Praising Needy Volunteers

October 1st, 2009 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Likely more than most, I was a volunteer before I had the volition. My mother ran Red Cross chapters. By elementary school, I was folding appeal letters and stuffing envelopes, graduated to hand tweaking mimeograph sheets with a stylus and then running the wondrous flier maker, and even playing the victim for first-aid classes.

On a pedestalMy volunteer line has few interruptions and certainly did not stop when I left my mother’s apartments. As a child and adult, it has been church, professional associations, civil-rights and other political groups, and of course teaching swimming and first-aid myself.

All of that is to say that there are reasons I am astounded by two attitudes. One is the adult who grew up in a non-volunteering household and is content to sit before a TV or computer nights and weekends doing nothing that I think of as worthwhile. The other is the needy volunteer.

I am not either of those. I have known many though. In my UU church work and professional association stints, I met and dealt with those for whom no amount of praise and honors is adequate. Each act of volunteering requires constant affirmation.

Some friends at my professional group (the Society for Technical Communication) had giggles at my expense at June’s end-of-year meeting/dinner thingummy. We always gang our mentions of and hand out certificates, plaques and such to those who gave energy and time over the year.

This time, I got one of the special awards, the Spirit of Volunteerism one. It’s a much lower key version of the lifetime achievement Oscar. I had been on a six-year leadership ladder, including the presidency of the Boston chapter, but I found getting the sculpture and honorarium embarrassing.

My mother taught me to let volunteers take credit for things, even if they were not the originator or driver for them. She also taught me to praise the volunteers while deflecting attention from myself.

What a Good Boy Am I


I thought of this very recently when we moved Boston neighborhoods. The fellow of the couple who owned the house was a needy volunteer. I was pleased to hear that he was also a cyclist, but puzzled by a few things. First, he only rode from late spring when it got warm and only to prepare for the Pan-Mass Challenge, a three-day ride to raise money for cancer research.  For maybe nine months, he didn’t ride. I try to ride every day it isn’t sleeting, snowing or pouring rain. He instead seemed to ride for praise.

Second, he wanted everyone to know he does this to do good. He seemed inordinately proud of this, despite the many hundreds of others doing the same ride for the same purpose.

Likewise, packing for his move, he gathered up books he didn’t want to truck to Texas. When a bookstore would offer him only about $100 for the lot of six boxes, he took them to a local college, who incorporated them in a book fair. He says they said they got maybe $600 for his share. Again, he went on about how wonderful and clever he was to have benefited the school.

We didn’t bother to say that for years, we give our books like that as well as other valuable artifacts to Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain. Their money goes for AIDS research, but we don’t need a pat on the head for our small share.

Of course, praising volunteers has realistic and reasonable rewards for the organization. After all, by definition and custom, volunteers do not receive pay for their work. In that sense, praise is in lieu of salary. Public acknowledgment in a newsletter, at an awards ceremony and orally in front of others is the right things to do in any case.

The problems come when volunteers get self-absorbed, self-righteous or demanding. On the cash end, a couple at my professional society said they would only help if they got a discount on their membership dues, in other words, money. On hearing that, a long-term board member sneered and said that perhaps they should look up the definition of volunteer.

You Can Fire Volunteers

More commonly though, emotionally needy volunteers want figurative head pats and to step on pedestals for doing what the rest of us do as a matter of course. They can be very high maintenance. These characters want constant and repeated recognition of their service and are not at all shy about telling everyone else how wonderful, kind, generous, wise, and philanthropic they are.

We didn’t see a lot of that in the Red Cross. There, a typical chapter has many hundreds of volunteers in blood drives, disaster preparedness, teaching home nursing, first-aid or swimming, motor service to ferry folk to care facilities and on and on. There, helping others seems to be its own reward.

Churches, on the other hand, seem to swell the ego and open the need gates for many. As well as ad hoc and committee service, I chaired committees and boards at UU churches. While our congregations have a great concentration of do-gooders and sincere volunteers, some constantly leap over that boundary into look-at-me land.

There must be theories about what makes some need effusive praise for what others do quietly.

When there is much to do as in many social activist churches, some volunteers are just too high maintenance. That can be unfortunate from many angles. I can recall music, social action, worship and religious education groups with praise hounds. That is amusing at a low level, and thus forgivable. Cranked to the extreme though, it can be a distraction to ministers, staff and committee leaders. When your hands are busy holding another’s, clapping, or patting their backs, you can’t do your own work.

In the past decade or so, I have seen numerous articles about how it is right and sometimes necessary to fire volunteers. Often, a minister or committee chair can detour the worst offenders into special projects or roles where their interaction with other volunteers is less. On rare occasions though, there is the painful message often best delivered by a minister that they are not working out and need to step back for a bit.

If committee chairs and staff have to stop constantly to praise and honor the neediest volunteers, someone with a larger, wider view might be assigned to those volunteer jobs instead. Recruiting folk is always a chore, but intense management of the most distracting is more of one.

On the other side, then District Executive Tim Ashton of the Mass Bay District dealt with us at the Arlington Street Church in his extremely respectful and pleasant way. Behind all that was a candor that made his an effective manager and pilot.

ApplauseOne thing he taught us while we transitioned from Victor Carpenter through Farley Wheelwright into Kim Crawford Harvie during the interim ministry was to praise efficiently and with purpose. He noted that the ASC volunteers didn’t have enough fun often enough. He said we were far and beyond the most socially activist church in the district, but we were too focused on all that needed to be done and not on what we accomplished on the way.

Rev. Tim suggested that we regularly stop to celebrate. He suggested that committees also have gatherings for fun and mutual enjoyment, with no intention of conducting any business or setting more goals. He never once suggested catering to the neediest volunteers or picking individuals to praise.

Yes, volunteers deserve thanks. No, they should not require that everything and everyone join in praising them for every deed.

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2 Responses

  1. Polprav says:

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  2. Harrumpher says:


    You have an eclectic and amusing choice of links.

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