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Difficult conversations. We, volunteer managers don’t want to have them, but from time to time, we must. A complaint is lodged against a volunteer and we go numb. This shouldn’t be happening, because well, volunteers are selfless, caring souls who just want to help, right? Won’t we drive them away by reprimanding them?

To make matters worse, what about when a volunteer has an issue with staff and hopes that you will intervene?  Our hearts skip a beat. We’ve just spent hours recruiting and cultivating this volunteer, and now we imagine all that time evaporating.

It’s a part of our jobs we wish to avoid because initiating these conversations is uncomfortable. We exist in a world where we inspire and motivate, so correcting is somewhat foreign to us, a skill that needs to be dusted off once in a while.

But, in order to effectively lead a volunteer program, we have to embrace the difficult duties and look upon them as opportunities.

Let’s examine difficult conversations with volunteers and difficult conversations with staff. Are these two scenarios really much different from one another?

So, how do we start a difficult conversation with a volunteer (or staff) after a complaint has been made? And how do we prepare ourselves to have the confidence to do the right thing without melting down into mush? For what it’s worth, here are a few suggestions that I hope help you. Conversations with volunteers appear in non-italicized font and conversations with staff appear in italicized font.

Remember that you are the best person for this challenge:

You have spent countless hours recruiting and cultivating this volunteer. You care about them and will do what is necessary to see them succeed. And leaving them to fail is ultimately more cruel than helping them remain on track. No one will be as sensitive, understanding or able to guide this volunteer as you.

With staff, remember that you are the best person to speak and mediate for your volunteers. You don’t wish to see them quit because you are unable to act, but want to see them succeed and by mediating, you are furthering that goal.

Tip: Keep reminding yourself that by meeting challenges head-on, you are building excellence. You will get through this and be a stronger, more accomplished leader on the other side.

Practice your opening line:

“I wanted to sit down with you today and chat about how things are going,” is fine, but volunteers really need us to get to the point. The more you dance around the topic, the more uncomfortable it becomes for you and the volunteer. It’s better if you state the complaint up front. “Emma, I wanted to meet with you today, because one of the visitors to our museum called us to say that last Friday you were too busy to show their disabled son where the bathroom was located. You are one of our finest docents and have been for over five years now and I want to hear your side of the story. Do you recall this particular incident?”

It’s no different with staff. Add the longer you tiptoe around the subject, the more time is wasted and the more frustrated the staff member will feel. Get right to the point: “Alex, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today about our volunteer Gavin.” (Now, don’t stop here and list Gavin’s great qualities, but keep going and get it out.) “Gavin came to me and voiced a frustration.” (make frustration non-personal, it helps steer the discussion away from emotions and towards solutions ) “He said that he often misunderstands the instructions he’s given and doesn’t feel he can do the job as well as he’d like.” (emphasis is on getting the job done) “I’m here to help fix this so you get the help you need.” (focus on the work)

Tip: With a volunteer, tell yourself to use the exact words of the complaint-unless there are personal insults involved-don’t water the nature of the complaint down because the volunteer deserves the opportunity to respond to the exact charges that were brought.

With staff, you have to frame the complaint into mission specific goals such as “volunteer Deena needs more guidance in order to excel at her job, something she is really committed to doing,” versus “volunteer Deena says you never spend any time with her.”

Don’t apologize for the conversation:

Starting out with “I’m so sorry to call you in for this,” or “I hate that we have to talk about this” creates the impression that your organization’s ethical standards are meaningless.

Same thing with staff. Beginning with “I’m so sorry to take up your time, you know how it is with volunteers,” creates the impression that volunteers’ help is not valuable. Instead reiterate the volunteer’s sincere desire to lend support. “I’m here because volunteer Janus is concerned he is not being the help he wants to be.”

Tip: Remind yourself that being neutral, not apologetic helps the volunteer think and respond more clearly.

With staff, this is an incredible opportunity to stress that volunteers are there to support and further the mission.

Assure the volunteer or staff that you are open-minded and fair but don’t put words in their mouth:

“Emma, we want to hear your side of the story,” or, “Emma, let’s talk about what happened,” is better than saying, “I’m sure the complaint is unfounded,” or “this must be a misunderstanding.”

Same with staff. “I know that volunteers can be tricky,” or “I realize you don’t have time for this, but..” sends the message that engaging volunteers is not worth anyone’s time or effort. Instead, thank the staff member for making an effort to engage volunteers.

Tip: Tell yourself that if the complaint is indeed a misunderstanding, then it will surely become obvious and not to worry. If the complaint is well founded, then you have an amazing opportunity to help this volunteer regain their footing or help the staff member become better at cultivating volunteers.

Don’t diminish the person(s) who made the complaint:

Saying, “don’t worry, this person complains about everyone,” or “they probably just had a bad day,” negates the actual complaint.

It’s the same with staff, don’t diminish the volunteer role.

Tip: Tell yourself that bridging relationships is one of your strong skill sets and seeing both sides validated is a chance to bring both sides together. Ditto with staff.

Allow ample time for discussion:

Here is the area in which you will excel at nice-guy volunteer management. These conversations ebb and flow-but the savvy volunteer manager rides the spoken waves with the recurring message that the volunteer’s time and effort is invaluable and their concerns are worth hearing and discussing, even if their actions are in the wrong.

Same idea with staff-if they need to, let them express their frustrations with time management, heavy workloads etc. Then, seize the opportunity to sell volunteer help. Assure them that your job includes their satisfaction, that you will address and help with any issues concerning volunteer training, performance etc. This is a time to reassure them that you are on their side and are not dumping volunteers on them, but rather, working diligently to get them skilled, committed volunteers who will help and support them.

Tip: Trust your instincts to tell you when you know the volunteer or staff member is satisfied their feelings, opinions and aspirations are validated. That is when you can move forward with a resolution.

Follow up with diligence:

This step takes you from a manager to a leader. Speak with both parties after your initial conversation to ensure that the resolution works for both and that there are no lingering issues. Following up with volunteers and staff shows your commitment to a successful volunteer program, one in which you don’t take sides, but one dedicated to mission centric goals.

Tip: Use your best mediation skills to assure both parties that your goal is to provide the finest volunteer involvement possible and that you believe in each person. Reach beyond emotions and center on the good work being done by your organization. Refer to excellence often, while assuring each person that you believe in their abilities to work with one another. Keep following up periodically until you see the resolution has been met.

We can view difficult conversations in the same way we view traveling to a new place. We can tell ourselves that we will hate the new place by thinking things like “It’s going to be too hot,” “I will hate the food,” “the people are too strange,” etc. That usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, like the person who welcomes traveling somewhere out of the comfort zone,  we can entertain the idea that this new experience will help us grow, both as a manager and leader.

Choosing to grow and embrace challenging conversations will strengthen not only your program, but yourself as well. So, while it is perfectly normal to dread a difficult conversation, don’t let the opportunity to excel go to waste.

You’re not the bad guy, or the uncomfortable girl, you’re the leader of volunteering excellence.


This post originally appeared in 2016 as The Conversation We Dread: Pain or Opportunity