Let’s Get Personal: The Professional – Volunteer Relationship

Have you thought about the nature of your relationship with your volunteer leaders, board members and donors? You see them at meetings and spend a few minutes speaking with them, but when thinking about moving beyond the formal relationship, what is appropriate? On one hand, you want to show that your connection is not only a functional one. On the other hand, you still want to maintain a sense of professionalism. The challenge is often finding the right recipe for an appropriate, yet personal connection within the professional working relationship.

The first part of the process is getting a sense of who these people are and developing a sense of their interests. It does not mean prying into their lives and pushing yourself on them. However, it does mean getting a sense of who they are and what is important to them.

One way to keep track of who they are as individuals is to jot down any information you have about them personally. For example, if you have a database of your supporters, in addition to the usual items such as their names, addresses and phone numbers, you may want to keep a record of their birthdays. It is a nice gesture to send a greeting on this special day in a person’s life. It does not have to be anything elaborate and the note can simply offer them good wishes for a long and healthy life. Although it seems like something trite, a birthday note or e-mail sends the message that you are thinking about them and that they are important enough for you to keep track of details such as these.

Of course, the same would apply for the loss of a loved one in their family. Without a doubt most people would make a shiva visit. When the family is spending the week of mourning in another city or country and visiting is not an option then it would be appropriate to send a condolence card offering sympathies to them during this difficult time. Perhaps this seems like something that is taken for granted and seems like a “no brainer,” however, after being told many times that the expression of condolence and sympathy was appreciated so much by donors and volunteer leaders, it seems that not everyone remembers to offer even this simple gesture that in actuality, it goes a long way.

During an informal conversation a board member may share their vacation plans with you and let you know they will be traveling to another part of the world. This might be an opportunity for you to connect them with individuals or organizations in the Jewish community they will be visiting. I remember one volunteer leader who mentioned he was traveling with a number of people for week’s visit in Turkey. During the conversation I inquired if they were going to be there for Shabbat and if they were interested in connecting with the local Jewish community.

Immediately, the person responded with enthusiasm and was appreciative of my offer. I called someone who not only knew about the Turkish Jewish community in Istanbul, but had contact with the leadership. He happily agreed to make the arrangement for the lay leader and his friends to be welcomed by the community and to be hosted for a Shabbat dinner.

Certainly, my willingness to assist this volunteer strengthened my connection with him. It was important for him to know that it was not only his involvement with the organization that was the focus of my attention. He understood that I wanted to be helpful to him in enhancing his vacation to another country. It was not only a matter of my sharing my idea with him but it was also my willingness to reach out to someone I know and make the necessary connections for him. In my role as a Jewish communal professional I also want to make sure that an involved community leader has an understanding of the connection among Jews wherever they are traveling.

A comment made in the course of an informal exchange about summer vacation plans led to my being able to strengthen my relationship with an important volunteer leader. The suggestions we make communicate a message that we care about the person and we are prepared to be helpful to them. By extending ourselves we can connect and bond with lay leaders in a way that goes beyond a functional relationship.

These kinds of interactions may be interpreted as just being friendly and as reflective of what anyone might do for someone they know. However, there is a difference when it is within the context of the relationship between the professional and the volunteer leader. It is not a matter of being a nice person, but rather it has to do with how the professional staff member cultivates a relationship with a lay leader, board member or donor.

We can be helpful and supportive of the people who are in leadership positions in a professionally appropriate way. Whether it is by acknowledging significant events in a person’s life or whether it is by connecting them to Jewish communities across the globe, we are making a personal connection in a way that lets them know we value them as people. In the voluntary sector, which is built on the base of human values and caring about others, this message means a great deal and strengthens our relationships with the people who are involved in sustaining our organizations.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.