Dealing with disappointing friends.
October 12, 2013 12:50 AM   Subscribe

I have a really hard time putting a positive spin on people, friends especially, that under-deliver. I'm worried about overreacting and burning bridges. How do I deal with this situation?

I know this couple, husband and wife, I've known them both since before they got married. They both kind of do the same thing to me: agree to do something and then back out, or ask to reschedule in a way that is either inconvenient or sometimes impossible. You'd probably want to know why I keep putting myself in this situation, and I don't have an answer. It just happens. The latest permutation is as follows.

I asked the wife to volunteer her time on a community project that has a deadline. She agreed. Last Tuesday, she said let's meet this coming Monday and we set up a time. Great. But just yesterday, she said she couldn't make it and asked to reschedule. I said, for when? No response. Today I followed up again, asking what had happened. She said she had to take a meeting on Monday and was available next Thursday.

Now, in my mind, when you have scheduled (proposed, no less) a meeting for a particular time, "I had to take another meeting" is not a valid excuse. I feel disrespected. Writing something nasty in response - like condescendingly explaining etiquette - feels warranted. I am pausing, but I just can't seem to wrap my mind around this or find any relief. I understand we're talking about volunteering for a community project here, but this is a project that a lot of people are depending on me to complete and for which I have a definitive deadline. If I moved the meeting to Thursday, already 9 days out from the original conversation and I have only about 21 left, and she then asked to reschedule again, I'd probably blow a gasket.

I am aware that this person might have some "work-related boundary problems," but I can't tell you definitively what they are, since I don't normally work with her. I don't appreciate being forced to deal with somebody's schedule like this. The thing is, I don't know if I can replace her at this point in time.

What is this thing I am struggling with, do you have any suggestions or could you point me to any resources or a couple of basic rules of life that might help me act appropriately? If it requires me being super-nice, I won't care if I have to totally fake it. Lately, I feel like I am surrounded by people that are half-assing it, and it's bothering me a great deal. I can't find a middle ground between overreacting and stuffing it all inside. I want to cut these particular people out of my life, but I'm afraid if I start doing that, before you know it I'll be all alone. I do want to get along and work with people that don't necessarily meet my expectations; maybe even prod them to get them to do what I want them to do using a little bit of honey and positive energy. I just don't know how, and I want to learn how other people handle these situations. Thanks.
posted by phaedon to Human Relations (35 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I dunno how obvious this is or how much you've tried, but I think it might be helpful if you work on imagining alternative explanations for others' behavior, at least up to a point. Is this married couple's relationship secretly on the rocks, leading to unexplained flakiness in their public life? Does the wife secretly suffer from occasionally crippling depression she doesn't want to admit to? Did she miss the meeting with you because something anomalous came up on a cancer screening, she had to go into the doctor, and she's been panicked all week with fear, but also embarrassed because it's actually kind of unlikely there's a problem? Think of all the AskMes that get posted from people going through some weird shit they might not admit to their acquaintances and might not have a good explanation for.

Typically, I think we're frustrated with others most of all when they're just not doing what we think we'd have done. Maybe you hold yourself to a high standard, which you should be proud of without requiring others to follow suit. Or maybe you don't know everything that's going on. Or maybe these folks are genuinely bad at estimating what they can achieve and communicating about that, making them terrible project managers but probably kind of normal humans. It all amounts to the same thing, really. When dealing with others, build as much flexibility as you can into your plans and communicate your expectations patiently until you reach some reasonable threshold for routing around them. While they're your friends, assume the best because they're your friends and worth some stress, and if you have to cut them off, assume the best then too because they're no longer actively messing with you and the path of least stress then is not to worry about them at all.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:23 AM on October 12, 2013 [27 favorites]

You want something from her, her time. You get it on her terms or not at all. So resist whatever urges you have to issue a nasty response. It sounds as if these people have annoyed you a few times because re-scheduling meetings for things with a deadline that's almost a month out does not warrant unpleasant responses.

Consider that she may have had good reasons to reschedule. Alternatively, consider that she perhaps struggles to say no and did not feel able to refuse your request for help. Or she wants to help but has not realised what kind of commitment will be required and/or does not have that much time to commit. So in your response give her some more detail about the deadline and how much time you think you'll need and give her the option to either fully commit or bow out.

Whatever you write should not be about how you feel but should focus on project managing this task and it should recognise that you are asking her for help.

