Volunteer Management

One Big Reason That Islamic Work is Stressful


There are different kinds of stress when it comes to Islamic work. One kind is good, but exhausting. It is the sheer excitement of working on a project you feel passionate about. It keeps you up at night, it's all you can think about during the day, and all you can focus on is getting it done. That's stressful, but it usually brings about a positive result. There's another kind of stress we deal with that's not quite so happy. It's the type that completely demoralizes you. it is the kind that makes you question why you ever got involved in the first place.

Phil Cooke writes:

Stress happens because our lives are out of sync with what we’re doing for a living. That’s when trade-offs and sacrifices seem the most acute, because our job seems so unmoored from who we are and what we’re born to accomplish with our lives. But when we find that over-arching purpose, the jobs we express that purpose through suddenly have meaning. They don’t seem disconnected from our lives – in fact, we often see our lives reflected through that very work.

That’s why great athletes, entrepreneurs, leaders, artists, and innovators don’t see it as a conflict between “work” and “life,” because it’s all a single expression of someone who has discovered their ultimate purpose.

Islamic work, by definition, involves numerous trade-offs. We sacrifice time that could be spent working, with our families, pursuing hobbies, entertaining ourselves, investing in ourselves, or simply resting.

The negative stress usually results from becoming disconnected with the true purpose of the work.

A volunteer might join an organization that helps provide educational programs. This is a mission they can identify with and are passionate about. But if all their efforts become limited to simply collecting tuitions and chasing payments, they will easily lose sight of the bigger purpose. This is because they no longer see their contribution as actually being directly linked to the initial purpose that attracted them to the organization. Instead of feeling like someone who is facilitating learning for others, they feel like a bill collector. This is where burnout creeps in, and volunteer turnover begins.

Another issue at play here is having a holistic life view when it comes to Islamic work. A person cannot have spent their entire life keeping their children from the masjid, keeping their children from "being religious," staying away from any kind of Islamic class at the masjid - and at the same time serve on the masjid board and take decision making responsibilities for the community's spiritual well-being onto their shoulders. This work they are seeking is diametrically opposed to the reality of their personal life.

This is not only a violation of trust to the community, but it will bring harm to them.

All good efforts will require trade-offs and cause stress. Make sure that you are working for a better purpose for the right reasons. Make sure that what you are working on reflects the rest of your life and the sacrifices will be easier to make.

Why No One Takes You Up on Your Offer to Volunteer


I've been turned down as a volunteer, and turned down those who wanted to volunteer. I remember when I found a great cause and offered to volunteer for it, but I received no response whatsoever. They're probably just disorganized and bad at communicating like most Muslim organizations, right? I've also had the opportunity to work for some major Islamic organizations and was the point person who received requests from people who wanted to help out and volunteer. As particular as I was about replying to everyone who contacted us, these emails got pushed further and further down to the point where I barely replied to them.

The crux of the problem simply boils down to

  1. Not understanding how to communicate with busy people.
  2. Not knowing how to communicate your value.

When a person receives an email that says "I want to volunteer for your organization" it is usually a sincere offer from someone who wants to share in the cause of the organization. The person reading the email actually sees this request as "more work" because they now have to dedicate extra time to figure out a way to actually utilize this person.

If you want to volunteer for an organization, learn to communicate your value effectively. Use the following scripts as examples:

"I noticed that your organization doesn't have a formal logo, I would love to volunteer my design services and send over 3 prototypes for you to review. If you like them then great, if not, no big deal. I've also included a link to my portfolio as a reference so you can see the type of work I produce."

"I love what your organization is doing, I am also very interested in [the primary mission of said organization]. I'd like to volunteer my services if you have any needs. I'm not sure what exactly you need help with, but my background is in X, and I have previously done x,y,z tasks for a,b,c organizations."

It can even be as simple as: "I really love the work you all are doing and want to help out any way I can. I attend X masjid, and would be more than wiling to make announcements or hand out fliers for any upcoming programs you have."

This enables the person on the receiving end to immediately know if they have something they can plug you into or not. Unfortunately the most common volunteer offers are simply general, and they never pan out because the person volunteering doesn't know what they really want to do.

Be specific about how you can help and add value in your communication. This way, even if they don't have an immediate need, when one arises they will remember you because you gave them enough detailed information that they already know you can help and exactly where you fit in.


