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Volunteering is About Helping, Isn't It

Let’s hope for the best

“No good deed goes unpunished.”   … Oscar Wilde

“I couldn’t stop, not after I’d been with her for so long.” Volunteer Jill spoke of her decision to keep seeing the client assigned by her volunteer manager, even though the client was no longer on the program. “Aren’t we supposed to be helpful? I mean, I have a strong connection with her and her family. I can’t just pull the plug.”

“I didn’t see the harm,” said Miranda, Jill’s volunteer coordinator. “I felt it would be cruel to keep Jill from continuing this great connection. But then, my CEO summoned me the day this former client called in to complain. It seems that Jill gave the client some advice and the client thought she was back on our program.”

What do we do with volunteers who want to stay with clients after the client no longer is receiving our services? If we’ve made a meaningful match between volunteer and client, then we understand how hard it is for the volunteer to pull back. Severing the relationship seems cruel. Besides, don’t volunteers have free will?

Although this situation appears muddy, it really is crystal clear: The relationship forged with the client belongs solely to the organization. Staff, contractors, and volunteers all participate in the organization’s relationship with a client. None of us would have created a connection with this client on our own, therefore we do not have a personal relationship. When the organization severs that relationship, we are done.

It is one of those tricky realms where clear boundaries, policies and documentation is crucial. If you no longer provide support for the volunteer’s efforts because the client is not in your care, the volunteer is then free to establish their own boundaries and set their own limitations.

Here’s the question: Should a mishap occur, will the family have a clear understanding that the volunteer is not representing your organization?  That lack of understanding can become a liability nightmare.

What steps do we need to take when a volunteer feels they must continue to help a former client or family member?

  • Include organizational ties vs. personal ties during orientation, induction and training. Make sure each and every volunteer is aware that they are part of a team, and not individually forming relationships with your clients.
  • Have a clear policy already on paper. The strictest policy would be to fire the volunteer. Or, you may place the volunteer on a temporary leave. Or you might place the volunteer on suspension. Or, you could trust the volunteer to act in a professional manner and monitor their behavior. The point is, have a policy to follow.
  • Communicate with everyone involved. Communicate your policies and boundaries with your volunteer.
  • Speak to the former client. Explain that your volunteer is continuing to be involved as a private citizen, but this means your organization does not support or back the volunteer’s actions.
  • Explain to staff. Be up front, tell appropriate managers and staff and show them the steps you have taken to ensure no harm will befall the organization, client or volunteer.
  •  Document every step of this process. Draft a letter to the client outlining the conversation you had with them and keep a copy in the volunteer’s file. Have the volunteer sign a statement absolving you of all responsibility concerning their actions.

Connecting volunteers with clients is one of the most satisfying outcomes of our profession. Witnessing a bond formed between volunteer and client is immensely gratifying. Having to cut those ties can be frustrating and painful.

But we have to remember that not all aspects of our jobs will be easy. At times, we must do the hard things, the necessary things in order to maintain a professional program.

Leadership means developing the strength to confront and manage the harder parts of engaging volunteers. And elevating volunteer management means becoming a strong leader.