First, trust the instructions


The pop-up dental clinic is being set up in a high school in Memphis. Tarp laid and chairs set up.

One of my foodie friends enjoys reading the comment threads on recipes to read the responses from the recipe haters who swap out this for that and sub out a few more things they didn’t have on hand and angrily give a one star review to a recipe that bears no resemblance to the the one posted. A wiser person than me finally handed me the clear rule that I have now adopted, the first time you make something, just follow the instructions to have some idea of how it is supposed to go down.  Even respecting the instructions so much can change your outcome.  Using baking as an example, how hot is your oven really? How much moisture is in that flour that has been sitting in your dry as bone mid-winter house? You get the picture.

This was one of many lessons I had re-enforced when I went down to Memphis recently to fulfil a long held curiosity to help at a pop-up medical clinic put on by Remote Area Medical. I was in turn, fascinated and pushed to exhaustion by my minimal contribution to this clinic.

One of my firmly reenforced mantras was to first, seek to trust the instructions. What abetted this trust was understanding the reason behind the instructions and hearing it from such credible sources.

I was trained on-the-spot for a number of tasks in a clear, step-by-step fashion. These instructions might include things like the number of parts I was looking for and what order I would have to do them in. Perhaps most importantly, they would usually include the why behind the instructions. The job accurately billed as the worst of the day was to set-up 60 folding dental chairs. They were heavy and not entirely cooperative but could be made to stand just fine if you followed all the instructions. In one case we had to move the position of a central rod using a crank before we started other parts of the set up. If you did this in the wrong order, you’d have to redo the set up to correct. Horrors. In other cases we would sanitize an item and then leave some object in a particular place as a symbol that we had done all the required steps.

I generally follow rules and instructions so it wasn’t a hard sell to follow along and given that you have the background motivation that you want vulnerable people well served. That said, there were motivations to cut corners.  This work was exhausting with a small crew that had mostly been recruited to do actual medical work and it wasn’t the patient-facing work which many volunteers were likely hoping to do when they signed up.

What also helped was that I could fully and completely trust the source of the instructions.  My admiration for the RAM folks was very deep because it was evident that they had hammered out the design of the clinic thoughtfully and deliberately over time (they have done over 800 clinics).  Things are put away in a specific way so that they can be carried or hauled and so that it is clear what is in each bin. They tie off plastic bins to show that they are full with three complete settings for dental stations. No need to count, we can trust this.  Carrying cases are colour coded so they are directed to the right vehicles.

As a last observation, I can see now that I was also motivated to follow the instructions because I was continually surrounded by people who would help keep me on track if I was unsure as to how to go ahead- not choking micro-management but supportive access to supervision.  There was no need to wildly freelance to fill in the gaps.

Learn more about Remote Area Medical here.

See a 60 Minutes story on RAM here.


Give and Take

(c) Julia

A read a lot of business books and this one had the fantastic dual effect of both affirming thinking I’d hoped could be supported with research and expanding my thinking in this area.

I found that this interview with the author with Adam Grant does a decent job of hitting the highlights of the book.

Here is what made the strongest impression on me:

The gist of the thinking is that people are givers, matchers or takers.  You might be a different sort at work than at home.  Work settings can feel harder to navigate because you don’t want to be taken advantage of so you may want to adapt a normally generous style at work to a more matching style.

Givers have the potential to do the best and the worst in work settings.  When they do the best, they succeed at understanding their clients to serve them well and reap the benefits.  They are generous with their time and with information and they are willing to invest in the development of employees/students etc. to mentor them.   This creates a generative cycle.  Having built trust though their investments in others, others are willing to be generous to them.

Grant also gives practical suggestions on how to communicate in a way that isn’t aligned with being a “taker” of information.  He coins the term “powerless communication” and gives a great example of someone in a difficult negotiation on a job offer in a different city who, instead of presenting a demand list, finally asked for HR’s advice on how to proceed noting the considerations with which they were struggling.  They were presented with an ideal solution for their situation.

At worst however, givers can overdo it and burn out.  They do this by failing to look after their own needs and those needs may include neglect of work-related goals crucial to success.  The book also contains interesting information on volunteering.  Apparently 100 hours a year is the ideal for many which is good news for the creative Timeraiser initiative (though the number may decrease for seniors).   Also interesting was that that the research shows that you’d generate more benefits from your volunteering if you did it in large chunks of time rather than small bit of time over many days.  Something for me to aspire to.

