunteers in different ways. Some will take any hours they can get for anything anyone wants to do. Some have stricter requirements: a certain amount of training, a certain number of hours, a certain amount of money raised, a certain level of participation in meetings, etc. A volunteer scout master has different expectations on her than a volunteer pet walker at the animal shelter. Your organization may be floundering for some structure to its volunteer program. Regardless, your time is yours to give, and you need to calmly restate-over and over-what you are able to do. If it becomes impossible for you to continue, that would be a loss for them and you both.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:07 PM on September 4, 2011

From reading the short version, here's my advice: Quit.

Seriously. If they aren't happy with you in your teaching role alone, and if you [quite understandably] don't want to participate in the governance/bureaucracy of the organization, then you and the group are no longer a good fit for each other and it would probably serve at least YOU best to go on and quit.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 5:46 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older Got on the pill, but can't get off   |   Simi Valley Day Tripper Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.