Or, how child development can teach us a thing or two about speaking up

I have never forgotten something that I learned back when I worked for a CASA program.  At the time, there was a therapist who could come in and give inservices on child development. This therapist used to say that people need two important things for healthy emotional development.

  • To have their thoughts and feelings validated, and ―
  • To be admired

This principle has resonated for me ever since because it doesn’t just apply to infants and children. As adults, we still need to be seen and recognized – even when others disagree.

Think about the last time you were in conflict with someone. Did you feel validated and admired? No, of course not. And I bet it was the lack of validation or admiration that made you feel angry or resentful.

Now think about a time when you felt a connection to someone else, secure, and trustful that this person was in your corner. Chances are that you felt seen, affirmed, and supported.

When you’re a child, an able caregiver will be sensitive to the signals that you need emotional security and respond right away. As an adult, though, you can’t wait for others to tune into your needs.

You must put yourself out there and make your voice heard for others to recognize your accomplishments.

Take my friend “Judy” (we had lunch the other day and this story is pretty recent, hence the name change).

Judy is the volunteer manager for a large program that places hundreds of volunteers in all kinds of roles, from high-commitment year-long positions to one-time assignments. Like many of us, she is a department of one. She manages to market, orient, screen, train, and schedule these hundreds of volunteers all by herself, with an intern’s help this past summer.

It will come as no surprise that Judy felt stretched to her limit. She worked hard – often checking her email on evenings or weekends to stay on top of her tasks and put out the fires as they came up. She was starting to feel burned out and resentful – and in desperate need of help.

What frustrated Judy most was that management did not seem aware of her efforts to keep the volunteer program operating with limited resources. It was as if they could not see what she was able to accomplish with a small budget and no staff.

My friend “Judy” backed up her case for support with plenty of data – including tallies of her email activity

This summer Judy decided that she had to speak up. She approached her supervisor about making changes, such as hiring an assistant to share the work load. She made her case – in writing – by detailing exactly where her time was spent and quantified the time spent of every task. She even tallied up the time spent reading and replying to the hundreds of emails she received each week from current or prospective volunteers. She also made recommendations for moving forward.

In other words, Judy gathered the data that her leaders needed to make an informed decision.

The upshot? Judy did not receive her assistant – but she did achieve her goal.

When management met to discuss Judy’s report, they recognized the complexity of her role, and they put their heads together to find ways to streamline her workload.  Some tasks were taken off her plate and some were delegated to others on the team. Other responsibilities were dropped entirely.

By collecting the data and writing out a summation of the volume of her work, Judy and her supervisors came up with a different and equally acceptable solution to her problem. They affirmed her concerns, welcomed her ideas, and addressed her needs.

Judy accomplished something else, too, and it’s pretty significant. She led a group of decision-makers to a broader understanding and respect for what’s involved in running a volunteer program.

It makes me wonder:

What if every overloaded volunteer manager spoke up and gave this kind of detailed explanation of their role? Wouldn’t that one action, multiplied by the thousands of us out there, go a long way towards educating our decision-makers about what it really takes to run a thriving volunteer program?

When we advocate for ourselves, we advocate for the entire profession.

By speaking up about our needs we improve our working conditions AND we help to change the prevailing perception of volunteer engagement as a simple, low-skill occupation.

International Volunteer Managers Appreciation Day (IVMDay) is just around the corner. It’s the moment when volunteer engagement professionals make themselves visible on a global scale. This year’s theme is “Be the Voice.”

You don’t need to become a full-out activist to make an impact with your voice. Like Judy, it’s more about making the decision to speak up instead of waiting for someone to notice you.  When you take that step, you gain greater validation and admiration for yourself – and for all of us.


Wondering how to make your case? My Six Principles of Buy-In will help ensure that your voice gets heard. Email me for the handout and worksheet.  – Elisa