How to Reprimand a Volunteer


We all know the prophetic saying that our religion is one of giving advice. The problem is, giving advice is more an artform than a science. Reprimands are often necessary, but also often abused. If you're reading this article and getting excited because you want some tips on how to tell someone off for doing a bad job, then you are most likely a bully. That's not to say it may not be needed, but just don't be jumping at the chance to do it all the time.

First ask yourself if a reprimand is even in order? What do you hope to accomplish with the reprimand? If the objective is to seek revenge or embarrass and humiliate someone, then you need to stop. A reprimand should be given with the objective of improving someone's performance or rectifying a situation.

Make sure your reprimand is short. As short as possible. Be direct. Even if it makes them uncomfortable. Do it quickly - don't delay unnecessarily. And never, ever, do a reprimand in a fit of anger.

Make sure you discuss the problem and not the person. Discuss the problem privately. Be gentle on the person, but tough on the problem.

One model for a reprimand is the sandwich. This consists of affirming the person, attacking the problem, and then reaffirming the person.

If you made the mistake, how would you expect to be reprimanded in order to fix the problem?

Dealing With Incompetence


Sometimes you come across a volunteer, MSA president, or masjid board member who is flat out incompetent. They're well intentioned, but no matter how hard they try, they'll just never cut it. They want to help so bad, but their help means double the work for you because you have to hold their hand through the process. Addressing incompetency is a two-step process. First, is fixing your attitude. Second, is actually addressing the incompetence.

Many times, people just need a nudge. Treat them nicely and gently - the same way you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. Don't forget your own incompetencies in different aspects of life.

Look closely at what issues this person is having. Can the problem be fixed with education or mentoring? The problem we face in Islamic organization is not only a lack of time to mentor, but an unwillingness to do so because of territorialism. That's a lethal combination. We all got started with some level of education and mentorship. Step up and provide it for someone else.

Leadership means doing whatever you can to provide what that person needs to be successful. In some cases though, a person will never 'get it' no matter how hard they try (seemingly rare). In this case, try channeling their energies into something they are better suited for.

If, however, you are dealing with a volunteer (or even employee) who is just flat out lazy and won't take any steps to improve, then you need to find a way to politely and amicably help them move on to something else.


Leading Volunteers: Don't Let Them Fade Away


The weird thing about losing volunteers is that you never really know you have lost them. They don't turn in a two week notice, nor do they even usually alert you. Most of the time you will just notice someone who was helping out is no longer there.

Most friendships don't end in a fight. ...

Instead, when one party feels underappreciated, or perhaps taken advantage of, she stops showing up as often. Stops investing. Begins to move on. .... [They'll] probably put [their] best efforts somewhere else.

Just because there are no firestorms on the porch doesn't mean you're doing okay. More likely, there are relationships out there that need more investment... (Seth Godin, Not Fade Away)

What I have noticed in many places is that the usual complaint - "We don't have enough volunteers" - is just simply not true. A more accurate description of the problem would be that there isn't a way to retain volunteers and keep them engaged.

As a leader, you need to make sure that you are nourishing a volunteer's passion. Someone giving up their time for a cause means they care deeply about it. When someone volunteers to make your organization a website, then don't redirect them into handing out fliers after Juma instead. Put them where they want to be.

This is a simple lesson, but most people miss out on it. Having a position of authority does not mean that you have a license to command volunteers like they are troops under your command. In fact, it is this very behavior that makes them feel under-appreciated and disrespected.

Part of the attitude adjustment in dealing with volunteers we have to make is realizing that volunteers are not doing us a favor. They are helping a cause, and that cause is bigger than us (no matter what our position of leadership).

Make sure to constantly thank your volunteers and show them that their efforts mattered. You also need to be constantly asking them how they are doing, how the project or work is going, and if they need anything from you.

You can't do that if you just consider them a 'warm body' or someone inferior to yourself. They're not just someone you're using to get a task done.

You must invest your personal time and commitment into these volunteers. The care and concern you show is what creates brotherhood and sisterhood in an Islamic organization.

It also gives you a heads up before a volunteer can fade away.

Leading Volunteers: Unity and Gossip

It goes without saying that most Islamic organizations suffer from a lack of unity.

There are 3 main causes of disunity within Islamic organizations:

  1. Poor Communication
  2. Gossip (highlighted due to its prevalence in our communities)
  3. Lack of a Shared Purpose [Video: Role of the Masjid]

Communication is an easy indicator of unity. When people don't know what's going on, strife will set in.

