Podcast: How to Handle Lousy Capital Campaign Volunteers
Season 2, Episode 72
Even with the best of intentions, some campaign volunteers prove to be disappointing. In this episode, you’ll learn some important lessons about how to handle them so they don’t wreck your campaign.
Have you ever tried to drive down the road and found a boulder in the way? Well, just like a big boulder in the road, a lousy campaign volunteer can be really hard to get around.
Hi, I’m Amy Eisenstein. I’m with my colleague and co-founder, Andrea Kihlstedt. And today, we are going to talk about lousy campaign volunteers, and what to do if you have them. Andrea, what makes a lousy campaign volunteer? Although, I’m sure our listeners could describe a few things. But why don’t you get us started?
What Makes a Lousy Campaign Volunteer?
So, Amy, the first thing that comes to my mind is someone who says they’re going to do things and doesn’t. And everybody’s waiting for them to do it at a meeting. They say they’re going to do stuff, and then they simply don’t function. And when it’s a volunteer, it’s very challenging. That creates a pall for the whole rest of the committee.
It’s very hard to deal with it. You can’t fire people. You can’t say:
“Alright, if you don’t get this done in the next three days, you’re fired.”
You can’t do that. And it’s disheartening then, as a staff member, your attention is all on how to go about getting that person to function, not about lining up the next piece of the work. So it’s bad on every count.
Yeah, it really is so frustrating, both for the staff and other volunteers, when you have certain volunteers who are not following through, not doing what they say they’ll do. It really gums up the works of your campaign in ways that you can’t imagine. But I think, in addition to your frustration, other volunteers are feeling frustrated too. And it doesn’t make for a conducive or exciting volunteer opportunity or work environment. It’s really problematic when you have lousy campaign volunteers.
It’s particularly difficult if you have a volunteer who’s in a leadership position, and they don’t get the work done. They don’t follow up on who they’re supposed to follow up on. They don’t respond promptly to emails. Boy, there’s nothing like that. Just drains the energy out of everyone else, because people can’t function better than the leaders of the committee can function. So it’s so incredibly important that you don’t saddle yourself with people who are simply non-functional.
Yeah, I think that’s a good point. Because there is a difference between a regular committee member and a campaign leader, the chair of the committee, of one committee or another, in how you respond and how you react.
2 Ways to Deal with Potentially Poor Campaign Volunteers
Alright, so we’ve got a few suggestions for listeners.
1. Don’t Recruit Them to Begin With
Number one is not to recruit these non-functional, lousy people in the first place. So we’re being a little facetious there, but let’s say more about that. How should we think about screening people in advance so that you don’t end up with lousy campaign volunteers or leaders?
Right. We’re not really being facetious at all. It may sound a little funny, but in fact, it’s not. If you are going to be recruiting someone to serve in a particular role, a volunteer to serve in a role in your campaign, you need to do a whole bunch of due diligence to make sure that they’re the kind of people you want. And there are a couple ways to do that.
- First, you can check with other organizations where they have been a volunteer. And find out quietly how they functioned. If they didn’t function well for another organization, guess what? You don’t want them. Don’t assume they’re going to function any differently for you. So that’s point number one.
- Point number two is ask them to do something. Ask them to do something little for you. Ask them if they’d make a call for you. And then watch and see how they do it, even at in that little way. See if they respond promptly to your email. Just see how they function. See if they do the task, if they get back to you, if they’ve done the task well. If they don’t, you don’t want them.
And do all of that before you broach the idea of their serving in a volunteer capacity in your organization — not after.
Yeah. Now, ideally, you are recruiting people that have already volunteered for your organization, and that you know fairly well. But as to your example, oftentimes, you’re not. You are recruiting new people who would bring real status and prestige and financing to your campaign. And so you’re looking a little farther afield from the volunteers that normally serve on your committees and on your board. And so you may not know them as well. And then you need to do a lot more due diligence.
Amy, when we really run into trouble is when we have somebody who has a lot of status and prestige and money who’s non-functional. That raises a bunch of problems. Because we think that we want to get them involved in our campaigns, and we’re willing to overlook a bunch because of what they bring to the table.
