Help Me Learn to Manage Difficult Volunteers
June 6, 2007 1:57 PM   Subscribe

I need your book suggestions for managing volunteers or communicating with people. There's plenty out there, but I can't seem to find anything regarding my specific problem: I have really old volunteers, and few younger ones with cognitive problems.

First off, I should mention that I'm the kind of person who needs to take notes when reading Andrew Carnegie. I'm half-engineer and I got my socialization genes from him. I'm not in the best position to manage volunteers, but if I don't do it, no one will. Basically, though, it comes down to needing books (preferably) or other resources on managing the following types of volunteers:

1. The much older. All books I can find on managing older volunteers are aimed at the '55-65 recently retired' group. Mine are about 80 and of varying levels of mobility - most of them still drive, though, and most of them are still mentally fine. They're social, rather than efficient. Suggestions I find for the elderly are all 'have them knit things,' which isn't useful for a historical society/museum.

2. The cognitively impaired. One of the volunteers has some age-related cognitive problem and is difficult to communicate with. For example, last Saturday, when I wasn't there, she flipped out that I emptied a display case and it was sitting there, empty. The problem is, we emptied it *together* on the Tuesday before. Another volunteer has metal fragments in his brain and shell-shock. He tells increasingly strange, and pointless, lies (like how he knows certain languages.) This wouldn't be a problem except that he interrupts tours with this misinformation and, because he's kind of loud and big, he scares the crap out of the few visitors we have. We've tried just giving him things to do, but he has phobias we can't predict (ladders, the view out one window) and so we don't really know what to do with him.

Thank you in advance for suggestions - I'm managing the first group okay, but the second group is disproportiately causing difficulties reaching my goals (whipping this place into a decent-looking museum --> getting a paying job in a museum elsewhere.)
posted by cobaltnine to Human Relations (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Years ago (like circa 95-96) I read this book as part of writing a paper on managing volunteers, and I remember feeling it was helpful, although it certainly focuses on things other than volunteers. But I have to say, I'm not sure how much is out there that is directly applicable to your situation.

Based on my own experience and my past research, the key to managing volunteers, in general, is to first find out what is motivating them to a) volunteer and b) choose your specific organization. With volunteers you don't have the same kind of reward power that you have with regular employees, and you can't 'make' people do things because it's their job to. But if you know what is motivating your volunteers then that should help you figure out how to find a useful place for them in the organization. For example, if you have older volunteers who are primarily there to be social, maybe you could think of them as sources of oral history. Organize some talks where you bring in school or youth groups to listen to your volunteers talk about their experiences with certain historical events, etc. The wonderful thing about volunteers is that if you match the person to the task they really are interested in, they will usually do the work because they want to, and won't need a lot of additional encouragement.

As far as the other group, the cognitively impaired, I think that's a much bigger challenge. There are probably a lot of books out there that offer advice for caring for adults with cognitive/memory problems, you might look at those and I bet there are techniques you could adapt to help you with your volunteers. But you also might have to think about the fact that sometimes an organization is not a good fit for a volunteer, and if your volunteer is so unpredictable that he is scaring patrons, then you may have to consider not keeping hi, unless there is some kind of non-public service job he could do (stuffing envelopes maybe?). I know that nonprofits are often loathe to turn away volunteers, but you also can't sacrifice the health and mission of your organization. If you have made a good-faith effort to work with somebody, but they are doing more harm than good to the organization, I don't think you have much choice.

Good luck--sounds like you have a very difficult job!
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:18 PM on June 6, 2007

Along the lines of leading and motivating people, perhaps read: Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ron Heifetz. Also, a more scientific approach: Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley.
posted by Galen at 6:45 PM on June 6, 2007

Are you on MUSEUM-L? Dealing with volunteers who can be more hindrance than help in a museum setting comes up fairly frequently on that list. Similarly, folks from other small historical societies/museums may have suggestions of good projects for people with limited capacities. The AAM bookstore lists some low-priced books, although I'm afraid I have no personal experience with their publications on volunteer management.
posted by nonane at 7:06 PM on June 6, 2007

No books come to mind. Could they record oral histories of their lives?
posted by Carol Anne at 5:38 AM on June 7, 2007

Response by poster: Resolved by rescheduling myself to appear only on days they didn't, coupled with illness that kept them away. Not too useful.

Last thing we needed were more oral histories, actually. There's a ton that need transcribing. The lying would have made that irrelevant in the second vol's case anyway.

Wasn't allowed to implement any changes to any policies, including changing tasks.

Final resolution: quit job.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:55 PM on October 4, 2007

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