On Management, Volunteering and Gifts vs. Exchanges

This week I wrote a proposal for a community organization that I’d like to work with. Normally designers go into these kind of projects doing pro bono work upfront, with the idea getting written into the proposal later. I made a specific request to be compensated financially at a reduced rate. I learned from my experience working for Public Architecture, that pro bono time is good and important, but you need to make sure you have skin in the game on both sides.

Otherwise, you’re in danger of the project never going anywhere and then both sides lose. Asking for some kind of exchange means that your community partner is committing to even make the thinking time to figure out how they could put resources towards the larger vision that you’ll be working on. When I think back, this idea of exchange of value, whether financial or not has been a pretty central thread in most of my working relationships.

I remember an early job I had in which the leadership had a hard time letting go of creative control and found it very difficult to give their staff autonomy and the ability to grow into skills. I watched the staff of the practice turn over fairly rapidly as people learned what they could by being new and then moved onto opportunities they could grow into. I too was frustrated in that job and I put so much energy into ways I could serve the organization and still grow in my skills and feel challenged. For a long time I thought it was my problem. I kept thinking if I was more talented at graphic design and presenting information with visual acuity that then I would finally get some responsibility.

It was actually a very productive time of life for me and terms of skills I have now. I was so frustrated at work that every weekend I would check out stacks of books on graphic design read them through and try to accelerate my learning so that I could finally be allowed to do even 5 to 10% creative work on the job.

But it wasn’t me it was them… Or maybe I was a tad inpatient and I started out without the requisite experience but by the time I upped my abilities there was still no room for growth. And in the end, I used that challenge to study up on the skills I was missing and apply them once I got hired by a company that saw them as an asset.

One of the strange things though, is that sense that my aesthetics weren’t good enough hung around me like a cloud all the way through graduate school even until recently. Somehow I convinced myself that I was a smart thinker and storyteller, but my visual design skills are somehow secretly terrible and I was hiding their inadequacy behind a wall of ‘smooth talking.’ It was only until I sat down at a number of interviews long after I graduated and heard people repeatedly say that my work was beautiful that I realized how much I didn’t believe it on a deep level.

In Build Yourself+, my workshop for women in design we call these ideas “crushers” based on the concept in the book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young. Your crusher is the particular source of your feeling of inadequacy that you carry around with you… Young suggests that the statement you’d most feared being said aloud is your crusher.

But I digress. When I worked for Public Architecture, I was tasked with setting up a volunteer program.Time-strapped nonprofits often need volunteers but they find them hard to work with because oftentimes they’re so short on operational time themselves that they can’t even spare the time to manage them properly. They also don’t want to invest training in someone who may turn out to be a flake.

My solution: We would only work with volunteers who would commit to working with us for a significant period of time in which we could get high-quality work out of them. We would engage in a conversation with them to agree on the work we needed, the skills exposure they wanted, and how they might align.

It wasn’t about financial exchange but it was an exchange of human value and it was absolutely inspired by the “how not to manage” rules I’d learned previously.

I currently “mentor” a friend who’s working with me in a community project that I run. She volunteered to do anything that needed to be done. I’m of course taking on her offer to do grunt work, but I’ve specifically asked her to look for ways in which she might grow and build skills in the role as well.

Thinking about our volunteer relationships as an exchange of value rather than just a gift leads to respect for each others’ contributions and involvement. Initiating a conversation about exchange also leads to clear expectations and the ability for each side to ask for what they’d like and then to work out together, with a sense of realism what each side can give. It leaves room for autonomy and self-respect and leads to collaboration and growth.

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