October 7, 2012

The Volunteering X Factor

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Good news stories, Recognition of Volunteering, volunteer experience tagged , , at 4:00 am by Sue Hine

There are no definitions for the X factors of volunteering.  There will never be a TV reality show for the unseen and unsung qualities that make up the best of volunteering and its management.  Mostly it is chance encounters that tell us something of the outcome of our work.

Three times in as many weeks I’ve been reminded of the influence a manager of volunteers can sometimes have on the lives of volunteers.

The first is a story about a volunteer and his wife, told fifteen years after the event.

A few days later I get to hear, long after I have left the workplace, how my words at a group induction session are still ringing in a volunteer’s ears:

“You don’t think you will gain anything from volunteering?  Keep your hearts and minds open and you will discover all sorts of rewards.”

You know, the volunteer says to my successor, I’ve never forgotten that, and by heck, she was right!


Then Andy Fryar, who has his own remarkable story of unintended influence on a volunteer, puts up this poster on his Facebook page, noting it is something he raises regularly in training sessions.


None of us set out to be inspiring or to make a difference in the lives of volunteers.  It’s a by-product, and we are merely catalysts for that inspiration to take hold, or that change to happen.

And mostly we never get the feedback.

I’ve been volunteering for yonks, and worked in a variety of management roles.  My one experience in managing volunteers was in a hospice, where I discovered there was still much to learn about volunteering and management.  Hospice volunteers taught me about the work they did, how they did it and why.  Simple – serving cups of tea and dishing out meals.  But it was the way they provided these services that showed me how volunteering is a whole lot bigger than ticking off a task sheet.

Because reports from patients and families indicated how the supporting words and gestures from volunteers touched them at just the right moment.   When I gave this feedback to the volunteer there was usually a shrug and a comment like “But all I did was listen, and it was only for a few minutes”.  No big deal for the volunteer, yet an inspirational spark for the family.

Now it’s my turn to tell a story about a volunteer and what comes after.

Mary had been volunteering for some time when I met her – Wednesday lunch service, regular as clockwork, a close buddy with her volunteer partner.  She liked things neat and tidy, liked knowing what was what.  Always Mary was someone you could count on to let you know if she could not come, wanted time off for travel, or if something was bothering her.  Sometimes the bothering could be personal stuff, outside the volunteering bit.

Now Mary the volunteer has become the patient.  Pinned on the notice board by her bed in the hospice is a letter I wrote to her eleven years ago, alongside the certificates issued in recognition of her years of volunteer service.  Such little things, such small gestures from the office of a manager, to be received and treasured in ways I never anticipated.

All of us can touch other people’s lives in unknown ways.  It’s part of being human.  Sometimes we can turn the cliché of ‘making a difference’ into something real.

But always, in times like this, my mind flicks to the line that says:

You are the last person to understand the effect you have on other people. *

And I wish I did not always have to be the last to know.


* William Boyd (1990) Brazzaville Beach



  1. In managing volunteers, we learn that the smallest of gestures are the ones that volunteers treasure. In hospice when we do get the opportunity to be with our own volunteers at the end of life, they do not speak of the big volunteer luncheon. Oh no, they speak of the times when the volunteer manager stopped to reassure them that their work was meaningful. We, of all people, know the might of the minute.


    • Sue Hine said,

      And here’s another way of saying this truth:

      “People will forget what you say, they will forget what you do, but they never will forget how you make them feel.”
      — Maya Angelou


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