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I remember my first days as a volunteer coordinator. There was this one volunteer, Addie. She was a tiny, fit ball of northeastern, direct confrontation, piercing eyed judgmental “I’ve been here since the forefront” terror. Staff couldn’t stand her. But she roamed the halls wielding her trusty sword “Gotcha,” slicing apart our ineptness. She was your crusty grandmother, your 87-year-old history teacher and your noisy neighbor all rolled into one, and oh, with a grip of steel. I know because she would grab my arm to make a point. Yep, I still have phantom bruises there.

I danced lightly around her. Although staff didn’t like her, she was, I thought, untouchable. They didn’t ask that I do anything about her, so I figured their eye-rolling was the way we dealt with disliked volunteers. After all, she’d earned her right to be a disruption, to be tolerated, to interpret our policies as anything that suited her purpose. She was, (da da daaaaahhhh) emeritus!

So, what crippling reasons cause us to hide under our desks instead of addressing volunteer behaviors?

  • Lack of specific policy indicators? (for example, policy states theft or inappropriate language is an offense. Policy doesn’t include arrogance or chatty-ness as an official offense)
  • Fear that delivering feedback to a volunteer will be misinterpreted as criticism and the volunteer will quit?
  • Our general fear of confrontation?
  • Volunteer status, such as emeritus? Or staff seems to “put up” with volunteers?
  • Our belief that volunteers are giving of their time, so we should be more accepting of their behavior?
  • The perception that a volunteer is older, wiser, more accomplished, more educated or skilled than we are?
  • Our belief that our jobs are no more than coordination?

The above reasons hold power over us, power that cripples us and prevents us from truly leading volunteers. How can we then make adjustments so we don’t simply going to continue to sidestep situations that can be remedied?

The first step is to prioritize the why. Why is this volunteer here? We know there are multiple underlying and nuanced reasons, all of which we take into consideration when matching volunteers to assignments.

But what is the primary, down to basics reason a volunteer shows up? To complete a task, or fill a role that furthers the mission they believe in. How is this being accomplished?

Taking the focus off of staff’s and volunteer’s personalities allows us to examine the work being done and by doing so we can analyze how behaviors are affecting work quality.

Communicating mission focus to everyone, staff and volunteers alike, lays the groundwork for intervention. How do we do that?

In volunteer orientation or onboarding, emphasize the expectation of excellence. While creating a welcoming atmosphere, stress the importance of volunteers being able to fit within a busy organization. Illustrate the enormous workloads put upon staff. Make clear that while staff appreciates volunteers, the work is most important. Ask your most productive volunteers to speak to and hopefully mentor new volunteers.

Create policy that gives you an opportunity to mediate. Although we obviously can’t write policy for every little behavior, especially if behavior is opinion based. (one staff member believes a volunteer chats too much) We can, however include six month probationary periods, infractions for inappropriate behavior and the specific understanding that it is in the power of the volunteer manager to determine fit. Fit means that a volunteer’s performance will be evaluated on fit within a specific department and the volunteer can be moved to another position. (This is a two-way street; it also protects the volunteer from being stuck with very demanding or uncooperative staff)

Communicate your commitment to supporting staff. Before placing a volunteer, speak with staff about your readiness to intervene if a volunteer is behaving in ways that hinder production. Get the idea out in the open that your focus is on helping staff be more productive and you are leading volunteers, not simply placing them.

Ditch the idea that volunteers will stay because we are nice to them. Instead, remind yourself that volunteers will stay because they are doing work that is meaningful and in order to engage in meaningful work, behavior must align with mission centric goals.

Bravely follow-up and be willing to intervene. Feedback is not always criticisms that will drive a volunteer away. Mediation means taking into consideration the needs of both sides and finding solutions that best benefit the organization. Being on top of situations ensures that volunteers are valued, not tolerated. Ask both sides questions that direct them towards accomplishments, such as “what path do you envision us adapting to increase our survey input results,” or “what small thing right now will help us improve our client satisfaction?”

Be willing to be a leader who can do the hard stuff. Just because a volunteer is emeritus, or wiser, or more accomplished does not mean that you are their subordinate. Your volunteer program is a reflection on you. In your organization, are volunteers valued or are they simply considered a necessary nuisance? Are volunteers given juicy tasks or are they relegated to boring minutia? With courageous leadership comes respect for the program.

Educate staff on working with volunteers. Humanize the volunteers. Stress their character and commitment to the mission. Emphasize their desire to help staff, not hinder them. Highlight volunteer accomplishments with a caveat to staff who embraced them. The more we make staff feel as though they “have to accept volunteers,” the less they will actually accept them. Instead, as leaders, we need staff buy-in and it takes some staff ego massaging to get that buy-in.

Listen to other volunteers. If volunteers are complaining about a volunteer’s behavior, or worse, quitting because of behavior, there’s a clear problem. How many good volunteers are we willing to lose because we would rather not engage in mediating destructive behavior?

And most importantly, act quickly. Intercepting a problem before it becomes messy and unmanageable will keep those sleepless nights at bay. Regularly surveying staff and volunteers can unearth budding challenges. Following up on those challenges early gives a higher rate of successful mediation versus allowing patterns of behavior to cement. And, by showing your commitment to creating an excellent program, your leadership value will exponentially rise.

By focusing on mission goals, we can more clearly see the big picture. Mediating and creating volunteer fit has the following tremendous potentials for a huge return on that investment.

  • More satisfied and engaged volunteers
  • Staff who will champion volunteer engagement
  • Openings to more volunteer roles
  • More recognition for volunteers
  • Respect for the volunteer manager voice
  • More leverage for negotiating new programs, ways to integrate volunteers or eliminating outdated volunteer roles

While confronting behavioral disputes is down right hard and uncomfortable, we will reap enormous results by bravely tackling this challenge. Each successful attempt at mediation will move the needle closer to a professional and more respected volunteer program.

Leading is doing the challenging stuff well. It gets easier once you burst that tension bubble and see how satisfying it is to get results.

After all, we’re not volunteer coordinators who shrug because staff doesn’t seem to like volunteer Addie. We are leaders of vibrant, contributing volunteer programs.