Sunday, June 12, 2005

I'll call ya back.....

Man, oh man, if my experience is typical.....and apparently it is....

OK, here's the background. My daughter, Caitlin, is 17 and just finished her junior year in high school. She's in the top 10% of her class, National Honor Society, class officer, student council officer, works with Best Buddies, directs student plays, and on and on. A typical over-achieving high schooler.

Last summer she hung around not "finding" jobs. Fool me once, as the saying goes. So, around Christmas time, I told her in no uncertain terms:

"Find a paying job of at least 20 hours a week by June 1 (3 days before the end of school) or I will find you a 30 hour a week volunteering job. No ifs ands or buts. You will be a contributing citizen this summer-for pay or for free."

Caitlin looked for work at Spring break and then pretty much steadily from May 15 on. Got a couple of interviews, and got one offer for a short term job for a period she was going to be out of town. Bottom line: she looked (perhaps not everywhere her parents wanted) and came up empty.

I saw this coming. So in April, I called a bunch of local nonprofits I know who use volunteers, from the hospitals to human service groups, to nursing homes, to arts groups. Told them my daughter was probably going to be available (cynical me, I know) for volunteering this summer. During that round of calls, I caught most people on a first call. People were nice, said there were opportunities, and to call back in June. I felt prepared. Note: Important point here--I didn't have to leave any messages to have people return my calls.

Then, June 1 comes and I start calling. And calling, and calling, and calling. With two exceptions, NO one called me back. Out of 12 organizations, all of whom professed a desire for teen volunteers in April, only two returned my call. One of the two orgs that responded I have a long term relationship with (having been on their board years ago). The other place is, of course, where Caitlin starts volunteering tomorrow, a faith-based retirement community.

I was amazed, saddened frustrated; so I moaned about this to my friends, most of whom are in the business world. They looked at me like I was on drugs.

"You were surprised? Nonprofits never call back. It's their culture - crisis management" said one woman. "I can't get them to call back when I want to donate things, offer to help, offer them money. It's ridiculous. I've stopped trying. The money I used to give all over the community, I just give to my church, or online to international relief agencies. Of course, all I get is an automated email response. But at least I get something!"

A male friend talked about calling Habitat for Humanity in three different communities (he's in the military) over 10 years when his sons were teens, because he wanted to work with his sons on a Habitat house. "In every case, I called, left messages, told them about our carpentry skills (this guy built a retirement home with his own hands) and offered to help. In every case I called 3-4 times. In every case, I never heard back."

Another friend said that his daughter, another National Honor Society (NHS) student, has had calls from only 1 of 20 places she called to volunteer (NHS kids are required to volunteer a certain number of hours per month). Were these cold calls? NO! These were to agencies on the approved NHS list--and the only way you get on the list is by asking to be put on!

After 25 years of supposedly improving management skills, we can't get this simple, common courtesy right? Do organizations realize how hideous a reputation they build when they can't get the little things done?

Advice for you: Check your own organization. Find out how quickly your organization gets calls back. And just don't ask your staff. Test this. Have some friends, neighbors, relatives (people your staff doesn't know) call the organization at off hours, and leave messages. See how long it takes to get return calls. And, don't accept the excuse from staff that "I've been busy", or "I was at a meeting out of town" or, "I was on vacation." People should be setting up systems to acknowledge the call and respond.

The caller (donor, volunteer, citizen in need) doesn't care where you are, or how busy you are. He or she expects the common courtesy of a reaction, a call, a contact of some sort.


Jennifer Reynolds said...

Working in the nonprofit arena, I am completly familiar from the other side...and I agree. I feel horrible when I get lost in what I've been working on and forget to return a call to someone who is trying to become involved wiht my mission-based organization, and I don't get back to them in a timely manner. My only defense is that I spend so much time with my mind going in 20 directions that I lose track of the amount of time between a call and a return. Does anyone have any advice on how to fix a situation like this when it occurs, or a system to be more efficinet in this area?

Rosanna Tarsiero said...

Peter, congratulations on how you are raising your daughter. That's really neat.

And as for the rest, nonprofits (especially in this era, and especially American ones) feel they are accountable when it comes to donor money first and foremost. Then about mission. Rarely about human touch, sadly.

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