Last word of caution. I may be wrong but you sound quite uptight about deadlines and not everybody works that way. Some people look at them as mere guidelines or indicators, some people realise a hard deadline when they see one but will finish the task the night you need to figure out where she is on that spectrum as well to make this work. For example I love deadlines and I generally recognise them and meet them but I'd refuse to finish something two weeks early to keep you happy. I'm a night before it's due kinda girl. If you require her output to flow into other stuff so that they all combine to achieve the overall task you need to define her deadline properly to allow for that and communicate all of that to her.

My response would be something like:

Hi X

thanks for your message. Thursday works for me. Looking at the overall timetable the aim is to achieve Y by Z. Perhaps we can flesh out a timeline on Thursday. To ensure we're on the same page and on target to meet the deadline I suggest we start to catch up every [suitable timeframe].

I would estimate that it is going to take x amount of time to complete Y so could we meet on Thursday and then follow up around [...] and [...]? What dates would work for you?

Also, I really appreciate your agreeing to help with this and I hope I didn't steamroller you with my request. I understand that commitments sometimes change and if you find that you cannot now dedicate as much time as you had hoped that's fine. But please let me know asap so I can make alternative arrangements if required. The project is very important to the community and I want to make sure we can deliver for them.

Please let me know how you'd like to proceed.

Many thanks, phaedon

posted by koahiatamadl at 1:26 AM on October 12, 2013 [21 favorites]

I have been working on a group community project, and initially when we talked about our expectations, I talked about wanting people to commit and show up when they said they would. Then one of the other guys said "Look, I'm really excited about doing this project, and I'm just happy to take whatever anyone else has to offer, and we'll do it with whoever keeps showing up, and with whatever they can offer".

And when I thought about it, for a community project (not a work project, or a school project), I would rather work with people who were happy to accept whatever I could offer and would not make me feel bad if I ended up not being able to do as much as I hoped. Even though I am someone who tends to keep commitments once made, this feeling of generosity made me stop worrying about whether other people were doing what they said they would do and let me put my energy into offering what I wanted to offer.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:29 AM on October 12, 2013 [22 favorites]

Seconding the idea that a nasty, condescending email about etiquette is probably not a great idea. Being nasty to people might give you some feelings of happiness in the very short-term, but it doesn't address the underlying issue. Volunteers will quickly learn that you are nasty and then you won't have anyone.

To me, the underlying issue is that you ask people to do things and they don't deliver. While it is certainly an unlikable character trait, the problem is how YOU react. You are, as koshiatamadl suggests, asking for something from someone and you get it on their terms or not at all. It's not awesome, but your response has to come from you -- you can't change a person. You can't. There's no arguing this, there's no "that's unfair" footstomping, there's no nasty email that will suddenly make a person do what you want. You have to decide what your limits are and work within them. She's making the timeline too late? Okay. So you regroup and either do it yourself or figure out how to move forward until she can help.

In the future, you can make clear deadlines and expectations for volunteers, but you can't make them follow them. So build in some failsafes, ask people to do things together, so if one person flakes, the other can pick up some slack. Schedule yourself so that you aren't asking for help with a major project less than a month beforehand.
posted by mrfuga0 at 1:34 AM on October 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

This may also be a regional thing or a local custom thing where your expectations are out of place with how things are done there. For example, my Los Angeles friends view a set meeting time like 7pm as "Somewhere between 7 and 9pm" because nobody in Los Angeles takes actual set times seriously because traffic there is so bad you can't predict when you might get there, so it's considered kind of uncouth to get mad at someone for being late or expect them to be on (Actual, agreed-upon) time. Likewise, my LA friends are completely willing to agree to something and flake at the last minute and YOU are the bad guy if you get mad about that because it's what pretty much everyone there does. But in some parts of the country you're rude if you don't show up to things on time or flake on agreed-upon plans, and obviously everyone thinks their rules are universal and apply to everyone in the entire world when it's kind of a local thing and may even be a family thing. Like in my family you were 5-15 minutes early to an agreed upon time or you were committing a horrible sin, but that made it awkward later in life when people would throw parties starting at 6pm and I'd roll up at 5:45pm and they weren't expecting people to start drifting in until 6:30pm.

Or it could just be a values mismatch and you're trying to hold them to standards they don't agree to or even know they're being held to. I mean this as gently as possible though it's hard to put gently: If everyone in the entire world is disappointing you and pissing you off, the common thread is you, so maybe that's where the problem lies?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:42 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding the idea that, in this particular case,you are asking for a favour, and need to remember that and be specific about what's involved. In future, it might help to break things down from the beginning, eg, "we need to meet for about an hour ASAP so that we can get going on phase one, which will take up about two hours of your time and needs to be finished by X date so that we can get phase two done by Y date and meet our ultimate deadline of Z."

