Rolling Up Your Sleeves and Tilling the Garden

Several years ago I had a particularly memorable conversation with a long-time volunteer of a regional symphony. Now, I can’t remember the circumstances of the conversation or how we got on the subject, but I remember her sweet, unassuming stature, passion and earnest when she reminded me that, “Back in the day we didn’t have paid staff to do everything. When something needed to be done, we just rolled up our sleeves and did it.” Pretty cliché statement, right? But there was something meaningful behind those words – and I was recently reminded just exactly what it was.

This woman had been a symphony volunteer for decades and had seen her symphony grow from its small beginnings to a full-time nationally respected institution. She sold tickets, she raised money, she wrote program notes and much more.  It’s amazing to think of the history and future she helped build – from moving into the orchestra’s permanent home, to building an endowment from scratch, and experiencing first-hand six out of the seven music directors leading from the podium. This woman was not only a volunteer who made a tremendous difference for her orchestra, but she was also a testament to the passion and dedication people have for their hometown arts organization. We should cherish these people for what they’ve done -- and still do -- to grow and nurture our arts and cultural institutions.

In contrast, the Brooklyn Museum’s ousting of its volunteer Community Committee, as explained in the Wall Street Journal article on April 11, 2012, came as a crude reminder of how some organizations cast aside these stakeholders.  What a travesty to alienate such an important cadre of supporters, customers and family members. Granted, as organizations grow and change, so must their relationships with constituents. Staff is hired to accelerate results and the volunteer / staff relationships change quite often for the better. However, the failure to manage these transitions and relationships carefullyresults in a loss of respect, trust, reputation, rich legacy and, let’s face it, capital. Not knowing the precise causes that led to the jolting dissolution of the Brooklyn Museum’s volunteer corps doesn’t prevent us from predicting the short-term outcome and loss of respect for, and trust in, the organization.

Transitions are tricky and growth can be difficult, but continually cultivating deep and abiding relationships is at the core of successful growth.  In the case of my orchestra volunteer, her relationship spanned some 70+ years.  Through her dedicated work she sold thousands of subscriptions, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and was an ardent orchestra evangelist who cultivated the interest of many others who came, listened and loved the music. 

Working with volunteers can sometimes be tough – especially from those who feel, in part, a decades-long ownership of your organization.  I contend that theyshould be tough because quite often they planted the initial seeds of the organization, watched it flourish and then, when the tough times came, put their backs into it again to make sure the institution would survive.  So let’s not be too quick to dismiss these people simply because the needs of the organization have matured.

If you haven’t invested in your volunteers lately, do it today.  Cultivate the relationships to continually value and engage them deeply in your organization’s mission.  You’ve grown together over the decades and there is so much more good work ahead, if you take those steps together and make your garden grow.

We're neither pure nor wise nor good; 
We'll do the best we know. 
We'll build our house, and chop our wood, 
And make our garden grow.

Make Our Garden Grow excerpt from Bernstein’s “Candide” 

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