SCBWI

Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

When Good Volunteers… Aren’t

Lynne Wilkoff (Hawaii)

The position of Regional Advisor is too big for any one person, no matter how organized or dedicated, so RAs depend on volunteers to carry some of the load. Given that RAs are human beings, we tend to gravitate toward our friends to fill vacant positions. So far, so good.

But…

Since our friends are also human, they may not always be the best fit for the jobs they take on. Whether your volunteers are friends or other members, here are some steps you can take to avoid this pitfall.

Clearly define the task(s) you are seeking help with. Poor communication about expectations as well as limits of the volunteer’s responsibilities is a recipe for disaster. (And don’t assume the volunteer knows how to do what you are asking. Better to give too much information than too little.)

Start small. Before asking someone to take on a major responsibility, ask her or him to handle one specific task. When it’s completed, have a conversation about how it went. Mention both aspects that were done well and those that need improvement. Ask the volunteer for feedback about her/his experience and decide together whether it’s a working relationship you both want to continue—with no hard feelings on either side if the answer is no.

Create a “job description” for ongoing volunteer positions. It doesn’t need to be formal or fancy, but it’s hard (and unwise) to ask someone to take on a position or task without knowing just what she/he will be responsible for. In past discussions about standardizing job descriptions for ARA, IC, etc., we concluded that regions’ needs are so different that it’s best left up to the RA to determine what responsibilities to delegate.

Check the RA Handbook for guidelines all volunteers are expected to adhere to. (In fact, check the RA Handbook for lots of other helpful information about working with volunteers.)

Consider carefully when recruiting someone for one position with the idea that she/he will eventually take on a higher position. For example, say you are an RA recruiting a co-RA or an ARA who you anticipate will take over as RA. With that idea in mind, would you offer the position to someone who abhors working with budgets and handling money? Not a good plan. Someone who has difficulty accomplishing tasks on deadline? Nope. You get the idea…

Oops.  Now, let’s say a friend/volunteer has turned out to be a poor fit for her/his position. Ouch! Let’s also say that you aren’t especially fond of confrontation (may I see a show of hands?), and that you want to be loyal to your friend—and you especially don’t want to lose that friend. So instead of facing the situation head on, you take on that person’s responsibilities yourself, or you get someone else to quietly cover for the person in question.

While these responses may be understandable, they do not reflect your responsibility to your position or your region. Doing so puts a burden on you, adding responsibilities you expected to delegate. As for the region, people are sure to notice when someone isn’t adequately handling the tasks of her/his position, and this can, at the very least, give the appearance that you yourself are not handling your responsibilities by not dealing forthrightly with the problem. It may even cause your region look like a club for the “in” people and make members or other potential volunteers feel unwelcome or uninterested in helping. And, perhaps worst of all, volunteer dysfunction can spill over to create a negative impression of a region in minds of conference speakers—and such information can travel.

So deal with it you must—and as early as possible, since small problems can sometimes escalate into big ones. Gently and in a caring manner, of course, but deal with it. Honesty is best, of course, when replacing a volunteer so there are no unnecessary (and possibly troublesome) complaints; depending on the circumstances, you may be able to offer the volunteer a different position

Remember, too, that you aren’t alone. You have support: Tracy Barrett US RAs, Kathleen Ahrens (International RAs), and Chelsea Confalone are all valuable resources for this (and other) sticky situations.

Finally, focus on how much better you’ll feel when the situation is resolved. (And how much better you’ll be able to empathize with the characters you write about, who inevitably have to deal with their own sticky situations.)

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Lynne Wikoff began writing in 1978, first as a newspaper columnist on parenting issues, then in corporate communications and public relations, all the while wishing she had time to write for children. Finally, she decided she’d never have enough time and started anyway. Now a published author she also reviews submissions and edits for a regional publisher as well as freelance writing. Lynne graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of Hawaii and now lives near Portland, Oregon. She was the Regional Advisor for Hawaii for 12 years.