On this episode I speak with Eric Wolverton. I met Eric when he worked at the local food bank and then we partnered on projects when he was the Executive Director at Habitat for Humanity here in Flagstaff, AZ. Eric shares his insights and lessons from those jobs as well as from his early childhood growing up on a family farm.
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Full Transcript of the episode:
ANNOUNCER: This is Do Good, Be Good, the show about helpful people and the challenges they face in trying to do good. You host is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom, a career do-gooder who also loves craft beer and a good hard tackle in rugby. Sharon speaks to everyday people about why they do good and what it means to be good.TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: This season was brought to you by VolunteerPro. VolunteerPro provides online volunteer management training, coaching and community to leaders and volunteers at all levels. Learn more at VolPro.net. And stay tuned for later in the show when I’ll tell you about a special discount for our listeners.
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WOLVERTON: I grew up in rural New Jersey on a 150 acre farm. We had more of a tight-knit community. To be quite frank, volunteerism wasn’t something that I heard about growing up. We had a lot of families that actually supported our family farm and they would help us harvest and grow our produce and then in return they would reap the benefits from getting free produce for their families; usually it was working poor families that were looking for that option to take advantage of.
I remember frequently watching my father weld many apparatuses together for neighbors that didn’t have the tools and the expertise to do it, and not a single time did he ever charge anyone. It was just a matter of it was a neighbor helping a neighbor.
TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: Today I’m speaking to Eric Wolverton. I first met Eric when he was working at the local food bank and then I continued to partner with him when he moved over to be the Executive Director at Flagstaff’s Habitat for Humanity. I asked Eric about his experience working at Habitat.
WOLVERTON: Well Habitat comes in, they build a house and then people can apply for it. And it’s really meant for the working poor which used to be once upon a time the middle class. But there are a lot of people with pride and they’re scared to participate in those programs. And I consider them to be a volunteer in the program because, number one, they have to participate in building a home and, more importantly, they have to participate by paying off the home. So community dollars got involved into creating the home, but now they’re paying it back to Habitat through a mortgage payment.
And a lot of people don’t feel that they’re deserving, that they fit the criteria, that it should go to somebody else more in need. Yet that’s really nice that they think that way and that they feel that way, but at the same time just because they’re dealing with the same type of struggles as a lot of people in Flagstaff are, there are still lots of opportunity for them to give back.
You know, with Habitat the way their model works is for every home they build with community dollars, they’re receiving mortgages on all these homes. And if you multiply Habitat homes, then the mortgage payments themselves, the original community dollars end up going back into the Habitat coffers to build more homes. It’s a great domino effect. So it’s a reason why for 40 years plus Habitat has grown exponentially, because it’s sustainable. But it takes volunteers with checks that want to better themselves to make it happen. And so if people feel that they’re not warranted to have that opportunity, then it breaks down the whole program. So in that sense, it’s kind of a unique way, a lot of people don’t — again, people don’t think a checkbook is a way of volunteering, it really is.
TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: After Eric left, I started thinking about his statement that the checkbook is a way of volunteering. Lately I’ve been listening to Gabby Dunn’s podcast “Bad With Money.” She interviews people who are often left behind or marginalized by the financial system. On a recent episode, her guest spoke about not paying back student loan debt. And her guest explained that she didn’t really feel guilty about taking money from the federal government without a plan to pay it back. When she said that, it bothered me. I realized that I do believe that paying back federally backed student loans is a part of being a good citizen.
As Eric explained in this example, the Habitat model depended on people accepting help from others in the form of community dollars and volunteer labor to build a house and that’s nice and good, but the most critical part of the model was actually when the new homeowners pay back their mortgage and then that money that they pay is able to be leveraged to help other people. For certain financial instruments like federally backed student loans, federal taxes, even credit unions, there’s an ability to help others by leveraging money. The ability to leverage money depends on the assumption that people, at least most people, will make every effort to pay the money back or to fulfill their financial responsibilities. When I think about doing good, I usually think about how people help others directly, though their actions, but this got me thinking about ways that are decisions about money and personal responsibility factored into building a strong community.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts. After this short break, we’ll hear more from Eric.
When I first started working as a volunteer coordinator, I had no experience, no training, I was learning on the job and it was painful. I definitely could have used VolunteerPro. Their site has volunteer management training and coaching. So if you were “voluntold” into volunteer management, this site is for you. Right now they’re offering our listeners $100 off an annual membership. Go to VolPro.net and use the promo code PROPOWER. That’s VolPro.net, promo code PROPOWER. Now back to our show.
WOLVERTON: Volunteerism should be fun. I’ve always told my paid staff whenever a bad day would occur at work — and we’ve all had them — and I would say you know what, I’m really sorry you’re having a having a bad day at work, that’s the reason why you’re on the payroll, and if your job was easy I would find a volunteer to do it. But there are certain jobs that aren’t fun, that are monotonous, that are just you don’t want to go in every day and so you have to have the influence of pay to do it. So volunteerism really should be focused on having fun, being part of a network.
TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: And so I’ve been part of this thought process myself about — because I definitely went through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, how do you support your volunteers by making them feel, you know, taken care of so that then they want to give because they feel like their needs are being met. But then I started questioning it because a lot of the people I’ve seen who are really dedicated volunteers, they are asked to sacrifice to be a volunteer.
So for instance I now got involved with the theater and oh my goodness, you are sacrificing time and sleep and sometimes you’re bleeding onstage and we’ve had so many people who just push themselves to the limit to be a volunteer with the theater and yet those bonds that they form and the connection that they feel to the theater seems to get stronger the more it’s difficult and the more is asked of them.
