In this essay we look at what, as volunteer managers, we can learn from one of the defining moments in the life of the 20th century’s greatest leaders, John F Kennedy. We look at how the then young Lieutenant Kennedy assessed the perilous situation he found himself and his team in, one starry night on 1st August 1943. We explore how people who are managers of volunteers often find themselves in the position involuntarily, more by accident than design. And we map out a 3-part series of essays building on Kennedy’s approach: Part 1: Dangerous waters: assessing your situation today; Part 2: Navigating your team’s way to safety; Part 3: Rescue the mission & protect those in your care.
It was involuntary. They sank my boat."
So spoke President John F Kennedy, laconically, some years later, on being asked how he became a war hero in WWII.
If you don’t know the story already, it’s well worth knowing, and you can get the official line here from the JFK Presidential Library.
In short, on 1 August 1943, in Blackett Strait, south of Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands, a starless, moonless night, the patrol torpedo boat that the then Lieutenant Kennedy had been in charge of (PT-109 – Patrol Torpedo boat 109), and which had been intending to be part of an ambush attempt on a Japanese destroyer, involuntarily found itself in the direct line of said Japanese destroyer. A direct collision occurred, crushing the much smaller patrol vessel led by Kennedy, killing some and putting the rest of his team in mortal danger.
What ensued was a tale of how Lt. Kennedy led his men to survival of the next few days, swimming from island to island, and eventually leading to the rescue of 11 of his men.
The tale was yet another example of heroism by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances in the second world war, but would eventually help catapult the young Kennedy into politics and a career that he could hardly have anticipated that starry night as he led his men swimming through the waters in 1943.
So how could a tale of the heroism of President John F. Kennedy be of any relevance to someone reading this essay today?
Well, what caught my attention was Kennedy’s laconic description of how he found himself in both such a terrible predicament in Blackett Strait that night on 1 August, 1943; but also, having safely reached the far side of this perilous adventure, it pithily captured in a humorous way the completely accidental way in which he found himself in such a predicament.
Now I don’t mean to in anyway make a meaningful comparison between one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century and anyone reading this essay (please don’t’ be offended!).
But, I do think that there are parallels as to how people find themselves in situations that they had not anticipated that they would find themselves (as Kennedy did that night), situations that are both potentially perilous but which also have the opportunity to be turned in one’s favour; just as Kennedy used the tides in the waters that night to lead his team to safety.
I don’t know enough about the background of the young Lieutenant John F Kennedy to know how he came to be in charge of Patrol Torpedo boat 109 that night on 1 August 1943.
Nor do I know how is it is that you came to be reading this essay.
But, as you are reading it, I suspect that you, or someone close to you, has found themselves in a position of responsibility in a voluntary organisation.
Perhaps in a sports club, or a charity?
Like the young Lt John F. Kennedy: maybe you too have felt that feeling of the boat falling apart around you, and feeling alone at sea set against the challenges imminently facing you?
Perhaps if I asked you how you came to be in that position of responsibility you might too, laconically, reply like Kennedy
“It was involuntary”.
Well the fact of the matter is that, like young Lt Kennedy that starry night on 1 August 1943, in Blackett Strait, south of Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands, it is you who is in charge in this area in your organization.
Now I want to talk specifically to those charged with the thankless but critically important task of safely recruiting new adults into their voluntary organisation, and in particular where those new adults have unsupervised contact with children and vulnerable adults.
In many voluntary organisations today, safe recruitment of volunteers is, frankly, a taboo area of discussion.
Because the responsibilities and liabilities involved in safely recruiting new volunteers into your organization are deceptively complex and, for the most part, many boards of directors and executive committees of voluntary organisations have a limited understanding of these responsibilities and liabilities.
As a result of that limited understanding of the responsibilities and liabilities, very often it is the case that insufficient resources and supports are provided to the person charged inside that organization with the job of safely recruiting new volunteers, especially where those volunteers have unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults.
What do I mean by that?
Isolated, unsupported, afraid to raise their head
What I mean is that often one finds that the person who has the job title, inside a voluntary organization, to safely recruit volunteers volunteers (“Volunteer Manager”, “Child Welfare Officer”; “Club Secretary”; “Operations Manager”), feels very much on their own, isolated, and afraid about the potential consequences stemming from their inability to comply with their own policies and procedures around safe recruitment, and which can often lead to either an accidental or deliberate failure to notify the organization about the extensive non-compliance with the organisation’s policies and procedures around safe recruitment.
In short, important corners are cut, forms are not sent out or followed up, references are neither sort nor obtained, verification calls are neither placed nor chased, informal interviews/meetings with applicants are not carried out, identity checks are ignored, and criminal background checks are either sidelined or delayed.
The whole thing becomes a complete and utter mess.
Why does this matter?
Well it matters if you believe that there is a real risk which your policies and procedures are designed to guard against.
What do I mean?
Why do you even have policies and procedures on safe recruitment?
Simply this: the policies and procedures on safe recruitment of volunteers into organisations, where volunteers work unsupervised with children or vulnerable adults, are designed to ensure the safety and welfare of the children and vulnerable adults with whom the volunteers work.
The policies and procedures are designed to encourage the creation of the culture within an organization to attract a top quality calibre of volunteer applicants to your organization.
It is also the intent and design of those policies and procedures to ensure that the recruitment process filters out people who are deliberately intending to gain access, unsupervised, to children and vulnerable adults for nefarious and otherwise illegal ends. People you don’t want anywhere near your organization.
Join me as we map out a way ahead
For that reason, I invite you to join me as I map out, in three further essays, how any volunteer manager can learn from the example of the young Lieutenant John F. Kennedy that starry night on 1stAugust 9, 1943, about how to deal with the situation you find yourself; how to plot your way to safety; and how to put into action a plan that turns the situation around.
I’ll be structuring these essays broadly in the following way:
- Part 1: Dangerous waters: assessing your situation today
- Part 2: Navigating your team’s way to safety
- Part 3: Rescue the mission & protect those in your care