But believe me, if those people don’t function, the consequences are even worse.
And it may not be that they don’t function. But if they’re not truly bought into the campaign, or you’re not their number one passion project, but they’ve agreed to serve because they know it’s important to the community.
So there could be all types of reasons as to why they don’t function. It may, ultimately, even though they say yes, may not be a total priority for them. And so they let it slide to the bottom of their to-do list, among other things. So I think there could be a variety of reasons.
So you do want to proceed with caution when your eager committee at the very, very beginning sits around and says, “Who’s the biggest name we could get for this committee?” And then they don’t show up for meetings. They don’t schedule meetings. They don’t commit the time. They don’t respond to emails, all the things we’ve been talking about. So whether they’re non-functional or not, or we’re just not the priority that we hope we would be.
2. Don’t Make Assumptions About Potential Voluteers
Yeah, they’re non-functional for you.
They may be functional, and they may be very successful people in other circumstances. But that doesn’t matter to you, if you’re putting them in a position where their ability to function is important for your committee. So test it out.
The other thing I would say is, when you are recruiting a volunteer, you should talk to this about them, specifically. Don’t make assumptions. You should say:
“Gee, Jane, we would love to have you serve in such and such a capacity. It’s really important that whoever takes this job on is willing to commit the time and the energy to make it happen. And if you don’t feel like you have the time and energy now, maybe you would just serve on the committee and not chair it. Tell me about your ability to do this work?”
Right. Could this be your priority for the next two to three years? Would you make this your priority for the next two to three years?
Or two to three months, depending on the… Maybe it’s a smaller commitment. It doesn’t have to be for the whole campaign. It can be a shorter commitment. Nonetheless, they’ve got to function. They can’t just not show up. It will undermine your campaign to have people in positions of power like that who don’t show up.
Alright, we’ve rambled on long enough about proper recruitment. Now, let’s talk about what do organizations do that already have lousy campaign volunteers in positions of leadership or on committees?
So you’ve got this boulder in the road, you can’t get around them. They’re there, somebody else recruited them. We’re not going to point fingers at you. What do you do?
You sigh. You have a drink, a stiff drink.
It’s so frustrating. Because probably for weeks or months already, this person has caused angst and agita on your committee and throughout the organization. So something has to be done. You can’t just pretend it’s not happening, or continue and hope for the best, or hope they’ll improve, or hope they’ll get out of the way, or whatever it is. Because they’re really gumming up the works. So it has to be addressed.
Address Problem Volunteers — Don’t Ignore Them
I think that’s the most important thing, Amy, is that you have to address it. You can’t just ignore it. You can’t close your eyes and wish it weren’t the case. You can’t say, “Well, tomorrow they’re going to function better.” It’s very easy for us all to put our heads in the sand and hope it’s going to get better. But someone has to address it.
Who Should Address These Issues?
So the first question is, who should address it? And, typically, it should be a peer to address it. Or someone in a position of a greater authority who should be able to have a frank conversation with a volunteer, and say, “I’ve noticed that you’re not able to get to this work in a timely way. Would you like to step off the committee? Or would you like help in getting this work done? Is there a way we can support you so that we can make forward progress in doing that?”
Somebody has to have that conversation. So perhaps it’s your campaign chair, perhaps it’s your board chair, maybe it’s your executive director, maybe it’s you. But don’t assume it’s you that has to do this.
So think, first, about, “Alright, who could have this conversation?” Talk to that person about having the conversation, and what the various options would be for this volunteer who’s not functioning. They can address them very gently. “I see that you’re not able to do this. There may be other things in your life that are getting in the way. How can we help you?”
Allow the Problem Volunteer Space to Come Up with Solutions
Let them come up with some solutions. Maybe they’ll say, “You’re right. I can’t do this at this time.” Maybe they’ll provide the solution themselves. Or you can come to an agreement that if you haven’t heard back from them in 48 hours, you can proceed. Assume that the decision is yes, or whatever you’ve asked for is approved, or something like that.
