Tourist – Traveler – Guide. This is the journey of the volunteer. The great failure of volunteer coordinators lies in expecting tourists to act like guides, treating guides like tourists, and ignoring the traveler all-together. Its time we meet people where they’re at. Here’s what you need to know to get started:

Stop treating everyone the same

When volunteers show up for the first time, we generally try to give them the same opportunities, attention, responsibilities and recognition as we do those who have been volunteering for years. Seems appropriate but it’s not. It’s wrong. Here’s why: people are not the same. We are all at different stages on the journey. Some of us are tourists, some travelers, others guides, and the rest? Well, they’re somewhere in between.

Recognize the differences

The Tourist: Tourists are excited, enthusiastic and a little stumbly as they figure out what they’re looking for. The space is new and the potential is endless. Tourists want to love their experience; but first impressions are paramount. If it doesn’t meet their needs, they’ll probably never come back. No problem. This is the group from which you will discover the best and most loyal of your volunteers. Do not expect long-term commitment from this group – they’re not ready yet.

The Traveler: Travelers have been here before. They know where to go when they arrive and what they like doing best. At this stage, volunteers begin to invest in the cause. Because the space begins to feel like “theirs” they will ask hard questions and even begin to complain a little (which is a good sign that they’re connecting emotionally.) Travelers want to be seen and heard. They want someone to confirm that they belong here. Discover them; give them space to continue to the next stage.

The Guide: Guides know they are home and will show the way for tourists and travelers. This group is as dependable as the Executive Director, and maybe even more committed. There are only a few of them, but they will lead your organization into the future. Do not treat these volunteers like first-timers; do not give them buttons and trinkets as thank you’s. They own the space; treat them as such.

What you need

As a Tourist: You require spaces of discovery where you are free to investigate. At this point, pressure and obligation will only hinder you, so long-term commitments aren’t really what you’re after. You’re at your best when compelled to ask better questions and go beyond what you’ve always known and believed.

As a Traveler: You need permission to feel some ownership, which in some cases will mean you’re a little angry and a little confused. You know that committing to this organization is akin to committing to a relationship: If you never get past the infatuation stage to start getting angry, hurt and wounded, then you probably never cared much in the first place. When things don’t matter, things are easy. You are ready for substance and you hope that the organization can prove to you that they’re ready for your investment.

As a Guide: You need a space brimming with offers of high-level, contributing responsibility. You know they know you’ll take care of the ditch-digging every time, but they respect you too much for that. You need to be treated carefully because, like a long-term relationship, this kind of commitment is rare and fragile – not to be taken lightly.

Paying attention to people’s differences is not as difficult as it may seem. Check back in next time for a few guidelines on what it looks like to work with Tourists, Travelers and Guides as they journey through the 3 stages of a volunteer.

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