Reading beyond this example, though, it sounds like you feel like your friends put you further down their priority list than you would like. There could be many reasons, including the types of things given in the first answer above. In those cases, cutting them a little slack and perhaps focussing on other friendships for a while might be a good idea. But, I also wonder how much of your interactions involve asking for favours or help with your own projects? If it is a large proportion, and your friends have a lot going on, it could be a bit draining for them. Offering to help them with their stuff, or just finding fun ways to hang out, might make them more eager to fit you into their schedule.
posted by rpfields at 1:53 AM on October 12, 2013

I approach these situations like M. Caution--I make up a sympathetic and rational narrative for why the person has flaked (marital problems, secret illness, etc.).

But I think the important corollary is that once they've flaked two times (or whatever your personal limit is), either never invite them again, or never put any stock in their RSVPs. Again, you can think of this as a kindness in light of their marital problems and secret illnesses.

It's much nicer to live your life and arrange your relations so as to avoid these frustrations.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:10 AM on October 12, 2013 [10 favorites]

I have friends who flake out on plans at the last minute all the time, for a variety of reasons that range from legitimate to lame. Over the years I have learned to simply not set any plans that with them that would be spoiled if they did not show up. I've also begun to see a pattern in what kind of activities will go well with them and what kinds of things are likely to go awry, and so I've resolved to only do those things with them that are likely to go smoothly.

I make allowances for the way they are, because I really like them and don't want to sour our friendship by having expectations that they are unable to live up to. It's the price of admission for this particular friendship, and it is worth it to me to have them in my life.

But on the other side of the coin: I personally don't enjoy friendships where there is a lot of expectation that I will "do things" for the other person. I wound up cutting loose a friend who continually wanted help with various projects because I simply came to dread hearing from her, knowing that it was never simply about making plans to go have fun. Even fun plans always had an element of "oh, on the way to the concert we need to stop by my place so you can help me take some boxes up to my attic" or suchlike. I've got enough to do in my own life, thanks, without friends putting me on the spot to do things for them or get me involved in activities that I otherwise would not want to do.

I feel like maybe you should consider not trying to get double duty out of your friendships. You want relationships and companionship but you also want to use your pool of friends as resources to do things you want to get done. As the saying goes, if you keep your expectations low, you are less likely to be disappointed.

When you need volunteers, recruit from among your acquaintances that you know are interested in being involved in community projects, or from among the community at large. Put up flyers, speak to groups, whatever it is that people do to drum up volunteer support for projects that does not involve soliciting help from among those with whom you have personal relationships.

And always try to get more volunteers than you strictly need. Things come up even for the most responsible among us, sometimes well-intentioned people are just flaky, and sometimes people say yes to something when they feel put on the spot, knowing they will just weasel out of it with a lame excuse later. So try to make sure you're not counting too heavily on any one person such that their dropping out is going to cause you stress and issues with meeting your deadlines.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:15 AM on October 12, 2013 [26 favorites]

I use 'ok, don't make a habit of it' as a polite warning in these situations. It allows for the behaviour to be legitimate occasionally, but not generally.
posted by cogat at 2:39 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

If I was this woman I would be thrilled to bits to get your email criticizing my manners!

It would be all the reason I needed to excuse myself from helping you, and the response you would get from me would be something like:

Hi Friend,

I'm really sorry I haven't been able to help in the way you would have liked. I do understand how important this is to you and since I clearly haven't been able to offer the level of commitment needed, which has been a headache to both of us, its best that you find someone else.

posted by misspony at 2:54 AM on October 12, 2013 [18 favorites]

Writing something nasty in response - like condescendingly explaining etiquette - feels warranted. I am pausing, but I just can't seem to wrap my mind around this or find any relief... this is a project that a lot of people are depending on me to complete and for which I have a definitive deadline. If I moved the meeting to Thursday, already 9 days out from the original conversation and I have only about 21 left, and she then asked to reschedule again, I'd probably blow a gasket.

It sounds like you're anxious and afraid that you might fail to meet the deadline you've committed to, and are preemptively shifting the blame onto other people. But blaming your friend, whatever her behavior, won't get the project done on time, and the more time you spend trying to control her behavior, the less you'll have to put towards moving the project down the field. You're pissed because your expectations were not met, which is understandable but doesn't make you right and her wrong. The best way to deal with this situation is to shake off your anger get your attention off your friend and back onto the project. Find another way to skin the cat.
posted by jon1270 at 3:23 AM on October 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

1. Take some time to feel frustrated. Yell out some expletives, but don't hit reply yet. If you're on the phone, just take a deep breath.

