March 9, 2014
The Little Red Hen Syndrome
Whenever I hear the sad tale of a manager of volunteers who is wrung out by overwork and lack of support, who is under-appreciated and sometimes un-noticed, I get reminded of that old folk tale that turns up in every generation as a child’s reader. You know the story: how the Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat, asks the farmyard animals to help plant it and when they refuse she says “Then I’ll do it myself”.
(If you have forgotten the tale, see this beautifully illustrated version.)
What I hear in my mind is not the moral of caring and sharing and helping each other. I hear the tone of the Little Red Hen as she says “Then I’ll do it myself”, repeated at each stage of the growing and harvesting of wheat. I can see her puffing up her chest, giving a loud sniff and a dismissive shrug of her shoulder, and her tone of voice is one of martyred self-righteousness.
I’m sure that is not how a manager of volunteers reacts, though some may feel like it. So let me tell another version of the LRH story to see how life could be turned around for those who are over-burdened…..
LRH sighs when yet another task lands on her* desk. Maybe there is something here that would interest volunteers. She asks around, but there are no takers. Not this week please; not really my thing; I want to stick with what I’m doing; sounds interesting, hope you find someone: these replies make LRH even more depressed.
Enter Cinderella’s fairy godmother, who waves a wand and says: “Let’s look at this job you’ve got to do – or think about your current tasks that could be handed over to a volunteer. What’s involved – tasks, time, responsibilities, skills required? Let’s work up a job description and see if there is an existing volunteer who might fit the bill. If not where could we go to find one? You’ve got to ‘market’ volunteer opportunities, not send out vague messages about needing help.”
LRH protests: “That takes time, and then I have to do a screening and orientation and training and monitor what the volunteer does on the job, and I’m tired and I just don’t have the energy”. FG has to do some straight-talking about excuses that mean nothing will ever change, and trusting volunteers to do a good job. “I mean”, says FG with a rather intense stare, “what’s the point of running a volunteer programme if you have to keep such a tight hold on the reins?”
LRH buckles under the charm of FG and before long she has engaged the volunteer of her dreams: enthusiastic, willing, skilled in all the right places, and experienced. “You just need to know how to make time and see new possibilities” she tells her peer support group.
She’s fired up now. She devolves to volunteers responsibility for a lot of daily administration, managing social media posts, collating items for a newsletter, even gets a volunteer on the organisation’s Health & Safety Committee where they get to meet and participate with paid staff. Soon she is going to find a volunteer competent enough to interview new recruits.
LRH is not so much a manager now, pulling all the strings to her tune. She’s a leader, supporting and nurturing her team to be the best volunteers they can be. And they are. They love their work; they are sharing in the creation and development of the volunteer programme, and even better, demonstrating to the wider organisation what powerful contributions volunteers can make to its mission.
No longer does LRH get excuses when she invites a volunteer to take on a new role. She has turned around from potential burn-out, and no longer has to puff up her chest, give a loud sniff and a dismissive shrug of her shoulder, or say in a tone of martyred self-righteousness “Then I’ll do it myself”. And when it comes time to eat the loaf of bread, the fruit of all her efforts, she does not do that alone in the time-honoured ending of the folk tale. Instead she holds a joyous celebration for all volunteers who have shared in the undertaking.
* Yes, I know a hen is always female, and yes, I know there are many men who manage volunteers – so please take this narration as gender-neutral.