I loved that this book affirmed my own commitment to be generous with my own resources with good reminders of the needs to draw boundaries on the levels of contribution.  The book is great at outlining how we must be discerning with our time and it’ll be fine to devote our time to people who will give to others rather than those who are just interested in taking for themselves.

In praise of the ad hoc volunteer

It has been a busy week on the work front and and part of the success of the week was the ad hoc help from members of the team outside the core group who helped with ad hoc tasks including translation verifications.

In the same vein, some of my activities for the week include support volunteer events for which I have had no core or ongoing role at all. In one case, I will take photos at the event to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Plant Recreation Centre. They’ll be an activity to walk 10,000 steps around our lovely neighbourhood.

In another, I have offered to do some postering for the Community Cup. In both cases, the short-term commitment is exactly what I need given my existing commitments.

In my research for this piece I was wondering why there are not more ad hoc volunteering activities and why some public servants (many of whom who have a volunteer day in their collective agreements) struggle to use their day for actual volunteering if they have no existing commitment.

The logic is similar to why, I as a manager, sometimes struggle to hire coop or summer students – a short term commitment seems too difficult and even risky to manage with all else on my plate.

On the upside, planning and a willingness to adapt existing tools (such as job descriptions) can counter this kind of thinking as this guide outlines.  Engaging Ad Hoc Volunteers: A Guide for Non-profit Organizations was created by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre in Singapore.

The guide notes that the ad hoc volunteer can bring certain benefits not necessarily available to the usual volunteer workforce (including the ability to as for ad hoc support from specialized services.). I’d also add that the ad hoc volunteer can become an eventual longer term volunteer and will also be an ambassador for your organization after even a small involvement.

I’d love to see more organizations create and promote ad hoc volunteering.

Managing Volunteers – A chat with Dan Dubeau



As I have written about before on the blog, I am always keen on learning more about the field of volunteer management.  For the moment I am a keen volunteer and very appreciative of the respectful way I am treated as a volunteer.

Realizing that the strategies to supervise volunteers are a bit different than those for supervising paid employees, I was pleased to get connected to Dan Dubeau earlier this year to talk about the skills to manage volunteers.

Dan is the Program Manager for the Community Cup Program at the Catholic Centre for Immigrants. For over 10 years, Dan has been dedicated to helping newcomers integrate and settle into Ottawa. Dan is also the chair of the Ottawa Administrators for Volunteer Resources (OAVR) and believes strongly that a good volunteer experience can open up many doors for individuals and the community.

He generously agreed to be interviewed for the blog.

The interview appears in multiple parts.  The first part is about Dan’s affiliation with the OAVR.

What is the Ottawa Administrators for Volunteer Resources (OAVR)?

The mandate of the group is to:

  • To promote professionalism in volunteer resources management
  • To support our members in the pursuit of their goals as managers of volunteers
  • To provide a forum to share information and resources
  • To network with peers

Who can join the organization?

  • Individuals whose work (paid or unpaid) includes managing/coordinating volunteer resources
  • Managers/coordinators of volunteer resources not currently working in the field
  • Students in a degree or certificate program in management of volunteer resources

Why should mangers of volunteers join the OAVR?

First, the membership fee is modest – only $30 a year – for the benefits that you get from membership.   Members can network and participate in professional development.  Prospective members should also know that there is a bursary available to further professional development or research related to volunteer management or volunteerism.

The group functions as a community of practice which is great as the professional recognition of the profession increases.   We can discuss thorny issues such as the difficult matter of asking a volunteer to discontinue their involvement in an organization.

There is also definite strength in numbers – for instance, we were able to lobby the Ottawa Police to invest in bringing down the processing wait times  for police checks for the vulnerable sectors.

What are some recent developments of interest to Managers of volunteer resources?

In 2012, the National Occupational Standards for Managers of Volunteer Resources were published by the HR council for the Non-profit sector.

These standards show that  this specialization has grown into more of a profession  in the past decade.  The standards list out the main task categories and the expected tasks for each.  These range from developing volunteer services and recruitment to maintaining records, managing performance and recognizing contribution.  They also include the need for volunteer managers to look after their own professional development.

With your work in the OAVR coming to a close, what would you consider your accomplishments over the past few years?

I’ve worked to promote the existence of the network and to grow the membership.  We’ve expanded the range of volunteer managers involved in the group including making stronger links to sports-related areas. I’ve also supported the group to expand the use of technology and social media.