The lack of communication creates an environment that nurtures gossip. People are not involved because of a paycheck or something else that ties them down. When they don't feel part of the process, they will talk. Unresolved disagreements also play a role. When leadership is unaware of disagreements, or leadership tries to simply avoid confrontation, then there is a communication breakdown. Gossip then usually becomes the outlet by which people release that pressure and frustration.

This does not mean that frustration is a bad thing - actually, it shows that people care. But there is a line between frustration and gossip. Confrontation can (and should) be dealt with quickly. Wounds can be patched up and people can make up and move forward on a unified front.

Gossip occurs when a negative issue is discussed with someone who cannot help solve the problem. It is, hands down, one of the most destructive things that any organization or community can face. For example, a board member should not be raising complaints about the imam with the masjid treasurer.

Anas related that the Prophet (saw) said, "Do you know what calumny is? .. [It is] conveying the words of some people to others in order to create mischief between them. [Adab al-Mufrad]

Unity can never be achieved when people speak ill of each other. It creates negative feelings in the heart, and an environment of distrust and animosity. When teammates in sports fight with each other, it makes it difficult for them to perform well together on the field. Gossip in an Islamic organization is the same principle, but with much worse consequences.

We should seriously consider implementing decisive consequences for gossip. How quickly would our organizations change if there was immediate termination for gossip? Board member found gossiping about the masjid president? Immediately kicked out.

It's true, you will lose volunteers that are hard to find in the first place - but I would contend that losing a volunteer is better than having a volunteer that spreads something as destructive as gossip.

A team must be cohesive. They must share a purpose, and have the autonomy (and dignity) to do their work. In football, when the ball is snapped, all 11 people on the team know exactly what they need to be doing. Every receiver knows which route to run. Every lineman knows who to block and in which direction. They don't even need to talk to each other, they know what to do. Even when the play breaks down, and something unexpected happens, it does not shake them. A lineman, whose only duty is to block, may suddenly recover a fumble and be in possession of the ball. He has never gotten the ball in a game before, but because the team shares the same purpose (move the ball down the field), he knows to start running the other way. His teammates know that they need to run and block for him.

In the above example, the unexpected happened. Someone ended up being forced into something they're not used to. Did they need to hold a board meeting to figure out what to do? Did they need to call time out and exchange 25 emails to develop  a new policy and procedure for what happens when the lineman is forced to recover a fumble? Did they stop and have a fight and yell at the guy who fumbled the ball?

No. They had a shared vision. They had a shared purpose. Their communication before the game was so good, that they didn't even need to speak. They simply saw what happened, and every individual knew exactly what their response to the situation should be.

That's unity.

Leading Volunteers: How To Treat Them With Dignity


"None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." (Bukhārī)

Building loyalty within a team at work, a place where people's livelihoods depend on the job, is already difficult enough. So how about when that team consists of volunteers who are only there out of their own free will?

This, like many other issues, is a leadership issue. Volunteers are reporting to a board or committee. The board and committee are often reporting back to a president or amīr of some sort. Even with small and loose volunteer groups, there is still some level of hierarchy and leaders are responsible for those volunteers 'under' them.

Even if you're not in leadership, these are still important tips to help those who are volunteering - and building loyalty within your community or organization.

The rules for this are simple, and don't require much elaboration.

People are humans. They have dreams, fears, and families. They have jobs, they have responsibilities, and they have life in general to deal with. Stop treating them like units of production. Treat them with dignity by showing them that you care. Know their names, know about their families and their kids. Ask about them (sincerely). If you can't show them that you actually care about them - as a person - then don't expect any loyalty from your volunteers.

When you see someone do something you would expect praise for, then praise your volunteers.

Whoever does not thank people (for their favors) has not thanked Allah (properly). [Ahmad]

When you make a mistake, you would expect people to overlook and pardon you. Do the same with your volunteers. The second you get up and berate or rip a volunteer is the same second that they will make the decision to never come back.

So when it comes time for reprimanding someone for making a mistake, give proper naṣīḥah. It needs to be prompt and private. And it needs to be done with mercy - hoping for rectification and hoping for the best for your brother or sister.

When you know you are competent enough to do a task, you usually hate it when someone micromanages you. Leave your volunteers alone. Let them work.

Above all, put yourself in their shoes. Treat them the way you want to be treated.