I had a conversation recently with an executive director of a nonprofit and he told me about an experience his organization that says a lot about kindness and compassion.

Not too long ago, the organization was having an event. As many charities often do when they have large-scale events, they asked for volunteers to help the staff leading up to and on the day of the event. There was one volunteer in particular who was amazing, the executive director said, and we’ll call her Martha to protect her privacy.

The Extraordinary Volunteer

For about six weeks Martha was there for the nonprofit starting out volunteering about 15 hours a week and then as the event day came closer, she virtually became a full-time volunteer. Martha’s daughter also worked at the organization in the fundraising team, which is how Martha was recruited.

Martha became a superstar and did everything that was necessary to help make the event a success. She stuffed envelopes for mailings, made RSVP calls, and went all-out to work with the team on ensuring a wonderful event. The nonprofit was pleased with Martha’s work and they presumed since she was a retiree that she was giving of her time because she cared about the cause, was supporting her daughter and she had time to give. The executive director thought the organization had found an amazing supporter who could work with them in the future.

The event day came and went and at the end of the evening, the executive director and everyone who had worked so hard on the fundraiser were pleased and satisfied.

The Invoice

A couple of weeks later, the executive director received an invoice in the mail from Martha for the “volunteering” she did. Martha charged $20 an hour and her bill came to be $5,000. The executive director was caught off guard, angry and didn’t understand why he had received an invoice for $5,000.

Yes, Martha had been an outstanding volunteer, but there was never any agreement or arrangement to pay for Martha’s time.

The executive director found himself in an awkward situation. His first instincts, after the annoyance and confusion of what was happening was to speak to Martha’s daughter, but upon some confidential conversations with his senior team, they decided not to single out a good employee who, in fact, was not the person who presented the invoice nor was she responsible for her mother’s actions.

The executive director eventually picked up the telephone and spoke to Martha directly. He explained his position and the fact that there was never any expectation of remuneration for a volunteer. Of course, he also expressed his deepest and sincerest gratitude for the work Martha had done, which helped contribute to the success of the event.

Martha stuck to her guns and informed him that she expected to be paid the $5,000 for her work and if she was not, she would be hiring an attorney.

Of course, things became more awkward and he and the senior management team did everything possible not to single out Martha’s daughter who had never mentioned what was happening to anyone. The executive director wondered if Martha’s daughter was even aware of what was happening.

The Meeting with the Volunteer’s Daughter

Eventually, Martha sent letters to the board of directors of the nonprofit and the executive director was forced to call the organization’s attorneys for advisement.

What hurt the executive director the most is that he also had to call in Martha’s daughter into a private and confidential discussion in his office. He explained how incredibly uncomfortable the discussion was for him and Martha’s daughter. He reiterated throughout how much he valued her work at the organization and the only reason he had to bring the issue up to her was because he needed to get a sense of what may be happening with Martha. He wanted to know if there was any insight the daughter could provide.

Martha’s daughter was not aware of the invoice and letters her mother had sent to him and the board and, candidly, was mortified. She broke down and shared with the executive director that her mother was under great financial distress. Her daughter was doing everything she could to help, but her mother was struggling financially and was unable to find any job that could pay her enough to get out of the hole she found herself in at the moment.

The executive director thanked the daughter for being candid, reminded her that the organization supported her and wanted her to remain. He promised that he would do everything possible to limit any knowledge of what was occurring with Martha to those who already knew. He also promised to help Martha.

The executive director spent two days working the phones trying to obtain social service appointments for Martha. He also reached out to colleagues in the private sector who were owners and managers of businesses to see if they would be open to interviewing someone who was at retirement age, but was exceptional as a team member doing clerical work. Gracefully, the executive director knew that he could offer a good referral for Martha that would help her hopefully get back on her feet.

Kindness and Compassion

Finally, the executive director telephoned Martha and asked her to please join him in his office for a conversation. At the beginning, Martha was skeptical and did not want to go, but it didn’t take much convincing and she went.

In the most compassionate and kind way possible, he told Martha that he understood the financial stresses she was experiencing and he wanted to help. Martha broke down in tears because at that moment the dam burst. She apologized for her actions, talked about how she had always been responsible and unfortunately fell on hard times because she was not able to afford living expenses after she had to leave an inexpensive rental apartment she had lived in for 30 years. She couldn’t thank the executive director enough for the kindness he was showing to her. She called him her angel.

It took a little time, but Martha was able to get herself on firmer footing with the help of the resources the executive director had found for her.

The moral of the story is simple: Treat everyone with kindness because you never really know the situation they’re enduring. Sometimes what you see is definitely not the full story and there’s a whole other layer of pain and suffering. We’re all in this thing called life together.


Author of “Get Off the Couch: Grip & Rip and Break the Barriers Holding You Back in Life” (Free Digital Download)

© 2017 Wayne Elsey and Not Your Father’s Charity. All Rights Reserved.