At Thrive DC we have great respect for our clients. They are survivors! Their story matters. They fight back despite a lack of shelter and face challenge after challenge, often with no network to lend support.
For first time volunteers, it can be hard to see our clients for who they are underneath the surface issues of clothing, smell, attitude, or situation. Many of our volunteers are meeting the homeless for the first time! They come with natural expectations and stereotypes, and often leave Thrive DC with a powerful experience of getting to know real people, not stereotypes.
However, those who have a negative experience often have the same criticism: that clients did not say “thank you” when volunteers were serving them meals or distributing coffee or toiletries.
Expecting positive feedback can be toxic for volunteers as service work does not require the person being served to be grateful. It can create a bad experience for the volunteer and a bad environment for the client who needs most of all a safe space and welcoming atmosphere.
Thrive DC works with a community that is struggling and needs advocates. Hearing volunteers give negative feedback about those they serve is discouraging, since it means we failed to help them get engaged and they missed out on the opportunity to get to know amazing people.
With that in mind, here are our Top 5 ways to have a great volunteer experience:
Openness: Being comfortable with strangers is not easy. But a big smile and eye contact go a long way to making people feel comfortable. Body language is a huge part of communication. Disinterested volunteers stand out to staff and clients and look unapproachable.
Acceptance: Volunteers that keep from passing judgment find connections with our clients. Our clients may be hard to understand or have trouble understanding you. But accepting what they have to offer can lead to amazing discoveries!
Invest: Investing a portion of your time to conversation is huge! Be genuine. Start with a compliment or discuss your journey. The memories you make when serving others are not easily forgotten! Discovering a shared interest is a beautiful experience.
Learn: Coming with questions adds to the experience. Many of our clients are open to sharing about their lives or situations. And they have lots of questions about you! Getting to know someone is often a two-way street.
Initiative: Hard workers catch the attention of staff and clients! Great volunteers have a can-do attitude. They look for things to do and this is noticed, appreciated, and reciprocated.