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Positioning Volunteers for Success: Training

Posted on October 23, 2015

Last week, I was honored to give the Keynote and also present a leadership workshop at The Conference on Volunteerism presented by Directors of Volunteers in Agencies Colorado. To prepare, I spent considerable time contemplating how the trauma informed movement applies to volunteers within helping organizations. I would like to share a few of my conclusions over the next couple of weeks.

The first insight I had was the importance of volunteer training, both in self-care and in the impact of trauma. Too often in my career I’ve witnessed unprepared volunteers be confronted with aggressive or seemingly manipulative behavior, without a context in which to interpret the behavior, which is generally a reaction to stress or a survival response. This has too often led to inappropriate, though understandable, reactions by the volunteers, which leave both client and volunteer unhappy with the experience. Too often, this unhappiness is connected, by both the client and volunteer, to the quality of the organization to which both are connected.

My fear is that this one interaction can stay with the volunteer and dominate their thinking about those experiencing poverty, homelessness, addiction, or mental health issues. Without a context, the brain naturally will generalize a specific experience to others experiencing similar issues. We not only lose the chance to provide the volunteer with a positive experience, they will often share this negative experience with others who do not have a larger context in which to put the story. Not only can this lead to a negative reputation of the organization in the community, it can also further demonize an already-misunderstood population.

My second insight on training was regarding the self-care of the volunteer. Those of us who work in the helping professions can expose ourselves to high levels of stress, stories of traumatic events, and escalated behavioral reactions, and not be shaken by most of these intense experiences (at least, most of the time). Many of those outside the helping professions have not built up this resiliency, and are at much greater risk for secondary and vicarious trauma.

Knowing that one of the best ways to prevent the transfer of trauma is to understand the psychological dangers inherent to our work, it is important to make sure volunteers know these risks and how to identify when they might have been impacted. While I appreciate that time is often limited with volunteers, I also think it is important that they are aware that their work, especially if they volunteer over a long period of time, can have a psychological impact, and that volunteer leaders and other staff are there to support them.

Training is key to providing a safe and meaningful volunteer experience. In the next post, I will talk about volunteers as advocates. Without training, this advocacy will not have the power it might if the volunteers had a fuller understanding of the work and the people they are volunteering to serve.

3 responses to “Positioning Volunteers for Success: Training”

  1. Hello Matt now I know who are.i had to retire a year ago broke,but please continue your information.Thanks

  2. Hello Matt I know who u r now I retired broke but a survivor.I would still love your articles please continue to send them if there is no charge.Thanks

  3. Sarah Stacy says:

    This blog filled a real void in my thinking as I engage volunteers AND staff in a program serving people who are experiencing chronic homelessness at the same time as they are experiencing mental health and substance abuse issues. “Without a context, the brain naturally will generalize a specific experience to others experiencing similar issues. We not only lose the chance to provide the volunteer with a positive experience, they will often share this negative experience with others who do not have a larger context in which to put the story. Not only can this lead to a negative reputation of the organization in the community, it can also further demonize an already-misunderstood population.” That resonates with me and as I reach to “rebrand” the population in my community, it’s a lesson that bears much weight and thought!

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