managing volunteers, non-profit, organizations, part time volunteer manager, staff and volunteers, volunteer, volunteer coordinator, volunteer manager, volunteer retention, volunteering, volunteers, why volunteers leave
For a very long time, volunteer manager Dina enjoyed this incredible on top of the world feeling. She ran a thriving charity shop which not only brought in money for her organization, but also became a symbol of successful volunteer involvement in her town. Other volunteer managers would visit Dina to watch in awe as the shop volunteers worked together to transform donated goods into revenue.
Each shift had a hand-picked volunteer team lead who oversaw the volunteers’ duties. This gave Dina the precious time to train new volunteers, advertize the shop and interact with customers and donors. On Tuesdays, the team lead, Herbert, a retired shoe store manager inspired his team to create beautiful displays and quickly get valuable items to the floor. On Thursdays, Helga, a social worker by trade encouraged her team to interact with the customers and make them feel welcome. Each day, a different team would bring a different flavor to their volunteering so savvy customers could choose favorite days and favorite volunteers.
One day, Herbert approached Dina and said that he could no longer work on Tuesdays. Because he loved volunteering in the shop, he asked to be moved to Thursdays as that was the only day he could come. Although Dina was disappointed, she figured it would be ok because one of the Tuesday volunteers, Cathy agreed to step up and take over the lead role.
The following week Herbert came in on Thursday. He had already assured Dina that he would fit in with his new team and respect Helga and her leadership. At first things went well. Helga continued to instruct her team to interact with customers and Herbert kept somewhat to himself while churning out the items to sell. Dina was pleased. Then, things began to change. Dina isn’t quite sure how or why it started, but she found herself in the middle of a clash.
“I honestly don’t know when things got to this point and frankly what does it matter who or what started it? All I know is the bickering and nitpicking between Herbert and Helga began after a few times together and got worse and worse each week. Each one of them would seek me out and corner me to complain about the other. Herbert would tell me that Helga’s team did not move enough merchandize and were always standing around talking and having fun instead of working. Helga would complain that Herbert would ignore customers and was rude to the members of her team.”
Dina said she patiently listened to each one and tried to convince them to work it out, but the complaining increased. “It became about the most mundane things, like Herbert parked too close to the shop and Helga would not acknowledge Herbert when he came to volunteer. It was so childish, so unnecessary and I was aghast that such talented and professional people could be so petty.”
Dina decided to have a sit down meeting with her two volunteers. “I thought we could clear the air. I knew that they both respected me and I planned to let each one speak and then I’d point out how we all wanted the same thing which is for the shop to succeed and then we’d shake and be done with it. But holy smokes, was I wrong! Once they started talking, they pointed out everything they felt was wrong with the other one. Helga complained that Herbert would frown when he saw her and complained that one day Herbert told a customer to put down a breakable vase. Herbert said that Helga spent too much time in the lunch room and brought in fattening cookies that he couldn’t eat. Helga said that there was no way she could work with Herbert any longer and she told me she would quit if he continued to come on Thursday. Herbert said that Helga was manipulating me and wanted to run the shop herself and demanded I fire her. Frankly, I looked at them both in a new light. What I thought were two wonderful, productive volunteers were now my biggest headache.”
Dina found herself in between two riled up combatants and she tried to deflect the hurled broad swords and war hammers. These two Titan volunteers, when faced with sharing the attention, control and inner circle chose to make each other an enemy instead of working together. Unfortunately, Dina’s hopeful spirit was injured by the flurry of thrown weapons. “I can’t respect either of them anymore.”
Dina said that Herbert quit in a huff and Helga smugly celebrated. “I’m not sure I want her here either after what I witnessed, but honestly, I’ve had enough change to last me for a long time.”
Dina left Helga to her Thursdays, but the warm feeling cooled a bit. “I made a mistake thinking that I could just expect good volunteers to be able to work well with one another. Obviously I should have thought this through more carefully. In looking back, I believe that having successful teams caused me to let my guard down. I won’t ever do that again.”
As volunteer managers we know that creating successful teams of volunteers is hard, hard work. But we also know that nurturing and maintaining those teams is even harder.
Kirsty McDowell said:
Great blog, and a really useful reminder of some of the pitfalls we all need to try to avoid when we work with volunteers who are, after all, just humans like the rest of us.
Thank you Kirsty for that sometimes forgotten reminder-our volunteers are humans who have motivations, bad days, hurt feelings etc. just like we do. Unlike paid employees who receive a paycheck, volunteers may just quit on perceived aggravation alone.