2. Be nice. As Monsieur Caution said above, you don't know what's going on in their lives. If they're not just being flaky, they'll be grateful and will be motivated to work with you more in the future. If they are just flaky, you can give them a few chances and then choose not to work with them anymore, without any nasty emails.

3. Expressly clearly what you need and why you need it. "Let's do Thursday at 8 p.m. If we get a lot done that night, we should still be able to make the deadline of getting this done by the 21st. I'm worried about making the deadline because the rest of the project is hanging on this, so I really appreciate your help!"

4. Think of a Plan B and/or give the person an out. "I understand that this is a busy time for you -- if you're too overloaded and won't be able to do this, let me know as soon as you can and I'll figure something out."

I don't appreciate being forced to deal with somebody's schedule like this. The thing is, I don't know if I can replace her at this point in time.

Unfortunately, this is reality. People have stuff going on in their lives, and they have different priorities than you. People overcommit and then regret it, or they don't realize they're overcommitting until that super-important work meeting gets scheduled the same night as the volunteer activity, or they're just bad at saying no. In the end, people will give you whatever they are willing and able to give. You don't have much control over that.

You mentioned that you know this particular person isn't good with commitments, to the point where you've considered cutting them out of your life. It sounds like you're expecting too much from them. You should let them stick to what they're good at. Maybe this person is great for inviting to group activities, but you never want to schedule something one-on-one. Or you always enjoy talking to her, but you only make plans to get together when you have a plan B for when she doesn't show up. Or she's reliable for social events, but you know she only agrees to volunteer stuff out of guilt and stop asking her. If they're friends, then "under-delivering" is not a good reason to cut them out of your life. (Work colleagues, sure, if you're in a position to do something about it.)
posted by chickenmagazine at 3:34 AM on October 12, 2013

If she had to take a meeting because of her actual job you need to be flexible. Not everyone has a job where they can say to their boss, "Sorry, I can't make that meeting with our group and that client (or whoever) because I have to volunteer somewhere else." it doesn't necessarily have to indicate a "work-related boundary problem," it could be her actual job expectation.
Even within a job setting, one is often expected to reschedule one appointment when a higher-pressure meeting comes up. Rescheduling time is normal in many job settings like this.
Make it easy for folks to help out. Have backups, be welcoming and thank them for coming.
posted by third rail at 4:10 AM on October 12, 2013 [12 favorites]

In your example, you "asked the wife to volunteer her time" --- NOT "I asked if she would like to volunteer"..... it's subtle, but there's a difference. Your phrasing comes across as a bit demanding, like something you'd get at work: if your boss 'asks you to volunteer to do x', it's a politely-phrased order (but it's still an order). On the other hand, asking someone if they'd like to be involved in x is more of a request, something they can turn down if they don't want to do it.

All of which makes me think there might be either or both of TWO problems here: do you insist (demand?) other people cooperate with and/or participate in your plans, whether they're inclined to or not; and is this couple a pair of flakes, or are they trying turn you down gently while not giving you a blunt NO.

Either way, I think you'd better plan now to replace her, and not count on her participating in your project. It might be a pain to replace her at this point, but 'now, when there's still a little time' is better than 'right before the event'. Don't write to her about her manners or etiquette: as others say, that's extremely condescending, and if you were to do that to me? AT BEST you would never hear from me again.

Just assume she's off the project, and move ahead without her.
posted by easily confused at 4:10 AM on October 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

Well in this case you asked her to volunteer. She agreed and then cancelled with 2 business days' notice. She then came back to you with another date later that same week. All that is completely within the range of good business etiquette, the more so considering that you are not paying her.

Also, you went to her, she didn't come to you. You approached her knowing that she has a track record of flaking on you, and yet here you are with a deadline. You shouldn't put yourself in that position. When she flakes, that will certainly be rude of her, but the volunteering context combined with your poor judgement in approaching her, renders the question moot. She's not a good choice of volunteer, you knew that when you approached her, you should have picked someone else.

Finally, it would be terrible to send her an email lecturing her on the finer points of etiquette when you demonstrably don't understand them yourself. The most important of which is that correcting the etiquette of another adult who hasn't asked you for etiquette advice (as you have here, before everyone objects that I have no right to say this) is the worst breach of etiquette you could possibly commit.

