Ways to deal with problematic volunteers

Challenging volunteers

Ann really wanted the position. She did whatever it took to get it, but once she had it, things started to fall apart.

Other things took priority for her. She started missing shifts, work wasn’t done to standard – or wasn’t done at all.

I spoke with Ann about it a few times but didn’t see any improvement, so finally I “fired” her (yes, you can fire a volunteer and I’ll talk about that later).

But was there something better I could have done?

Probably. In the time since then, I’ve thought of a few ways I could have kept Ann as a volunteer, but still ensured the work was completed well and on time. In case you’re dealing with a challenging volunteer, here are a few tips.

Talk with them

Yes, I did do this with Ann and it didn’t work, but a majority of times it will. Find out if something has changed in their life situation. Are they feeling overwhelmed or unsure of themselves in the position? Do they think that more training, or having a mentor will help?

Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe they’re not finding the position much of a challenge and they’re bored. Can you “promote” them, or have them mentor someone else?

Re-match them

It might be that the position just isn’t what they thought it would be. Is there another position that would suit them better?

To know this, of course, you need to have a good understanding of what they’re looking for in a volunteer position. So, ask them. And if they say “I just want to help,” dig deeper.

Keep a file of the likes, dislikes, skills and interests of all the agency’s volunteers. That way you can match them with roles that keep them engaged and active. It takes a bit of effort to gather all this information, but it is worth it in terms of the quality of work, and your retention rates.

Be flexible

This is especially important if you have younger volunteers, like Ann, whose lives are constantly in flux.

Build certain of your roles with flexibility in mind. Tasks that can be done at various times of the day or week. Tasks that allow the volunteer autonomy in how they are accomplished. Allow longer or shorter shifts, or in person or online attendance.

The more options you embrace, the more people will be able to fit helping you into their schedules.

Look in the mirror

Let’s face it, sometimes it’s not the volunteer. It’s us. We all have unconscious biases. Is it possible that you are letting one of them influence you?

Are the volunteers being shown appreciation often enough? (My rule is to thank every volunteer, every shift.)

Are you uncomfortable delegating responsibility, leading volunteers to feel you lack trust in them?

There are many things that we might be doing that could be causing or worsening the situation, without us even being aware of it. It’s always worth stepping back and taking an objective look at yourself and your procedures.

If nothing else works, you actually may need to fire them

There are some troublesome volunteers that you just don’t want in your organization. People who will damage your organization’s reputation, drive away other volunteers, or worse. In that case, you do need to get rid of them. It’s not easy, but sometimes it needs to be done.

Mostly, though, there are things we can do and still keep the volunteer.

If, when I talked with Ann, I had used some of these tips, she might still be volunteering. If I had focused more on her needs and less on the problem, or if I had been more flexible around how the tasks were done. Or if I had just found a more suitable position for her in the organization, I might not have had to fire her.

I could have taken a lose-lose-lose situation (her, myself and the organization), and turned it into a win-win-win.

So next time you are faced with a troublesome volunteer, take my advice and try a few other things before you decide to fire them.

In next week’s article, I will discuss what to do if you do have to fire a volunteer. I’ll identify some of the “bad apples,” and give you ways to handle them effectively.

(Special thanks to Lori Gran for suggesting today’s topic.)

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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