Volunteer Parenting And Other High Impact Work For Free
By Emma Margraf and Adam Fletcher
There are a lot of different kinds of volunteers -- this particular blog post has to do with certain kinds of high level, high impact volunteers. Foster parents, for example, are volunteers. The money they receive for foster parenting rarely, if ever, covers the cost of raising a child. So, when you have a volunteer position like this, what level of input can you expect to have? That’s the topic of the conversation Adam and I have in this entry.
It’s fall! How did that happen? Leaves are changing color and it’s cold in the morning. ARGH. The school year has begun and my life has already switched gears considerably. I’m in a strange position, because I am, effectively, a “volunteer parent” -- as in, I volunteer as a parent. This week it occurred to me that Back to School Night brings up some interesting questions about what it means to challenge your volunteer experience. As a foster parent, the expectation is that for the most part I will take instruction and carry out instruction on how to deal with my foster child. That’s very much the perspective of the teachers I met the other night, who have knee-jerk methods of distancing themselves from my suggestions. When I suggested that if the stated goal of silent reading in class is to inspire life-long readers, she may not need to read silently -- it’s already a given for her. She needs to learn to write. The immediate response was this: “you know, this is a world renowned curriculum and I think we really need to trust it”.
Well, OK. But the matter still stands, right? She has read voraciously for her whole life and she still scores on the 2nd grade level for comprehension, so logically she doesn’t need extra silent independent reading time. Right? But as a volunteer, how much do I get to intervene?
Adam: I think there’s two issues at play here Emma, the first being how much the school respects you as your foster child’s advocate, and the second being how much room this particular teacher has for feedback from anybody outside the school environment, especially people in parental roles.
The role you’re in as a foster parent is unique, to say the least: you’ve been entrusted with the “generational trust,” raising a child, which I believe is the paramount responsibility in any society. Volunteers at nuclear reactors don’t get to operate the subatomic particle fusion collector; volunteers with the Red Cross don’t get to perform surgery on tornado victims. But you, as a foster parent, get to raise a child. I think this is a far greater responsibility than most volunteers ever experience. I think the danger in reducing your position as a foster parent down to being a “volunteer parent” is that you risk minimizing how and what role you play in your foster child’s life, and to our society in general.
With respect to all that, I think the answer to your question of how much you get to intervene is different than it is for a lot of volunteers. Emma, you get to intervene all you want, just as any parent should. It’s your earned outcome from donating yourself, your home, your free time, and your sleepless nights, to the life and well-being of another person. What volunteers among us can say they do the same?
Emma: Well, maybe let’s set aside for the moment that foster parents are never, ever, told that they can intervene all they want. That is not at all written in the job, and something that each foster parent can only get if they demand it. But your point is well taken. Some volunteers work in search and rescue, and some volunteer to clean up sidewalks. Some volunteers help in classrooms and some deliver meals. I’m not sure that the scale of engagement in these jobs should rest on how much of a direct impact you are having. I think the scale should have more to do with a combination of skill level and necessity. The trash picker-upers might have valuable input on the efficacy of their organizations clean up methods.
I think the important question here is how do we decide who gets to ask the important questions? Is that always the same as the person who must be answered? Do questions always need to be answered?
Adam: Emma, if an organization authentically values it’s constituents and clients, then by all means it should be answering the hard questions. All staff within that organization should reflect that authentic value, even if they personally don’t feel that way. And I put authentic in italics on purpose: it’s a loaded word that implies not being fake or otherwise being very real. If an organization, which is comprised of it’s leadership, it’s volunteers, and it’s staff, doesn’t authentically value it’s constituents and clients, then it should pretend to.
If your daughter’s school actually cares what parents think, then perhaps the teacher you talked to might not have gotten get the memo. As a parent you can address your issue with that teacher; if they don’t respond accordingly, then you can bring it to the building’s leadership; if they don’t respond how you want them to, you can bring it to district leaders, including the elected school board. The lucky thing about public schools is that they’re ultimately accountable to the levers of democracy, especially the vote. Any citizen has an obligation to hold them to that- especially parents, and in your case, foster parents. Unfortunately, nonprofits do not work the same way.