Next time, plan further ahead, recruit several volunteers, stop asking people who let you down twice in a row, and be grateful for what you get.
posted by tel3path at 4:12 AM on October 12, 2013 [27 favorites]

I disagree with the framing of your question. In my opinion, your friends did not let you down. Personally I don't ask my friends to do volunteer community projects. That's a lot of pressure to put on the relationship. I ask my friends to do fun and social things because I enjoy their company. Yes, my friends are mostly responsible and financially stable (thus would make good targets), but it is much easier to find people to volunteer or make donations than it is to find real friends. So I don't mix it all together.

If I have a community project that needs volunteers, I would use my network of contacts and think of people who have voiced support for similar projects. I would remember all the business people I met at fundraiser events. I would think of recent retirees who might want to keep their hand in. I would get in touch with volunteer coordinators to source Boy Scouts and Greeks who need community service hours. If I don't know how to do those things, then I would feel not ready to be leading a community service project. I'd probably stay in a supporting role and watch what others do and learn how to tap into those networks.

Sorry to be so direct, but I don't see where there would ever be a need to tap your personal friends for involvement. I think it can harm relationships which are very hard to replace. Good luck!
posted by 99percentfake at 5:06 AM on October 12, 2013 [14 favorites]

Next time, ask, don't obligate.

Otherwise it's all about you, and that only goes so far.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:57 AM on October 12, 2013

Some harsh advice (but I mean no disrespect): you seem out of line.

First, unless you're paying this woman, you don't have any right to complain if she backs out. You want her to give you a fair chunk of her time as a favor, and if her family or work needs that time instead, sorry- you don't get it.

Second, she let you know she needed to reschedule- that's polite and considerate. You'd have room to be indignant if she bailed out on you without contacting you, but that's not the case here.

Third, you are imposing on her by recruiting her as a friend. If you ask a stranger to volunteer for something, you're saying "come help... if you're really interested in helping!" When you ask a friend, that question takes on a different tinge: "come help... if you want to be my friend." Friends will be more likely to say yes because they feel pressured or obligated. Given the angry tone of your post here, I would bet the farm that your friend felt pressured. Consider that as you think about her motivations, and as others above point out, consider avoiding asking friends to volunteer in the future. If they come to you and say "can I help," it's a different story.

Fourth, it sounds like you are projecting your insecurities about your project onto this woman. You sound overly bitter and angry and it really sounds inappropriate. Others in this comment thread are picking up the same vibes. Take a step back to see if what you're feeling isn't really about her. And, take a step back to see whether your overall attitude about these kinds of things needs an adjustment... what can you do to be a little less high-strung?

Bottom line: she doesn't deserve any of your ire, her behavior sounds totally appropriate, and you have to let it go. People will not respond well to you if you keep up this kind of attitude... they'll notice and take offense and you'll lose friendships and opportunities.

Let her come to you if she wants to reschedule, and let her set the terms... don't even think about pressuring her or sending her that nasty email.

Best wishes on your project and thanks for serving your community as a volunteer coordinator- people like you make a huge difference!
posted by Old Man McKay at 6:01 AM on October 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

N'thing those who have pointed out that you started the scenario with an imposition on her time.

I would make a further comment on that angle though - Many people have a very hard time saying "no" to a reasonable request from a friend - Even though they might rather have dental surgery than spend their morning at the food bank or what-have-you.

If you have a chance to show her what you do without it imposing on her time, and she likes it and asks to get involved - Great! If not, though... Just drop it and focus on your other shared interests.
posted by pla at 6:41 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can imagine that this thread won't be all that fun to read, and I wish I could be more supportive since your motivations in doing community work are admirable, but I have to go with the majority here.

Don't ask friends to volunteer -- it's a drag. People agree to things because they seem like a nice idea or don't want to say no, and then they realize don't really have the bandwidth to add another obligation to busy lives. If they'd genuinely wanted to be volunteering they'd have done it of their own accord by now. They may or may not shoehorn it in, but it'll be a lower priority for them than for you.

Flaky people make me crazy too, and even though I bet she's legit busy, I sympathize with your anxiety about your deadline. But as someone who's recently found a volunteer obligation to be much less rewarding than I'd thought it would be when I agreed, I must say I'd quit in a hot second if someone complained about me having to reschedule a meeting, and it would be a relief.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:05 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Can you clarify for us whether this is a problem you've had with your friends in your personal interactions with them, is this occurring just in your volunteer work? Because I think you need to draw a big distinction between the two.
posted by decathecting at 7:34 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

lower your expectations and learn to make new friends that actually value your time.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 7:35 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What is this thing I am struggling with, do you have any suggestions or could you point me to any resources or a couple of basic rules of life that might help me act appropriately?

