May 31, 2010

Mind Your Language (3)

Posted in Language at 1:55 am by Sue Hine

There’s just one more thing related to language. My colleague Alison was brave enough to tell a story against herself. Read about it here, and I hope I do not need to spell out the moral of the tale.  It was first published by Volunteer Wellington in their April newsletter, and is reproduced here by permission.

Alison’s story

I thought I was a pretty good manager of volunteers. I could report regularly on how many volunteers I had, how many new ones I had recruited, any issues my team had and updates on vacancies. I was proud of my volunteers and their performance, which of course was due to the training and support I provided for my team. I was also a passionate advocate for my volunteers with other staff.

Until the day I got gutted by a new boss. I was reporting with my usual enthusiasm on the progress of my volunteers, and he stops me in mid-flight. Excuse me Alison, he says, very politely, they are not your volunteers – they are part of the organization. You will not, he says, ever again, looking at me directly, use the word ‘my’ in reference to volunteer services.

Well, that was a pretty clear instruction, and I had to do a lot of re-jigging of my self-image, and my perceptions of volunteers, and what my role was really about. And I had to cut that possessive ‘my’ from my vocabulary. What happened next was just amazing.

Other staff started to show how they felt connected to volunteers, to value and respect the volunteer contributions to our services. And they stopped dumping on me every time a volunteer put a foot wrong. They started taking responsibility for guiding and supporting volunteers, especially the newbies. They started engaging with volunteers, getting to know them and learning how to draw on individual volunteer skills and strengths. Just like they always did with their colleagues. Well hello – volunteers are a valuable asset and a valued resource, no less than paid staff.

As for me – once I had got over the humiliation of being told off, which is what it felt like – I discovered there were a whole lot of new things to learn. Like being able to have open discussion about further developments of volunteer services. Like feeling more engaged with the whole organization instead of being a precious sub-set, and a bit on the outer. The most important lesson was finally understanding what my role was all about.

I am not a ‘volunteer’ manager – I get paid for managing volunteers. So I do all that HR stuff of recruiting, training, placement, performance appraisal – but that does not mean I ‘own’ the volunteers, any more than the HR person in your organization ‘owns’ the paid staff. But neither am I a ‘manager of volunteers’. When volunteers are spread across the organization in various roles it is not my job to micro-manage what they do – that’s up to team leaders and other managers, and part of that integration thing that happens when you drop ‘my’ from your vocabulary. What I am really employed to do is manage volunteer services – not the people, not the individuals, but making the services happen. So OK, I might have to turn my hand to event management when there is a Street Appeal, or to rally resources for a particular client need, or to discuss options for a recruitment drive with the manager of our op-shops. I have to be really good at setting up processes and policies for recruitment and screening of volunteer applicants; I have to ensure the best possible orientation and training programmes; I need to have really good communication channels open for the volunteers, by phone, email and even old-fashioned snail-mail; I need to be really smart in maintaining a database; and then I have to show off my marketing skills when it comes to Volunteer Awareness Week and International Volunteers’ Day.

And by heck – I need to keep up with all the stuff out there in cyber-space that tells me what’s happening in the world of volunteer management. That’s what managers do, right?

I do not have to do all this stuff on my own. All round me I can draw on volunteers with amazing skills and willingness to take on assignments. When I let go the ‘my’ of my work I can embrace the ‘our’ and accomplish so much more than ever before.



  1. I love Alison’s story. It has been a model for us at Volunteer Wellington to work on with our staff, to retell the story and make sure we all ‘mind our language’. We now have been given permission to pull one another up when there’s a slip of the tongue – goes to show language changes mindsets, and therefore minds, and therefore ways we all work.


  2. Rebecca said,

    Well, there may be a lesson for me in here, too. I think I’ll stop saying “my” patients.


  3. Sue Hine said,

    Funny isn’t it, the way simple reflection on the words we use every day can change a whole heap of perceptions, and the difference this can make to the way we relate to volunteers and our peers.


  4. Wendy Moore said,

    Great article Sue. The “My Volunteers” is very much a motherhood, slightly patronising statement which I have heard. You make a good point about using the correct language and Alison is very brave, open and honest for sharing her own experiences and how she has learned from them. She should be congratulated for her courage and her candour.


    • Sue Hine said,

      I’ve passed your praise on to Alison. And your comment re motherhood and patronising is so right! When I hear ‘my volunteers’ I am also hearing parenting tone, a clucky mother-hen. This will not do!


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