I was having a conversation with the Executive Director of the local branch of the Mustard Seed a month or two ago. He told me that “levels of volunteering go down when clients have complex needs”. And it makes sense. If you have a neighbour who has mobility issues, it’s easy to grab your snow shovel and help clear their driveway.
What do you do, though, when your neighbour is homeless, addicted to narcotics and has suffered a lifetime of physical and mental abuse? There is no easy solution.
Volunteers and would-be volunteers feel overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of complex needs. There are a few reasons for this.
First, there can be a feeling of inadequacy.
Volunteers (whether informal or part of an organization) may not feel equipped to handle the specific challenges that come with working with people with multiple diagnoses. Passion and desire, while necessary, just aren’t enough. The tiny, incremental advances – and massive setbacks – experienced by clients in these situations can leave the volunteer feeling that there’s little point in continuing. There are no silver bullets, no quick fixes. It is never “one and done”.
Second, the emotional involvement can leave volunteers burnt out.
Volunteers often become emotionally exhausted by the challenges they face when working with these clients. Dealing with individuals who have complex needs is emotionally draining, and volunteers may feel overwhelmed by the stories they hear and the experiences they witness. Also, because of the often transitory living arrangements of these clients, they may not stay around long enough for a volunteer to witness any measurable improvement.
Finally, there can be some level of physical risk to the volunteer.
If, when in a shelter, a client experiences a “bad trip” while using a narcotic, or if they undergo a psychotic episode, it can happen that a volunteer is injured or even attacked. Even if the volunteer isn’t directly involved, simply watching someone who has lost control is scary.
Serving clients like these isn’t for everyone.
So, what can you do about it?
If you’re with an organization that serves clients with complex needs there are a few strategies you can use to keep your volunteers engaged.
Thorough, targeted training. Cover things like trauma-informed care, mental first aid, administering naproxen, conflict resolution, cultural sensitivity, etc. Talk about expectations. That they shouldn’t judge their impact based on seeing improvement in clients. Remind volunteers that they are still making a difference even if they don’t see any change. That action and result are often not closely related in time.
Put a strong support network in place for the volunteers. Ensure that each volunteer has at least one person that they can go to to “decompress” after a difficult shift. If possible, provide professional counselling after major incidents. Always be willing to listen when a volunteer needs to talk. Consider creating a community forum – online or in person – where volunteers can go to share experiences and learn from those who have been around a while. Having a support network can improve a volunteer’s resilience and greatly reduce burnout.
3. Safety protocols.
This, obviously, is critical, and just about all organizations who work with clients with complex needs have them in place. What sometimes happens, though, is that prospective volunteers aren’t aware of them, and current volunteers don’t know the details. In the first case, a person may be unwilling to volunteer at all. In the second, someone may get hurt because they didn’t know all the steps involved, or didn’t understand the importance of a particular step and so skipped it. Ensure that your safety protocols are clear and available to everyone.
Always, always, always, show appreciation to volunteers. Tell them every shift how much you appreciate their help. Be as specific as possible. Saying “Thank you, you were a big help today” is great, but if you can say “Thank you! I saw how much time you spent with Ann when she came in so upset. You really made her feel welcome and safe.”, the volunteer knows that you really do notice and value their contribution. That kind of compliment goes a long, long way to keeping volunteers engaged and contributing.
Yes, it is harder to find and retain volunteers when the needs of clients are complex. But it is possible. And once you find the right people, train them, support them and appreciate them, the difference made in the lives of the clients can be priceless.