You sound like you're maybe anxious about this upcoming thing and/or you are worried about your ability to pull off whatever it is that you're trying to do and maybe don't totally have the resources to pull it off and were hoping you could get your friends to pitch in to help you make it a success? And they did not see it the same way? That is my read on the whole thing, it may be off.

I have a lot of flakey friends. I have no doubt that they are my friends and they adore me, but they have different ideas of how to prioritize social events than I do and I've had to come to terms with the fact that that is how they are, they are not wrong and I am not wrong. I have a choice to continue to be involved with them and I choose to. So, accordingly, I do what a few people upthread have suggested: don't invite them to things where them flaking would mess everything up. Try to focus on the things where we all have a good time. Don't hold a grudge.

My mother is a bit like this--thinks of herself as the perfect friend (not saying you're saying this, but saying I hear overtones of it) and time spent with her is full of complaints about people who have let her down. The thing is, some of these people have been letting her down for decades. She continues to hang out with them for other reasons but she also feels totally justified complaining (to me) about them as if she's right. She deals with her social life on other people's terms, trying to be a pleaser and at the same time being irritable that people don't appreciate the efforts she's willing to go through to do things with them. And at some level, hanging out with friends shouldn't be that hard. And always compromising shouldn't be the standard. And weird indignation is not appropriate for someone who has not been able to do you a favor on your schedule.

So I think you have to dig into the "It just happens" aspect of your question. Because if this sort of thing is always happening and yet when it happens again you are thinking you're justified in writing a bitchy email (in my opinion you are not) then I think you may be feeling trapped by this situation you are in with your friends and may need to approach that. Widen your circle of friends. Not take on projects that require you to obtain volunteers if your friends are not going to be helpful (incidentally I am also of the opinion that your friend's response was appropriate). Find ways to manage your own stress and irritability levels and set your own expectations more accurately for things that involve these people.
posted by jessamyn at 7:43 AM on October 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

1) Don't plan on her help. She has shown she can't be relied on, so consider anything she gives to be a bonus over your expectations.

2) Look for new connections. I've had friends like this (I mean in the social circumstances - the project is a different animal altogether), and I've learned to let go. Don't work harder at your friendship than she does.

3) As to the project, I'd look for alternative help or just do it myself.
posted by SarahBellum at 7:45 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Consider the other side: Hi, everyone. I have a friend who has a big volunteer project going on and she wants me to help. I have a full-time job and a marriage and if I was inclined to take on a volunteer project I'd already be doing one and probably not this one, but I don't really feel like I have a good enough reason to say no. I'm going to have to squeeze it in, and it's not exactly my burning passion so it's not my first priority. Should I still try to do it?

It seems like this is a friendship problem in that you expected this person to act differently than they always have, which means you set yourself up for disappointment. And it seems like a quasi-professional problem in that you have a project to complete that you cannot complete on your own or with already-committed volunteers and do not actually have a resource you can call on to help you. You tried to make your friend fit that mold and that is working out about as well as can be expected.

Maybe you're repeatedly being disappointed in your friends because you can't appreciate them for who they are. Sometimes I am the flaky friend, and sometimes I have flaky friends, but one of the ways we are friends is that we are kind about it.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:31 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Consider the other side: Hi, everyone. I have a friend who has a big volunteer project going on and she wants me to help. I have a full-time job and a marriage and if I was inclined to take on a volunteer project I'd already be doing one and probably not this one, but I don't really feel like I have a good enough reason to say no. I'm going to have to squeeze it in, and it's not exactly my burning passion so it's not my first priority. Should I still try to do it?

This. You aren't having problems with a friend canceling plans, you have a person who doesn't want to do your work for free. Yes, it's a volunteer project for *you*, but for her it's unpaid work that you want her to do as a favor.

Invite them over for a BBQ and if they accept and then cancel, then they're being flaky friends, asking them to miss their work to do your work is something else.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:40 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think tel3path hits the nail on the head.

1. Quite possibly she wants to be nice and do you a favor; perhaps she didn't feel she could say no when you asked. Maybe she feels that she's let you down in the past and that she needs to "make it up to you" and even though she can't logically follow through on the commitment she also can't tell you no.

It takes a certain maturity to thoughtfully look at your schedule for the next few weeks and mentally estimate that it will be 25-50% busier than you currently think, and then estimate how many hours you will need for the volunteer project and double that number and decide if you really have time for that and then say "I'm sorry, I can't take on your project right now."