Emma: I think her school gets nervous when parents raise their hands. And rightly so. The range of responses is from angry to to poorly educated to totally disrespectful a lot of the time. Volunteer Managers come across the same problem: folks know they are tired and overworked, and yet they still flood them with criticism by some volunteers. Which is tough to take.
Organizations need to develop relationships with their volunteers on which these conversations can be build. Right now I am trying, with all my might, to ingratiate myself with the teachers so that my thoughts are received well. But that doesn’t address our systemic need to celebrate input and not keep it at arm’s length. How do we make that happen?
Adam: Our goal should be greater than “celebrating input,” per se. After almost 8 years of coordinating volunteers for The Freechild Project, I have found that the young people and adult allies who volunteer for Freechild don’t want to be celebrated, as it were- I paste their names across the website and readily credit them in our publications. Instead, they want to be connected to the movement Freechild is part of, and empowered to affect that movement. For years I had a student who regularly made graphics for Freechild, and when I asked him why he was so into it all he would say was that it was fun. When I offered to pay him, he scoffed and told me to put the money back into the website. When I showed him the page with his name on it, he asked for it to be taken off. But whenever I asked him what he thought about something related to design or navigation, he jumped all over it; he quickly edited everything I gave to him; he easily turned my requests in completions. He loved being connected to the engine that drove the machine, and I think this ultimately is what all volunteers want: that deep feeling that comes from being meaningfully engaged in a movement.
From my work consulting dozens of organizations and agencies over the last decade, I have seen that most organizations could stand to deepen their work, no matter what the immediate costs. Asking the hard questions and examining the powerful issues is what can connect mission with outcomes in substantive, meaningful, and sustainable ways. One of the topics facing every nonprofit is about volunteerism: Who do we engage, why do we co
nnect with them, how do they fit, where do they have impact, what is their purpose, and how can we tell what they’ve done? And there are countless avenues we can continue down in that line of questioning. That’s the work that can allow us to get deeper with volunteers.
Emma: I can very much see that from my perspective at the Volunteer Center, times are tough and it’s hard for folks to see beyond the day to day. But sacrificing the moment for the long term is important. Sometimes it is key.
Everyone has different volunteer needs. For some, recognition is very important; it’s a validation of their impact. Others shrink from that kind of attention; they get embarrassed or shy or it’s just not their thing. Each organization needs to understand what kind of volunteer they have and how to treat them. It’s through that process that organizations build the kind of relationships where input works -- both ways.
Adam: So, you’re saying that depending on the volunteer, they may or may not need to have their opinions and ideas heard?
Emma: Well, in a sense. I’m saying that volunteers have relationships with organizations, and much like staff members, there needs to be a process of input and criticism that makes sense. If you take the time to get to know your volunteers that process should become clear; as will their recognition needs. Your youth volunteer only wanted to do the work and not have his name on it while another doing the same level of work might want that recognition and deserve to get it.
Adam: In that same sense then, wouldn’t it follow that the teacher from your opening story isn’t obligated to listen to you, per se? I mean, inundated with feedback from parents who only drop in during parent/teacher conferences, surely she has to decide which parents to listen to and which ones to ignore all the time. There are those who contact her proactively, constantly demonstrating their commitment to their students’ success, and then there are those whose involvement is erratic at best. I think that if you really want that teachers’ ear, you’ll have to continuously demonstrate your commitment to your foster child’s success- irregardless of whether or not you’re a “volunteer parent.” Just like the volunteers in our organizations, you have to make your desires known.
Emma: That’s my plan. Like I said, I am currently trying to ingratiate myself with said teacher, so that she’ll take my calls, read my emails, and consider my perspective. I’m hoping she will -- but she may not. I’m hoping she will. It is easy to get caught up in the immediacy of the need and I have to remind myself to treat her with respect with every single interaction, because I want something from her and she is in a job where I am one of many who do.
Adam: Maybe those are lessons we should be teaching to volunteers, as well: Every person in an organization, from the agency executive director to the organization’s clients, has something you can get from them, and you have something they want from you. This mutual benefit is the basis of empathy, which in turn is the basis for meaningfully engaging volunteers in effective, engaging service to their communities. I think we should strive for nothing less.
Emma: Well said. Let’s leave this here, shall we? Until next time.