I used to be a “professional volunteer” when my kids were young. I was a stay-at-home mom who went from running the production, deadlines, and quality control of a national magazine one day to being a diaper-changing milk machine the next. I love my kids and wouldn’t have done it any other way, but I needed mental stimulation. Stat. So I sought it out by volunteering to create newsletters for local non-profits. 

While volunteering can be a rewarding experience, I learned to be selective in my volunteer choices. I wanted to give my time and expertise to organizations that appreciated it and gave me a certain amount of free reign. It seemed a good quid pro quo. They got a boatload of free marketing assistance and I got to exercise my brain, learn new skills on the nascent Mac, and—unknowingly—lay the foundation for my business.

Today I still enjoy volunteering even though my time to do so is extremely limited. One of the most rewarding volunteer positions I have ever had didn’t have to do with marketing. It simply had to do with bringing joy to other human beings. 

A Tough Job for Woman and Beast

For four years, my certified emotional therapy dog, Theo, and I visited clients at a residential facility for 1,000 people with motional, intellectual, developmental and physical special needs. It shall remain nameless for this post. It was tough work. Very tough at times for both Theo and me. Some clients would try to hurt Theo even though he weighed in close to 100 lbs. Some would be terrified of him (mostly the staff) even though he wouldn’t hurt a fly. But most did exactly what we hoped they would do: smile, hug, talk when they rarely did, become engaged, smile, and smile. Many cases brought me to tears in the car on the way home. But it was one of the toughest jobs I came to love.

Stewardship at Its Best and Worst

We stopped volunteering when my link to the organization retired. I’ll call her Ethel. Ethel knew how to steward a volunteer. She made sure she knew when we were coming and had someone there to escort us for the hour. She listened when I said I couldn’t go to certain cottages any more because it stressed Theo too much. She wanted to know where I wanted to go even though I know she wanted us to visit other clients. She thanked me for my time and bringing Theo just the right amount to make us feel appreciated but not so much that it felt awkward. 

When Ethel left, all of that stewardship went with her. I was now out on my own, making appointments that fell apart, wasting my time and making me angry. I no longer felt that our contribution had value and grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of organization and respect for my time. This, coincidently, occurred when Theo was slowing down with age. I could have volunteered with him for another year or so until his legs couldn’t hold him next to wheelchairs anymore, but it seemed like a good time to stop for both of us. And we did. That was around 2010.  

An Organization Redeeming Itself. Or Not.

I got a letter yesterday from the new Vice President for Development. It opened with, 

I have heard great things about your volunteer work at X and wanted to thank you for your efforts. As the new Vice President of Development, I’d like to take you to lunch one day to learn more about your experience here. There seems to be a serious dearth of volunteers at a very important time and I am eager to find out why.

This was heartening to me. They a. noticed that I wasn’t volunteering anymore, b. cared, and c. reached out to me to find out why. This was an incredible, awesome effort on their part, I thought. This was great. Until. Until I read a few more lines down when she asked me for money. After making her case, the bottom of the letter read:

I hope you will consider joining our monthly giving club by making a recurring gift of $35 each month…..

Why, oh why, would she do this? She totally had me at reaching out and then blew it with the ask. What a bash to her brand.

What now?

I’m thinking about how to react to this letter. But in the meantime wanted to tell school marketers about this story so that you don’t do this to the friends of your school.  Keep the ask for volunteers and the ask for money separate.  One will flow into the other over time, but not at the courting stage.

If you were me, what would you do next? 

This post originally appeared on the InspirED School Marketers Juice Blog.

Me and the best therapy dog ever, Theo, 2009.

Me and the best therapy dog ever, Theo, 2009.

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