WOLVERTON: Absolutely. Well I think that’s what brings everybody together, you know. If it’s the trials or tribulations of running a family farm, you’re going to ask your neighbors for some help, you know. And you’re going to grow a relationship off that and a lot of respect for those other people that are going to support you. Absolutely. I think that the harder the task is — again within means — then you can definitely grow great culture. That also has a boundary in itself because many organizations will find their shining star volunteers and then take advantage of them. And then they will exhaust them to the point where they can’t or don’t want to volunteer any more, because they’re being treated more like an employee than a volunteer.
And so there is a very fine line, taking your gold star volunteers, using them to the best of their potential so that way they can grow themselves and feel like they’re accomplishing things, but not exhausting them to the point where they end up leaving you.
TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: Do you think that that — because you said by treating them like an employee, but do you think it has more to do with how you value them? Like you’re valuing the employee partly by paying them so that’s one way that you show that. So if you have someone that’s working as many hours or has as much responsibility as a paid staff member and they are unpaid, that maybe there’s some other commensurate value that you have to give that person to show them what they’re worth to your organization.
TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: Or else they’ll feel taken advantage of because they won’t feel valued.
WOLVERTON: Yeah. I think whether you’re a volunteer or you’re a paid person, it’s up to the leadership of any and all organizations of all sectors to make sure that you recognize them. And everybody wants to be pat on the back. Volunteerism isn’t really created so that way people feel good about themselves, they just want to go out and do good for their community. But by all means, we’re all human beings, we all have egos — some small, some big — and we just like to be recognized, we like to be thanked.
I know we found lots of ways to be able to try to show that thanks, obviously we couldn’t do it with a cash bonus because they’re not a paid employee at the end of the year. What we could do is we could go buy a gift card for a restaurant so that way that gold star volunteer could take his family out to a nice meal. And hopefully that would show some appreciation for all the efforts that he made throughout that period of time that they volunteered.
Some organizations can’t afford that. And quite frankly, some organizations again just take advantage of the fact that they can acquire free labor. It’s not a sustainable model, if they’re not supporting those volunteers because they will get tired and they will move on to some other organization that will treat them better.
TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: Eric brings up a bunch of different issues here. What is the difference between volunteers and paid staff? How are volunteers motivated? Is it the responsibility of paid staff to take care of volunteers? Each of these questions opens up a new conversation about our understanding of people and why they do good. And what challenges people face in trying to help others. These questions are why I started this podcast. In our final clip, Eric takes on one more aspect of volunteer management.
WOLVERTON: It’s a constant battle for non-profits that work in social service organizations of ensuring that when they ask for volunteers that they keep the volunteer busy; a real difficult situation to do because you never know how many volunteers you’re going to get. It’s a common methodology that if you get 10 volunteers that sign up for a program, you’re guaranteed to see at least two.
You never know if you’re going to get an outpouring of a large church group last minute and they showed up and you’re not prepared for 20 people when you only needed 10. And quite frankly it only takes five minutes of boredom and at that point you’ve wasted valuable time to a bunch of individuals. And we’re in a society now where every minute is valued.
TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: So did you have that happen one time? At least one time?
WOLVERTON: Several times. Lots of times.
Well back when I used to be the director of St. Mary’s Food Bank up here in Northern Arizona it was very difficult to keep up with the logistics and make sure that we had the food materials up here for our volunteers to package into individual food boxes. And so if we didn’t have the product on hand and we asked say a business volunteer group to come in and participate in that project, they’re let down.
TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: So you’ve got like sparse number of canned food on the shelves and you’ve got all these people coming to do their good deed as a group and then they show up and they’re like what.
WOLVERTON: They’ll just look up at the rafters and be confused. There’s no direction because the staff’s not sure what to do. Next thing you know, we’re just coming up with jobs for people that really aren’t necessary. We’re giving them quote, unquote busy work. That’s not really what volunteers want to be doing, they want to serve a mission. So if they’re going to go to a food bank and they have the expectations that they’re going to be building food boxes and then the organization doesn’t meet those expectations, it’s not a matter that you’re missing out on that one opportunity, it’s just that you’re missing out on future opportunity.
TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: And then some business person from that group comes at the end and says you know you should really run this more like a business.
WOLVERTON: You could have that, or they could just say it looks like you don’t need our help, you know, and so the next time when you really need their help and you reach out to them what are they going to think? Well they didn’t really need my help last time or they weren’t organized and they weren’t ready for me. All of that is a constant struggle across the board when it comes to really non-profit volunteerism.
TEWKSBURY-BLOOM: Well that’s a wrap. Thank you for listening to Do Good, Be Good. And thanks to everyone who has subscribed to this podcast, you’re seriously my favorite people. Please subscribe on ITunes to get the next episode when it is released next Wednesday.
Next week we have a special episode that was recorded at the Cole Haan Pop Up Studio during the Work It podcasting festival in Los Angeles. It was an amazing festival, and I am so excited to bring you a conversation with Christy Westfall, a pediatric nurse practitioner from California.
For show notes on this episode, visit dogoodbegoodshow.com. That is also where you can find the discount code for VolunteerPro and more information about Do Good Be Good.
Thanks again to Eric Wolverton for coming in to chat.
Thanks to our hosts, Sun Sounds of Arizona, for the recording space. Music in this episode was the track Coal Miners by Art of Escapism available at the Free Music Archive.
Until next week, this is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom signing off.