How we treat volunteers

“If you treat an expert like a novice, you’ll fail.” — This is how Seth Godin ended yesterday’s blog post about the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. If you’re not familiar with the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, you might have run into Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager, which is another system that gets at the same basic idea — that you have to treat a rank beginner differently than you treat someone who’s been on the job for years. This is more than an idea; it’s an essential rule for any effective organization.

Unitarian Universalist congregations routinely break this rule. On the one hand, we take rank beginners, people who are new to Unitarian Universalism and new to volunteering in a congregation, and shove them into important committee slots and Board positions that really should be filled by long-term, committed Unitarian Universalists with experience in running our kind of congregations. In so doing, we break the rule by sticking novices into positions that should be filled by experts. On the other hand, we often treat experienced volunteers as though they are imbeciles, and the perfect example of this is when we give one of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s curriculums (which are all written to be “teacher-proof,” to support rank novices) and hand it to someone who is a skilled and gifted teacher and expect them to follow that curriculum. In so doing, we break the rule by treated an experienced volunteer like a novice.

In many Unitarian Universalist congregations, volunteer management consists of trying to find warm bodies with no real skills to fill volunteer job vacancies. Instead, we could think of volunteer management as a way of equipping and transforming persons over time so that they acquire valuable skills that will help them carry our larger mission in the world. Take the example of Sunday school teachers: We would still offer the UUA’s teacher-proof curriculums to all teachers, but we would set the expectation that the more experienced a teacher is, the more we expect them to draw on their own skills to create transformative experiences that will help their classes live out the larger mission of our congregation.

To quote Seth Godin once again: “If you treat an expert like a novice, you’ll fail.”

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