Nice leaders water down direct and constructive feedback wanting to be nice and to be liked….

Kind leaders deliver difficult information in a kind way. They treat others as they would want to be treated: fair, balanced, emotionally aware, but they also don’t let staff off the hook by being too nice.

When I read these words recently, written by my colleague Barbara Palmer (founder of Broad Perspective Consulting), they captured the nuance of an issue that had come up in coaching calls with volunteer engagement professionals that same week. Barbara’s insightful post, in which she distinguishes between being nice and being kind, spoke directly to conversations I was having individually with three new volunteer engagement professionals about volunteer applications and screening.

These volunteer coordinators sought to balance the need for proper screening with their desire to make it as easy as possible for people to volunteer. Though from different organizations, they shared the same desire to minimize any hurdles that prospective volunteers would encounter. Each call included similar statements:

“Let’s let them register as volunteers for this event and then we can provide a link in our thank you email for them to volunteer again.”

“Most of our positions won’t require background checks or interviews, so we don’t want to mention that on the webpage since we don’t want to deter anyone. Instead, we’ll just mention it to anyone who expresses interest in those positions.”

I get it. Most of us recognize that time is of the essence, and we want potential volunteers to be able to easily find our volunteer opportunities, quickly express interest, and readily engage in service. But just as there is a difference between being nice and being kind, there is a difference between being easy and being accessible, between being open and being welcoming.

As Barbara explains, nice leaders – who seek to be liked – are often “ineffective in clarifying a vision … and bringing out the best work in others,” whereas “kind leaders actively listen rather than seek to please. They welcome collaboration … but they also make decisions and move forward, rather [than] acting from a place of fear of hurting others’ feelings.

Volunteer engagement leaders who focus on creating “open” volunteer opportunities often create what I refer to as “come-one-come-all” service opportunities. If anyone and everyone is accepted, is it clear that the volunteers are even part of a community? When people sign up through simple online registration systems, the host organization is usually unable to gather information about a volunteer’s interests, skills, and availability for future volunteering. Without it, the organization has a hard time personalizing any future invitations to engage or even bridging this first event into future engagement. Prioritizing “easy” when connecting individuals to their first volunteer opportunity can impede an organization’s ability to cultivate them for their second or ongoing engagements.

An alternative is to focus instead on being accessible. Those who focus on accessible volunteering think about how to make the volunteer experience available to as many people as possible by removing barriers to volunteering – but do so without risking safety – and by streamlining processes without sacrificing future cultivation. They gather data from prospective volunteers, they conduct screening appropriate to level of risk, and they take a broad view of hurdles that might impede volunteer sign ups – not just the time it might take to complete an application but whether the application is accessible to visually impaired volunteers, whether the volunteer activities are located in a place accessible by public transportation, and whether the schedule accommodates those who work or families who might want to serve together. These considerations shift the focus from making volunteering easy to instead making it accessible.

Similarly, there is a trend among many organizations who talk about volunteers simply “registering” to volunteer instead of “applying” to volunteer. When one registers, there is an expectation that anyone and everyone will be accepted. This is part of an effort to focus on creating an “open” environment for volunteering. But when anyone and everyone can register, then there is no assurance that one’s skills and time will be valued. Many who create these systems are hesitant to establish an application system because they fear it will deter potential volunteers. But here again is an important distinction: being open is not the same as being welcoming. One can require an application and other screening processes (whether interviews, background checks, or simply confirmation that applicants meet eligibility criteria) while still creating a very welcoming environment.

Being welcoming means explaining why these steps are important, showing appreciation for an applicant’s time and effort to complete the steps, and then using the information that’s gathered to personalize the experience for those who engage as volunteers. This doesn’t all fall on the shoulders of the volunteer engagement professional; truly welcoming communities of volunteers are built by all employees and other volunteers who take on a leadership role in welcoming and mentoring newbies.

So, as you revisit or design your volunteer practice and procedures, consider whether you want to focus on making volunteering easy or accessible, creating an open or a welcoming community. Easy and open may be appealing but focusing on accessible and welcoming is more likely to lead to a sustainable and impactful community.