, , , , , , , , , ,

In the Spotlight

In the Spotlight

I almost spit out my sip of coffee when I ran across this article a week ago. According to the story, a great grandmother was “sacked” from her nearly 30 year volunteer position at a thrift store for her inability to use a computer. The searing negative light this incident turned on made me cringe because as you can see from the selected comments I pasted below the link, non-profits all get lumped into the big barrel of rotten fish when a charity receives bad press.


Here are 3 comments from readers:

JHR16 days ago
Charities are beginning to stink to high heaven.

ycjarman17 days ago
NEVER help a Charity that doesn’t appreciate what you bring to it !

JBJB116 days ago
Strikes me a lot of charities have lost sight of what they are supposed to be doing and more concerned in becoming corporate enterprises

I’m not jumping on the “get the pitchfork and storm the castle” bandwagon because as I read the article, I began to imagine the different scenarios that led to this unfortunate public airing of an incident involving a volunteer. What really happened? We don’t know, so I’ve put together some possible scenarios based on my own experiences with these types of circumstances.

1) An organization’s resale shop manager is just plain tired of “dealing” with volunteers who can’t work as efficiently as paid staff and so begins to find a convenient reason to dismiss those volunteers, never mind their years of service.
2) Volunteers become so entrenched in their jobs that no one has the guts to derail their authoritarian and entitled behavior and everyone kicks that can down the road until there is a blowup.
3) A volunteer becomes increasingly negative for any variety of reasons (health, circumstance, lack of being heard) and no one clears the air. This negativity builds and spreads until big problems arise.
4) Change is implemented without careful regard to how it will impact the volunteers. Lack of change awareness leads to grumbling, camp-forming and ultimately mutiny.
5) Repeated staff turnover leaves a new volunteer manager without any basic information about the volunteers he/she manages. Personality clashes balloon into showdowns with staff.
6) A shop manager/volunteer manager is burnt out, overworked and under appreciated, pressured to increase profit/sales and is unable to properly cultivate the shop’s volunteers.

This comment from a reader of the article hits at the perceived lack of volunteer management:

moanalisa16 days ago
it’s taken 30 years for them to ask Mrs Brooks to leave – if they were so concerned about Mrs Brooks attitude she should have been told to leave years ago

So, could this negative press have been prevented? Perhaps, but the point is, whether the volunteer is in the right or in the wrong, the proper handling of their exit is challenging but absolutely crucial, especially in the messiest situations. A curt dismissal letter is a weapon in the hand of the offended.
Sadly, we all are included in the negative stereotypes of charities as witnessed by the comment section of this article. The “pile-on” comments reinforces any perceived notion that “you know, I’m not so sure my local charity is really that nice. Last time I gave them a check, I never got a thank you. Maybe they’re just not who I thought they were.”

Our microscope is turned to a higher scrutiny than that of businesses. Why? Because the public perception is that charities are run by people who are nice. It’s a simple perception but one that takes a tremendous amount of attention to detail to continue. Who wrote the letter sent to the volunteer? Was it written out of frustration? Acting out of heightened emotions can get us splayed across media. For every 20 volunteers who perceive they are treated badly, one will go to the press or their circle of acquaintances. (And of course their acquaintances live next door to the CEO or the editor of the local newspaper)

So, what to do? You may never adequately resolve an issue with a volunteer and have to dismiss them. But, taking the extra time and effort to make the volunteer feel heard can go a long way in dousing the fire of their perception of being wronged. I’m not advocating the acceptance of poor behavior, I’m saying that hearing the volunteer’s side without your agreement or disagreement helps diffuse their anger.

If you’ve inherited a problem volunteer, it is much trickier. A volunteer whose problem behavior has been overlooked has assumed that the organization is fine with that behavior. It takes real skill to dismiss someone who looks at you as the evil newbie when in fact, you are just cleaning up the mess spilled on the floor years ago that now has mold growing on it. I’ve been in these situations and had hours long conversations with entrenched volunteers. Being respectful but firm, complimentary of their positive skill sets while pointing out negative behaviors and reiterating everyone’s commitment to the mission is helpful. While it took an enormous time and emotional commitment, the end result was always worth it. I never left the conversation until I felt that the volunteer and I were at a calm, reasonable point.

Having written conduct rules, including the steps for dismissal is critical. Every volunteer should sign a copy for their file. I’ve had to go back and look for that copy on several occasions and the presence of the volunteer’s signature on that document has saved me.

We all lose when folks reading a negative newspaper article generalize about every charity. Charities have to work harder to maintain the perception that we are ethical, caring, and committed to treating everyone, including volunteers respectfully.
But then, we signed up to be ethical, caring and committed to treating people respectfully, didn’t we?