So the thing that you don’t want to do is gang up on people. So you don’t want to have this conversation in public or with a group of people. You want it to be a small, intimate setting and say, “Listen, we all want the best for this organization, but it seems that this has been problematic lately. When we don’t hear from you over the course of the week, it’s holding things up.” Or, “We really have not been able to schedule a meeting,” or whatever the issue is.
Help Them Understand Their Importance
The other thing that comes up, Amy, is that people who have significant clout in a community often forget, or don’t realize, that by showing up, they add something. And by not showing up, they detract something. And I think you can actually have a conversation with them about that, saying that, “It’s not just your name that we want. That actually having you at meetings makes a big difference. Your level of commitment, that you are willing to actually show up, matters to everybody. And because of who you are, people notice. So we hope you’ll really do your very best to show up. It matters probably more than you think.” That might be helpful.
I think that’s great. You can also ask them, “Have the meetings felt productive or unproductive? What is keeping you away? What could we do to encourage you to attend? What would feel good about attending?” Maybe we’ve been scheduling them at night, but breakfast really would be better for your schedule at this time. And maybe the other committee members are flexible.
So brainstorming solutions might actually get you somewhere. “Would it be helpful if we emailed you at night, or your other email address, or not at work,” or whatever. “Could we have 20 minutes on a Saturday morning?” Whatever it is to help everything move a little bit more smoothly.
Work On Improving Your Campaign Meetings
Amy, the topic of this particular podcast is lousy volunteers, but I can’t let it go by… We can’t let it go by without saying that sometimes volunteers don’t show up because the meetings are boring.
Yes. Well, I was alluding to that a little bit, wasn’t I?
Yes, which is what raised it for me. You were alluding to it. And I think that it’s worth considering that. That if you have a bunch of people who aren’t showing up, maybe it’s not that they’re all lousy volunteers. But maybe it’s that the meetings aren’t interesting, aren’t run in a timely fashion, don’t start and stop on time, aren’t organized in a way that get people to participate.
So at some point, we’ll do a podcast about how to make your meetings work. But if you see it as a pattern, where it’s not just one bad egg volunteer, then you might want to question your other practices. And, of course, those are things you can learn and you can get better at. Those are things that have fixes.
Give Praise and Validation When Things are Done Well
Yeah. One more very important thing that we haven’t raised yet, and that is giving praise and validation for the things that they are doing well, and the things you appreciate, so that they do more of those. So if you can find one thing that your lousy volunteer does well and point it out, and say:
“How can we encourage you to do more of that?”
That is very motivational. And I think that’s something we’ve been talking about recently with our staff and clients. When we have campaign clients, and every week, week after week, we’re saying, “You need to do this, you need to do that. You need to do more of that.” It’s draining.
But if we can weave in, “”This is what you did amazingly well. And great job on that. Do more of that.” Well, that’s motivating, that’s validating. So let’s try and weave in some of that. Find one small nugget of something that they’ve done really well that you can heap praise on them or something.
And praising people actually takes… It’s not time consuming, but it takes attention. You have to be looking for what people are doing well. It’s a habit, it’s a practice. So we, at the Toolkit, work hard to practice it. And what I find is that when I’m super busy, I don’t practice it as well. I just get waylaid in other things that need to happen.
So you can improve your own volunteer management skills by developing a practice of looking to see what they do well. And calling them out for it — both privately and in public. And that will make them function better. They will function better if you call them out for what they do well. Such a wonderful thing to remember.
Alright, so I want to remind listeners that if you want help setting up your campaign well from the start, to prevent you from recruiting lousy campaign volunteers, and to encourage them by pointing out things that they’re doing well, this is something that our advisors do extremely well with clients. Helping to remind them how to work with volunteers, what to do when a volunteer isn’t working or functioning well.
And we would love to talk to you about how our team can support you and your team through a campaign. So please visit capitalcampaignpro.com, and reach out and talk to us, so that we can talk to you about how we might support you through a campaign.
Alright, good. We’ve talked in depth about getting those boulders out of the road, and getting around lousy campaign volunteers. I think it was a great conversation. And we’ll see you next time.
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