2. I'm involved with - and very committed to - a volunteer organization, but work will always win over volunteering. I cannot afford to tell my boss "ooh, sorry I can't help you with this big problem that just exploded, I have to volunteer." She may be in a similar position.

In the end it doesn't really matter why. What matters is that she can't take on what you are asking her to take on. So cut your losses and find someone else.

Going forward, don't put yourself in the position of relying on her. Ask her to come on the day that everyone is stuffing envelopes and one more or one less person makes little difference. Don't ask her to take on a role that impacts your deadline.
posted by bunderful at 8:51 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As the volunteer coordinator, this sounds like you're way more committed to your cause (and thus, your project by proxy) than your friend. It's common.

You really can't expect volunteers you manage (which your situation is; you can't expect special treatment because she's also a friend) to have as much passion/interest in your project/cause as you do; expecting that will be a recipe for frustration. Your interest in this cause may be a 9.5; her interest (if she didn't just say yes as a favour to the friendship) may be a 6. The 6 will get rescheduled over what is actually her 7, 8, 9, and 10 on her priority ladder (relationship? Paying job?). Being inflexible and demanding on what will be a gift of her time will probably turn into her turning the project down (regardless of whether you can find a replacement for her. That's not her problem). It may even strain your friendship.

I had this situation happen to me (I was in your friend's position). My friend expressed her frustration to me in an actual fight. Skipping the details, I turned down the project and now only help out in a very peripheral way. I'm also making a note of remaining a peripheral helper, even if my schedule clears up, and may only improve my involvement if I go through another conduit because I just don't trust her to manage her volunteers kindly.

Don't go there. As a volunteer coordinator, plan lots of redundancy. Your life and relationships will thank you for it.
posted by Zelos at 8:57 AM on October 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

What everyone else has said about asking friends to volunteer. Even people who want to volunteeer or even need to (for professional or personal development reasons) are hell to manage. Don't put yourself in a position of managing your friends, and don't put them in that position either. In fact, I'd be apologizing to my friends right now for putting this pressure on them.
posted by BibiRose at 8:59 AM on October 12, 2013

It just sounds like a very simple case of she's not very into this big project that you care a lot about. Does she really have any obligation to be? Why is it important to you to have her specifically on the team? Why not just pick someone who you feel like cares about the organization and wants to do it to do the thing and move on? She probably has things going on in her life. I have a million committee things to do for actual work, so I keep my on-the-side commitments a lot more low key.

Instead of cutting people out of your life when you feel disappointed it might be better to either express your disappointment constructively (no passive aggressive emails) or explore whether your disappointment being appropriately directed in the first place.
posted by mermily at 3:45 PM on October 12, 2013

Best answer: I take a different slant from many of the people above, because I'm involved in a different kind of volunteer-run organisation. I have no hesitation in asking most of my friends to help out with projects for our organisation, but that is largely because most of my friends are already involved. And I don't agree that just because someone is doing you a favour agreeing to help out your organisation, that they then have full freedom to un-agree and leave you in the lurch - that is a jerk move in anyone's language. I think some of the people above are assuming (not necessarily validly) that the deadline you are working to is arbitrary. If you are working towards an event that has already been publicised, or working on a grant application that has a deadline, then pushing those deadlines back is not a realistic possibility.

I feel your pain on people flaking on you. In the past week I have been composing in my head a forthright email to send to everyone on the roster of my organisation, reminding everyone that if their agreed duties turn out to be inconvenient, their obligation is to arrange a swap, not just to airily mention that they can't make it.


I haven't sent or even written the email that's been floating around my head, because I know it would do more harm than good. Even in my organisation, where the people who are contributing are all committed to our common goals, there is always the possibility that a person can withdraw their assistance. It would be a pyrrhic victory for me if people dutifully arranged to swap their rostered duties - but then next time declined to be on the roster. In the same way your friend could easily just walk if you call her on her behaviour (and fwiw, although I agree that "I had to take another meeting" implies she took the meeting after she had arranged to meet with you, I know very few people who would decline a meeting for their boss or turn down additional freelance in order to do work for our organisation, much less when they weren't members of the organisation anyway.)

