What I Learned from the Tooth Fairy

When my kids were in elementary school, I so enjoyed playing the part of the tooth fairy.  At our house, the tooth fairy left a dollar coin for each tooth.  For my kids, this was a “whole dollar” to spend or save and really cool coinage that didn’t usually show up in mom’s purse.  

But, when my son entered first grade, I quickly learned that our tooth fairy was “cheap.”  It seems the going rate in his class was $5, $10, even $20 a tooth.  What?  Clearly I hadn’t been tracking the inflation rate for baby teeth. 

To our 6-year-old, his dollar from the tooth fairy now seemed insignificant.  What was great just weeks before was now trivial by comparison.  My son could not understand the tooth fairy reward discrepancy and even wondered if he had done something wrong to offend her.  (As an aside, shouldn’t it be a rule that all the first-grade parents get together on the first day of school and agree on THE tooth fairy amount?)

Flash forward a few years.  I was working with a nonprofit which employed about 200 volunteers for a large annual fundraiser.  The volunteers were sorted onto teams called crews, each led by a seasoned, volunteer captain.  I noticed that the crew members flocked to a couple of the volunteer captains in particular, trying to be included on their teams.  Wow, I thought, these captains must be great leaders, fun to work with, etc. etc.  I even noticed that some volunteers dropped out after not making the team they wanted.  That seemed a little odd. 

As it turned out, these two captains had, three years before, started taking their crews to dinner after the event.  And, not just any dinner, but a really fancy and expensive dinner and wine tasting at a popular restaurant.   They wanted to reward their volunteers for a job well done.  They even competed with each other to see who could spend more on the evening.

What generous, well-intended behavior.  The captains were willing to take “thank you” to an amazing level and make sure their crews were liberally–and libatiously–compensated.  However, the captains, much like those $20 first grade tooth fairies, didn’t realize what this behavior was going to do to the OTHER people associated with the event.  Volunteers who didn’t make the dinner crews felt short-changed, perhaps cheated.  As adults, they may have shrugged their shoulders and let it go, but even then human nature prevails.  No one wants to be left out of the cool crowd.  Volunteers who did so for the love of the organization and the spirit of giving suddenly felt that others were appreciated in ways that they were not.  Their good works now had a price:  an expensive dinner.  And, not everyone was compensated, and therefore appreciated, equally.

I always remember my tooth fairy lesson when I am working with organizations who employ a large number of volunteers. “Thank, thank, and then thank again,” I tell my clients.  But always make sure you are doing so equitably.  Maybe that first-day-of-school, let’s-agree-on-the-tooth-fairy-going-rate notion is not such a bad idea after all. 

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