Opportunities in This New Norm: What We Are Demonstrating About Our Profession

Kelli Crawford, CVA

to other leaders of volunteers to tap into our collective brain trust.  I am incredibly thankful for colleagues who have initiated dialogues through AL!VE, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and local associations.
While this new normal is not one any of us would have wished for, I have spent time thinking about what it has allowed us to demonstrate about our profession:
Volunteer managers are excellent change managers.  In our roles, we likely recognized this already.  But this work is more visible than ever before.  We communicate with large numbers of people representing different walks of life.  We listen to concerns, offer suggestions and serve as coaches and mentors to those we lead.  We rally them around a cause, giving them the information and the encouragement they need to serve effectively.  Your volunteers may have been interacting with guests or beneficiaries of your services last week.  This week you might be mobilizing them to make masks for your staff or other organizations.  Those skills are essential in times like these.  I credit my colleague James Bluher, Volunteer Services Manager from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, for pointing this out during a recent meeting of zoo and aquarium volunteer managers.
Our organizations are made better by our volunteers.  If your organization - like mine - had a period of time before switching to only essential staff, we got to see what a day without volunteers actually looked like.  Aside from the obvious lack of their support for the daily tasks we come to count on them for, we missed them as people:  their personalities, their quirks, their smiles.  They are some of our biggest cheerleaders.  And we are theirs.  Consider how you can pass along that feedback to your volunteers.  My organization is sharing written quotes and videos of staff saying hello and letting our volunteers know they are missed.
Volunteers are some of the best people you will ever meet.  We recognize that this is a big month for our profession.  I remind you of the spirit of our volunteers.  While I know it is a disappointment to us and to our volunteers that many of our National Volunteer Week plans have been derailed, I truly believe that volunteers are the best group this could possibly happen to.  Their selfless devotion to your organizations and to your mission means they understand that the greater good will weigh out right now.  One of my volunteers emailed me this week to say she appreciated that we were doing anything for them right now and that nobody would blame us if we needed to put them on the back burner.  It was yet another example of why I love the volunteers I am blessed to lead.  And recognition that those we lead sometimes have more to teach us than we can teach them.
Volunteer managers truly take collaboration to heart.  Every community of volunteer managers I have ever worked with have always been willing to share resources, help one another work through challenges, and offer an ear to listen and support without judgement.  It is no different in these uncertain times.  Lean into those communities.  Ask for help.  Offer what you’ve learned to help others.  It is truly a give and take.  Today may be more take for you; tomorrow may be more give.  It will balance out.  When my phone chimes lately, it’s often from a group text with four other volunteer managers I know I can be real with or from my own team.  Social distancing doesn’t mean we have to do this alone.
We know it isn’t all rainbows right now, though.  There is the obvious concern about our job security since volunteering has been “put on hold.”  As a result, I have heard more discussions about how to justify your job.  I’ve seen myself and others rush to fill our days with as many tasks as possible to prove we are still working hard on behalf of our organizations and our field. 
I will also credit James for reminding us that this perhaps started as a sprint but is now a marathon.  For that reason, our pace needs to change.  When we work in service to others, it can be hard to put our own needs first.  I challenge you to do that as you adjust your pace.  I am having to learn this daily, so I’ll share some reminders I’ve needed to hear.
Try not to overwhelm yourself.  Start with three things to tackle each day.  If you get those three things done, consider adding more to the list but don’t make your list so large that you never feel like you’ve accomplished enough.  Set SMART goals. 
Don’t play the comparison game.  If you see other colleagues doing “more” than you feel you are right now, know that most of us only show our highlight reels.  And that each person has a different situation at home.  You may be social distancing solo or with a significant other who is deemed essential staff somewhere.  You might now be a teacher to your kids in addition to being mom or dad.  You may have the added concern of a pre-existing condition that makes you more vulnerable right now.  Some of you have been furloughed.  Recognize that we are our own worst critics.  Try to shift your internal dialogue and give the advice and gift of grace you would give a friend. 
Do what you can – but know you can’t do it all.  When we lead volunteers, we see examples everyday of people who often put themselves last.  The advice to put on your mask before you help others has never been more relevant.  Burn out is always a risk for volunteer managers and for our volunteers.  There is no shortage of ideas out there right now – new ways to communicate with your volunteers, virtual volunteering, webinars, live chats, etc.  Compiling ideas is good.  Holding yourself to the unrealistic standard of acting on every idea isn’t.  If you have the capacity to try new things during this time, go for it!  But commit to doing a few things well rather than doing a lot of things halfway. 
Look to the future.  Consider how you can shift programs as needed if resources are scarce and your volunteer base shrinks (or grows).  What have you learned, what new technologies have you deployed than can serve you and your volunteers when you return to work?  Our organizations and our programs may not look the same when we return.  Some of those changes will likely be ones we can’t control.  But what about the ones we can?  Let’s take the best of what this time has taught us and innovate.  We are change managers, remember?  We have the skills to do it.
As a result of the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on the financial stability of our organizations, many volunteer managers have been furloughed.  If that is your story right now, know that it is not how your story ends.  A fellow volunteer manager, Dave Glenn of the Seattle Aquarium, inspired me last week when he posted an offer on LinkedIn to read resumes and cover letters of anyone who had lost their jobs and to pass along job opportunities he saw.  It was another example of the selflessness and commitment from our profession.  
All of you are a light in these dark times.  Be safe and be well.  Give yourself grace.  Tap into the communities we’ve built.  And know that the future will look brighter when the world opens up again and we can lead our volunteers as we rebuild our organizations and our communities. 
Newsletter - AL!VE Newsletter: April 2020

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