Yesterday I attended a book sale hosted by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. This event helps raise money for the organization and related programs.
As I entered the vast exhibit space, I was confronted by a football field of books. They were divided into categories (business, fiction, fantasy, etc.). I also observed male and female volunteers scattered around the room. They wore red and blue aprons as they unpacked books, provided information to shoppers, and rang up purchases. The book sale would not have happened without this legion of volunteers.
While I was waiting to pay for my books, I noticed an agitated gentleman across a table from one of the volunteer cashiers. I don’t know what upset him so much. All I heard were the words, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m just a volunteer” coming from the mouth of the cashier. She was doing her best to assuage his concerns.
“I’m just a volunteer” has been ringing in my ears since I left the book sale. Why? Three reasons:
1. It suggests there’s a hierarchy at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. It may be real or perceived, with staff at the top and volunteers beneath them. In either case, I’d surmise that the organization could improve volunteer recognition. More important, volunteers need to gain a better understanding of their role in the organization.
2. Volunteers need better preparation to handle difficult situations like the one I witnessed. They also could have directed the shopper to a paid staff person who could better address the problem. Volunteer status is not an excuse; the goal is to serve and find a solution.
3. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between paid staff and volunteers. Besides, I wouldn’t expect less service from someone just because they are not paid for their work.
I would never proclaim “I’m just a volunteer.” I believe my work is as important and necessary as paid staff. I hope the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library volunteers soon feel likewise.
Addendum: I continue to encounter this "I'm a volunteer and I'm less than" attitude in my work. Read about a later encounter here.