It sounds to me as though you are particularly irked by this situation partly because of your friends have a history of flaking on you. I know a woman in my organisation who was a bit like this - it was worse, in fact, because she would enthusiastically volunteer herself for tasks and then drop out at the last minute. On one occasion when an email went out asking if people would be interested in taking on a task, she emailed back immediately and committed our subgroup, and then nearly a month later (only about a week before the event) she revealed she would not actually be there - leaving us critically short of skills and hands for an event we couldn't get out of. On another occasion she asked to be included in the leadership of a project, but the only time she could meet to discuss it was at lunchtime near her work, so I rearranged my day off in order to meet with her - only for her to cancel a couple of hours before. These incidents made me feel so angry and disrespected. The good thing for you is that you're not obligated to continue trying to work with this woman once this task is done. You can choose for yourself whether you want to continue your friendship with this couple in a less fraught setting. I think others above have good advice about recognising that others have different priorities from you, and I think you will be happier if you can accept that, as maddening as it can be. I don't think you have anything to gain by airing your irritation or hurt about this to your friend, much less from making a didactic (patronising?) appeal to some notion of ettiquette, but if you do decide to broach such issues I would strongly advise you to do so in person and NOT by email, which is almost guaranteed to go badly.
posted by Cheese Monster at 6:56 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lately, I feel like I am surrounded by people that are half-assing it, and it's bothering me a great deal.


I don't appreciate being forced to deal with somebody's schedule like this.

If you're running a volunteer project and don't want to "deal with" the actual work schedules of your volunteers, you are less than half-assing your job as a manager. The problem here seems to be your entitlement and poor management skills, not that you are surrounded by flakes. You may want to look into resources on how to be an effective manager, as well as business etiquette, as tel3path pointed out, if you don't want to run into these problems every time you have to work with others.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 7:15 PM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input. I didn't want to participate in the thread and steer the conversation, I feel like I probably would have done a bad job with that.

A lot of people described what I was asking of a friend as "a favor," and it really wasn't that. I probably misstated a couple of things to create this impression. My friend and I are in a volunteer service together and I asked her if she was interested in helping out on a particular project. She said yes, I wasn't leaning on a friend, I'm not looking to squeeze volunteer work out of people that aren't interested. But with her - some time passes, availability turns into unavailability, simple things get complicated. Even if some work is low priority, some people get it out of the way, my friend is apparently the type of person that keeps pushing it later and later. It's like, why did you even think I was even interested in fumbling with this level of unavailability.

My rule is I don't write bitchy emails and I don't write long emails. (In my world, somehow long always ends up being bitchy.) I've actually done a really great job coordinating this project with a lot of other volunteers, and dealing with lots of problems, but yes, my friend's involvement and pattern of previous disappointments has made me particularly sensitive. In a sense, this is about me not registering my concern or having good boundaries. I have a fear of doing this - which in turn leads me to feel like I'm being taken advantage of. I get now, thanks to this thread and some cooling off, that this is really about making this all about me, when it's probably not. And yes, I feel pressure to finish this and do this right, and it's locking me up. I should just accept what's happening without passing grandiose judgements, and make adjustments. I can't make an unavailable person more available. Especially by being pissy.

Also, this project doesn't "belong" to me. I just ended up being the one herding the kittens, and I'm trying to figure out how to look past my sometimes justifiable misgivings and work out some healthy solutions. How to delegate, encourage participation, and respectfully prod things along. Fight the good fight.

Cheese Monster - you really hit the spot with your comment. I feel like you must know the same people I have to deal with, lol.
posted by phaedon at 12:15 AM on October 13, 2013

Are they from another culture, like, immigrants or 1st generation immigrant children? What you are describing jibes pretty well with how this sort of thing is dealt with in Latin America, when u have a crazy project everyone says YAY! I'll help you! but what this REALLY means is "I emotionally support you", go you! in theory! but it actually doesn't mean they will take part in your project? A bit like the "saving face" concept in some Asian cultures?
posted by Tom-B at 12:17 AM on October 13, 2013

As a volunteer coordinator, I have a long history of success at the situation you're in. Take it from me. The over-broad label "friend" is a big part of what's tripping you up. Don't confuse hanging out and having fun, with helping you work. They're very different things.

I know lots of people who I would not ask to volunteer because they flaked out. They really were sincere when they thought they'd be able to volunteer. But they didn't know themselves well enough to decline. If I ask them to hang out and have fun, they show up. And here's the thing: when we do that, they're totally worth it. I allow that kind of relationship to be enjoyable for what it is. I forget about what it is not, because they don't owe me anything. They aren't "failed workers", they're "successful party guests".

Then, there are those who flake out when I invite them to hang out and have fun. So, I stop inviting them to that. Again, they don't owe me anything. I'm just super friendly when I see them. Hint: That's why people will volunteer for me. Because I don't go around generating stress.
posted by matt_arnold at 8:02 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

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