There are more than 20 of us on Zoom for a monthly volunteer meeting for Exhale Pro-Voice, a support textline for people who have had abortions. We start with a check-in. We say our names, where we are, how we’re doing, anything we’d like to share and nothing we don’t. You don’t have to check-in if you don’t want to. It takes about 20 minutes, which may seem like an overly-substantial chunk of the hour. Despite my own skepticism, within a few months I realized what a tangible impact these check-ins were having on my actual volunteer work. This exact structure may not work for all teams, but there is an important lesson in it about prioritizing connection and support at all levels of an organization.
As a volunteer counselor, I spend 8-10 hours a month on a confidential and anonymous textline, providing emotional support and resources to people who have had abortions from all over the country. It is work that requires patience, compassion, mindful attention, and a lot of scheduling! Counselors regularly fill in for each other when needed, swap shifts, help each other with technical questions, and generally collaborate to keep the textline running smoothly. If we do not feel supported by one another, we can’t fully support texters, and Exhale understands this at a deep level.
At first, I felt alone during my shifts. I didn’t recognize any names on the channel aside from the coordinators who had trained me. This feeling of aloneness made me hesitate to ask for help from my peers and also made it hard to feel confident that I could help them in return. Within a couple of months, though, I found myself writing friendlier greetings to the others when I logged on and off our platform. I filled in for a few shifts and swapped a few others. I still didn’t remember everyone’s name, but it no longer mattered so much. Everyone felt safe and accessible.
I don’t believe this change was inevitable, because it hasn’t happened for me in other volunteer groups. Rather, I believe it was the direct result of the check-ins and other intentional protocols that establish transparency, respect, and belonging within Exhale’s fully remote staffing body. It’s a fantastic example of multi-level leading and following within a structurally hierarchical organization. Here are a few ways that Exhale builds two-way support into leader-follower relationships:
1. Relationships of Equals
When I interviewed with Exhale to become a peer counselor, I was asked open-ended questions about myself, my interest in the organization, and my own connection with its mission and values. It was an interview version of the check-in! There was already a sense of mutual regard and equality of human value right there in the interview. I was also invited to ask questions and the coordinator was fully transparent about the entire interview process, required training, and time commitment. It stood in stark contrast to many other job interviews marked by test-like questions and vague language around expectations.
A year later, I am now conducting some of these new volunteer interviews myself. One interviewee asked a question I didn’t have a complete answer for. When I asked the relevant board member later, she wrote a detailed paragraph clarifying the point and made it available as a resource for everyone on the coordinator team. This is just one example of how those above respond and support those below just as much as the other way around.
Support Lesson #1: See the other as your human equal
2. Two-way Feedback
Exhale has a conventional non-profit structure with a board of directors over several area coordinators over groups of front-line volunteers. That may seem rather top-down, but as a volunteer myself, I have seen how influence within the organization is continually flowing upward as well.
Front-line volunteers are actively encouraged to share ideas, feedback, needs, and requests through multiple channels. Coordinators either address them directly or discuss them with board members. Never is any communication dismissed or ignored, no matter where it comes from. On the contrary, comments, ideas, and feedback are regularly incorporated into Exhale’s operations and documentation.
During my first year as a peer counselor, I pointed out an error in a training document, received feedback on my counseling language, set boundaries around my time, and proposed a new outreach project. All of these resulted in either immediate action, productive dialogue, or consensus-style decision-making. In every case I felt certain that my presence was not only valued but valuable. I don’t know many people with jobs, paid or unpaid, in any sector, who can say that.
Support Lesson #2: Give and receive in all directions
At Exhale meetings and trainings, facilitation is shared, with individual coordinators and board members taking the lead for 10-20 minutes at a time while the others follow as part of the group. My experience of this flow between leadership and followership is an overall sense of relaxation and stability. I feel at ease with the knowledge that multiple Coordinators are supporting one another as a team to ensure administrative success, just like front-line volunteers support one another on the textline to ensure counseling success. Nothing is ever falling completely on one person’s shoulders. Support is always available.
To streamline co-facilitation, Exhale maintains a library of online documents accessible to relevant staff by area. The leadership team and coordinators consistently emphasize both upholding time commitments and simultaneously setting boundaries around that time both on the textline and on administrative projects. These reminders guard against burnout and reinforce transparency and sustainable workflow.
Support Lesson #3: Share the load
Despite having never met anyone at Exhale in person, I take great pride in being part of this organization, and my 8-10 hours a month are highly organized and efficient. I am always clear what I am doing, and I feel part of a community. It’s because of that feeling that I don’t hesitate to ask for help or to give it when I am able, and that culture of support and reciprocation is part of what makes any group effort both effective and sustainable.
How might you introduce supportive practices in your own team or work place?