Leading from the (outside): can kind-but-tough love strengthen our organizations?

A friend of mine recently updated her Facebook status:

(name withheld) is wondering why she is always disappointed by the non-profit organizations she becomes involved with. Drama, politics, and unprofessionalism abound. Should she stay away…or start her own?

This friend is a great person with solid, professional skills to offer with lots of passion for a variety of issues. Yet her support of the various causes continues in spite of the organizational leadership, not because of it.

I agree sometimes. It’s one of the main reasons that I am doing (almost done!) my MBA. Passion for the mission is definitely not lacking in the nonprofit sector. However, the knowledge of what it takes to lead and manage an organization to fulfill that mission is not spread as equally. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s lacking, but it’s concentrated, leaving many organizations to frustrate the very people that want to help them further the cause.

One could definitely argue that this “drama, politics, and unprofessionalism” also exists, even runneth over, in the private and public sectors as well. But that doesn’t change the fact that nonprofit organizations are losing good volunteers (and good staff, too).

So what are the options?

Leave

Leaving can reduce your frustration in the short term, but how does this support the cause that you are passionate about?

Start your own

Takes work. And time. Other orgs are already doing it (however unprofessionally you may think). Thought starting your own may be the right answer, there are many reasons why not to start your own nonprofit.

A third option?

What about sticking with it? Is there a way to demonstrate (outside) leadership, provide constructive feedback, and keep our nonprofit relationships strong?

How might a conversation starter like this be taken by (inside) nonprofit leadership?

I really believe in the mission of your organization. I’m really passionate about this issue and want to contribute my time, skills and knowledge to help you further the cause. However, I have come to find myself frustrated with [X, Y or Z], and it’s leading me to question whether or not I will continue volunteering with [insert org name]. Is there something that can be done to improve [X, Y or Z] to help attract and retain volunteers like me?

Suggesting improvements alone may result in defensiveness, and not including the suggestion of leaving may make the issue seem less important than it is.

Is there a way to get this message across without coming off as an annoying “I’ve come to help professionalize you” type while actually positively impacting the professionalism of nonprofit leadership and managment?

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?