Sometimes it's necessary to 'fire' volunteers

'Firing' volunteers

Is "firing" a volunteer OK? The short answer is, absolutely.

Not only can you fire a volunteer, in many cases you must. I know, lots of people say you ought to be thankful for whatever someone is willing to give, but in reality, a poor volunteer can be a disaster for your organization. It really is true that one bad apple can spoil the barrel.

And bad apples come in a number of varieties:

“Granny Smith”

Regardless of age or sex, there are some volunteers who are stuck in the past. These are the ones who say things like: “But we’ve always done it this way!” They resist change, no matter how much it will help the organization. They can be passive-aggressive and may spread gossip to undermine attempts to update things.

“Pink Lady”

These volunteers (and they’re not just female) are in it for themselves. They volunteer, not to help the organization or its clients but to make themselves look good or to get close to people they want to know. That isn’t the problem. What is a problem is when they refuse to do some of the harder tasks or only show up when they think they’ll be noticed by someone important. They do the minimum amount of work and that work is often done poorly.


Certain volunteers seem to feel the organization belongs to them. Rules are for other people. If they have a problem, they often go over the head of the volunteer coordinator to the executive director—or even directly to the board. These “problems” tend to be things that interfere with how they want to do things. Their constant complaining and rule-breaking causes resentment and conflict.

“Plain Old Rotten”

The vocal bigots who use racial, sexist or homophobic slurs (or “jokes”). The thieves who try to get at your petty cash or other volunteers’ purses. The predators who stalk people they see as victims. They’re dangerous. Get rid of them fast.

All of these volunteer varieties may need to be fired.

The “Rotten” ones are easy.

Not only are they a danger to individuals but the fact that they are with you can destroy your organization’s reputation. Don’t give them second chances. The moment you have proof, take away any keys, etc, they may have and tell them you can’t accept their services any longer. Escort them off the premises, inform the rest of the staff and change any passwords.

With “Granny Smiths” you may be able to win them over.

Try different things to get them on your side. Include them in a decision-making committee, be willing to bend on small things to get the major change accepted, etc. If nothing works, take the volunteer aside and tell them that, if they can’t support the changes, you will have to stop giving them shifts. Show your appreciation for what they’ve done in the past but make it clear the wellbeing of the organization comes first. They need to either adapt or leave. If nothing changes, or if their old habits creep back after a couple of weeks, give them one reminder, then end the relationship.

Do you have a “Pink Lady”?

Call them aside, tell them what you’ve seen and let them know it’s unacceptable. Stay objective. Only comment on performance, not on personality. Be prepared for resistance. They see a value to themselves in their position with you and will likely defend themselves vigorously. Stay firm. This is where sticking to factual comments about their performance can help you. Emphasize a volunteer needs to do all the tasks assigned to that role, no matter how distasteful, and you require them to show up for all their shifts. Some may just quit at this point. If they don’t, give them a couple of weeks to prove they will change. If they won’t, ask them to leave.

“Empire” volunteers can destroy a volunteer program amazingly quickly.

Don’t wait before moving on this one! Remind them of the rules. Explain why those rules are in place and why everyone needs to follow them. Let them know that if they continue as they were, that you will no longer allow them to volunteer. Advise your executive director and/or board what you have said, as the volunteer will likely try to have them overturn your decision. In this case, because they are well aware that they are ignoring the rules, fire them the very next time it happens. They don’t need second chances.

In all cases, protect yourself. Keep records of what they did (or didn’t do) and of your conversations with the volunteer.

Firing a volunteer can be hard, but it can also be essential to keeping your volunteer program strong. Poor volunteers will cause disruptions in services, disputes among team members and even harm to clients.

It may not be easy, but you can do it.

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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