Firing volunteers…yes, I said it.

I don’t have an incredulous level of experience firing volunteers (thankfully), but I have done it, and I’ll probably do it again. Not that I enjoy it (well, maybe in the ‘weight off my shoulders’ sort of way). But I feel very strongly that volunteering is a privilege, nonprofits have limited resources, and just because someone wants to help doesn’t mean that it’s in the best interest of everyone involved.

Often, a bad volunteer can hold others from moving forward or can cause resentment among other volunteers. Addressing the actions of a bad volunteer is important. Whether firing or providing critical feedback to volunteers, here are some pointers to consider.

Start with clear expectations

Things that should be made clear in writing from the beginning are:

  • time expectations (hours per week, training dates, time frame of position)
  • skills required (if you just need a warm body, that’s fine–but if you need someone that has certain skills, be up front about it)
  • communications expectations (response time to queries, meeting attendance, email guidelines)
  • boundaries/limits of role (included in volunteer training as well; could include items about representing the organization, confidentiality, contact with clients/vendors/donors/staff, etc.)

If things aren’t outlined from the beginning, it’s hard to go back afterwords and tell volunteers they weren’t meeting expectations.

Give them a chance

Surprisingly, if a volunteer is not meeting expectations or acting inappropriately, they may just have no idea. If you see a volunteer starting to wander off track, nip the problem in the bud. If you let it go for a while, it just gets harder and harder as the volunteer wanders more and more away from your expectations.

An important part of leading volunteers (and people in general) is to communicate with clarity. Find out their side before you launch into a Donald Trump rant. For example:

  • “Hey, I noticed you weren’t at the meeting last night. Has your availability changed?” Many responses could be followed up with: “Well, the committee requires volunteers to attend Monday night meetings, so if you aren’t able to come consistently, this position may not a good fit for you.” or more directly, “…so if you have to miss another meeting, I’ll have to ask you to step down from your position.”

Give them an out

Make it seem like leaving the position is a choice before you make it an ‘order’. My most recent firing started off with me stating that I recognized the volunteer seemed to have many commitments that would make it hard for her to find the time to participate. I told her that if her schedule was too demanding, that it was OK to pull back from her commitment–she just needed to let me know.

This is an ‘out’. A chance to save face.

Focus on the fit

Bad volunteers aren’t bad people. They’re just not in the right position at the right time. The may have overestimated the variety of priorities in their lives. They may have overestimated their tact or their skill writing press releases. That’s OK. Perhaps another role may be better suited to them. A better fit.

The tricky bit is phrasing the “You’re Fired” line.

Send them off with a sandwich

This sounds cheezy, but I think it’s important. Sandwich feedback is like sliding some smelly old deli meat in between two slices of lovely homemade bread.

  1. Start with good.
  2. Put the constructive feedback / firing in the middle.
  3. End on a positive note.

Unless a volunteer has done something absolutely inappropriate (like invoking violence, getting drunk at a fundraiser, etc.) make the final send off clear, but friendly. Again, bad volunteers aren’t bad people. The fit just isn’t right.

Finally

Keeping a bad volunteer around does our sector a disservice in many ways. Virginia Edelstein at Volunteer Vancouver recently shared her opinion of recent Canadian Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating results – “Sorry, But Who Cares?“. When considering statistics around number of volunteer hours contributed or economic “value” of volunteering–

Someone could volunteer 1,000 hours and accomplish nothing – except that the stats would look good. It’s hard for me to get excited about that. So instead of measuring how many hours your volunteers work with you, why don’t you measure what impact they had on your organization, your clients and your mission?

So, for a bad volunteer, if the impact is neutral or even negative, pumping up the number of hours our organizations have engaged volunteers ain’t all that great and is kind of like lying.

Have you had to fire a volunteer? What methods did you use? How did you communicate?

2 comments:

  1. You know I believe volunteering is an act of giving, your not being paid for what you do, so you do what you can, I believe if someone wants quality it should come with a cost. Nothing in this world is free.

    1. Jackie –

      I agree, volunteering is an act of giving. But I believe people give because they want to contribute to a larger cause, help move a mission along, want to make an impact. If the volunteer work that they do is hinder the organization by work having to be redone later, resources drained with unnecessary supervision/communication, etc., then both the volunteer and the organization is losing out. If the volunteer work isn’t providing (long-term) value to the organization, it shouldn’t be happening.

      In some cases, that value may be found in increasing clients’ capacity, in which case some “bad” volunteering might happen for a while until capacity for “better” volunteer is built. However, I would argue that in the majority of cases, if the volunteer work isn’t quality, it’s not worth it.

      Good, quality volunteer work happens all the time, and it’s free.

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