Sometime after two hours on the tarmac last Saturday, the flight attendants kindly walked up and down the aisle offering a little snack bag containing a mini bottle of water, a small pack of cookies, and, of course, pretzels. Clearly these were meant to be distributed as we were 30,000 feet above Ohio perhaps, partway into my flight between Newark and Denver. Instead, they were presented as a little appeasement offering as we entered our third hour sitting on the ground only about one hundred yards from where we started.
Meanwhile, the pilot came over the PA with another update on the weather, the delay, and the fact that maintenance would have to check the plane since the aircraft was struck by hail.
As I gratefully opened the bag of pretzels, I could have been thinking about what time I might eventually make it home or the plans I’d be missing that evening, but instead, my mind turned to volunteer engagement and how the past year has delivered so many unexpected changes in plans. All of us in volunteer engagement and nonprofits have a long list of plans that were changed, pivoted, or adapted since March 2020 – including shifting a fundraising or recognition event from in-person to virtual, engaging new volunteers to deliver programs, or creating entirely new services to address emerging or increased need for food assistance, career services, or support for financial, mental, or educational services, to name a few.
Regardless of the change in plan, clear and consistent communications have been vital throughout this period. In fact, back in April 2020, I shared two blog posts (here and here) on communications which remain relevant today (and apply surprisingly well to my experience on the plane!). While we may not be feeling the same level of “crisis” that we were back in April when I first shared tips on crisis communications with volunteers, these principles remain essential as we continue to evolve our engagement strategies and explore new ways to address community needs. Here is how I saw these principles in play on my much delayed flight (I had to find something to keep me busy as we sat grounded for a third hour!) and how they may be applied to your work in the coming months.
Transparent communication provides honest, up to date, and timely information that people need to understand what is going on around them. While being transparent does not mean having all the answers, it does mean providing the information that you have at the time you have it and being open to sharing what you don’t yet know. On my flight, our pilot shared updates every 30 minutes or so about the weather delay, the fact that we were struck by hail, and the required safety precaution of having maintenance check out the craft. He told us we would return to the gate as soon as one was open, but that even then, he didn’t know how long it would take for maintenance to do its assessment. I appreciated this honesty and it reinforced my trust that our pilot and the airline had our safety as a priority.
As your organization moves through its reopening and return to operations, what information can you share honestly and openly with volunteers about processes and procedures so that they understand the decisions you make and the reasoning behind them?
We know of one museum that is part of a larger institution and must abide by the larger organization’s plans, phasing opening by program and building in order to ensure the safety of the public and the staff. In the meantime, volunteer engagement leadership shares updates on what is expected to open when and how volunteers can stay engaged virtually in the meantime. Understanding their options – and the ever evolving policies around fulfilling service requirements to remain “active” – has been vital to maintain a relationship with the volunteer corps there.
Defined as the ability to move from one task to another – or adaptability – our versatility has been tested in more ways than just communications, as is the versatility of our volunteers. As I sat on the plane, I thought about all the passengers flying to Denver simply to make connections to their final destinations. For them, understanding their options was top of mind. The flight attendants provided information over the PA and in one-on-one conversations I could overhear with nearby rows, letting people know that Denver was aware of the delay and the airlines would already be working on rebooking flights where possible for those who would miss connections. It may have been little solace to those as time ticked on and the hour grew later, but I knew they were trying, calmly and professionally, to let those passengers know that there would be contingency plans.
As volunteer opportunities have changed and protocols revised, clearly outlining the options available to volunteers so they can make informed choices about their involvement remains important even a year later. Some volunteers are ready to return to in-person service, and others not. Some have been ready to return in person perhaps before your organization is ready to receive them.
In any case, offering a clear list of options and directions on how to opt in – or out – is helpful. Options may include:
- Staying engaged actively – but safely
- Taking on new roles remotely (virtually)
- Stepping back from active volunteering temporarily
- Being referred to another organization that is engaging volunteers in person
- Participating in virtual training
To this end, we know of one hospital in Delaware that has referred hospital volunteers to a local blood bank as the blood bank has been engaging volunteers in person since summer 2020 while the hospital was still not engaging onsite volunteers for many more months. A win-win for both institutions.
Humanity is recognizing people’s limitations. Of course, this is where the pretzels came in! The only thing worse than a few hundred passengers sitting on the ground on a sold-out flight for three hours is a few hundred HUNGRY passengers sitting on a crowded flight for three plus hours. Eventually, they gave passengers the option of stepping off the plane and stretching their legs (options are good!) and some did so. Most of us stayed in hopes of getting off the ground, but they were sure to continue to update us and, of course, offer more pretzels, too!
When it comes to our organizations, we should recognize that, just as we may still be experiencing stress, anxiety, and fatigue from the events of the past year, so too are the volunteers who serve our mission. Let’s continue to check in with them, provide a caring ear when we can, and help connect them to others who share their commitment to our cause. As we continually tweak our protocols so we are not spreading this disease, nothing should stop us from spreading all the kindness that we can muster.
Finally, our communications should be put through the lens of strategy. For my flight, I wish I could say that their strategic move was to get us off the ground and on our way shortly after we entered hour three, but that is not what happened. Instead, after 3.5 hours, they asked us all to deplane and stay near the gate, letting us know that lightning strikes at Newark had affected the fueling process and that they would keep us posted. Five hours after our scheduled departure time, they officially cancelled our flight and explained all the different ways they could help us rebook. Not the outcome I’d hoped for, but at least I knew my options.
For your organization and the volunteers who engage with you, this past year was likely not the hoped-for outcome either. Nevertheless, communications remain vital. In continuing to update your communications plan, consider these questions ensure that you are strategic in what and how you share information:
- What information is necessary?
- What is mission-aligned?
- What will help move your engagement forward?
While we still applaud the volunteer coordinators who are taking time to share feel-good emails, we encourage everyone to ensure that communications include mission-related information and mission-focused stories of impact. How have volunteers continued to drive impact for the communities you serve? How have volunteers enabled you to reach new audiences? Address new needs? How many new volunteers have joined in your work and how are they being integrated into your volunteer community? Sharing these types of data and stories will not only help volunteers stay connected to you but to your mission, as well, which is why they joined your organization in the first place.
And, of course, a few pretzels don’t hurt either.