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How to Manage Difficult Volunteers: Strategies and Solutions

Identify challenges and find effective solutions

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In volunteer-powered organizations, volunteer leaders will inevitably encounter a difficult volunteer, or one who has poorly-integrated into their role. And when your organization relies on the time, energy, and expertise of dedicated volunteers in order to achieve community impact, this is an important challenge to address.

A misaligned volunteer can not only disrupt  the cohesion of your team, but they can even impact your program’s goals. As a volunteer leader, your organization looks to you to navigate these challenging situations with efficiency, empathy, and professionalism. But dealing with a difficult volunteer is hard, especially because they’re giving their time

This guide is designed to help you navigate this discomfort. You’ll learn to identify challenges with volunteers, find effective solutions, handle the termination of a volunteer relationship, and get the strategies you need to prevent these situations in the future.

How to Assess and Identify the Volunteer-Related Problem

First thing’s first: you’ll need to objectively assess the situation with your volunteer before choosing how to address it. This assessment will help you gain an understanding of the situation and guide how you respond.

Start off asking yourself the following question: can this situation be resolved by addressing the behavior, or has the behavior escalated beyond repair? It can be helpful to ask another trusted member of your organization for their perspective on the situation.

Here are some issues that can likely be resolved through additional training and/or open communication with your volunteer:

  • The volunteer repeatedly skips shifts
  • The volunteer is not getting along well with others and someone has complained
  • The volunteer is struggling in their role or doing it incorrectly
  • The volunteer has a bad attitude or is using profanity around clients

How to Turn the Situation Around

If your volunteer’s problematic behavior falls into the first category, then you might be able to turn the situation around. Here are 4 steps for solving volunteer problems:

Step 1. Create and Follow a Process 

Every volunteer program should have a documented grievances process so that if something goes wrong with a volunteer, there’s a procedure to follow. This will help you approach the problem ethically, treat every volunteer fairly, and minimize bias or favoritism.

Your process should outline:

  • How other volunteers and staff can formally complain about a volunteer
  • Who is responsible for handling these complaints and volunteer issues
  • A protocol that covers the step-by-step disciplinary process including the initial meeting with the volunteer, an interview, a follow-up meeting, a performance review, etc
  • The consequences of a volunteer failing to alter their behavior
  • Which actions require immediate dismissal
  • The termination process

Step 2. Talk With Your Volunteer

After you’ve assessed the problem and referenced your protocol, you’ll need to talk with your volunteer.

Choose a neutral and private place to have the conversation. Gather your thoughts before the meeting by listing the issues or problematic behaviors you intend to address. 

Calmly explain how the volunteer’s behavior has impacted your program, clients, or other volunteers. Open communication goes a long way; sometimes, challenging volunteers may be unaware that they are causing issues. While you have this difficult conversation, avoid blaming the volunteer as you explain the situation, and listen to their point of view; you might be surprised by the volunteer feedback you receive.

Step 3. Reflect on What Went Wrong

After your conversation with your volunteer, reflect on what went wrong in the volunteer relationship. In some cases, something within your organization itself could have contributed to their poor behavior.

As you reflect on the issue you’re having with your volunteer, ask yourself:

  • What (if any) part did your organization play in this conflict?
  • Did you match the right volunteer with the right role? Proper volunteer-matching has been shown to boost volunteer satisfaction and effectiveness. 
  • Did your volunteer opportunity description match the assigned task? Was your description misleading or too vague?
  • Is the role too complex or robust for one volunteer? Should it be broken down into several opportunities?
  • Is this an interpersonal issue that can be resolved through scheduling or reassignment?
  • Are you asking the volunteer to commit too much time?
  • Is the volunteer suffering from volunteer burnout
  • Are you communicating your expectations effectively?

Even though it’s uncomfortable, volunteer issues can provide a great opportunity to identify and target problem areas in your organization’s volunteer recruitment and engagement strategy. 

Step 4. Find a Way to Make it Work 

Once you’ve talked with your volunteer and reflected on the problem, it’s time to work towards a resolution.

Here are some solutions to try:

  • Set expectations and goals. Clarify the volunteer’s roles and responsibilities, as well as your expectations for their performance in the future.
  • Provide additional training or support. It’s possible that your volunteer is taking a little longer than expected to learn a new skill or the systems your program has in place. See if another round of volunteer training might fix the issue.
  • Revise the role. If the role is either a poor fit or it is not meeting the volunteer’s expectations, try shifting their responsibilities. This might mean redirecting them to another role, or downsizing a robust task into a more manageable workload.
  • Express appreciation and recognition. Sometimes volunteers act out when they feel overlooked, burnt out, or disconnected from your mission. Reinforce positive volunteer behavior by expressing appreciation and recognition for their efforts. Make sure your volunteers know exactly how much you value their time, and how they are helping make an impact in the community.

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When to Fire a Volunteer

You might be wondering when it’s time to fire a volunteer. Before firing a volunteer, you should follow your problem-solving process and try to rectify the situation. If there is no improvement in their behavior, then it might be time to let them go.

Some actions are immediate grounds for volunteer dismissal, and there is no need for an attempt at repair. Many organizations adopt a zero-tolerance policy for the following behaviors:

  • The volunteer has physically or verbally attacked or harassed another volunteer
  • The volunteer has bullied someone at the organization
  • The volunteer has arrived on-site or has operated a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • The volunteer has been caught stealing from the organization
  • The volunteer repeatedly acts in a way that threatens the safety of others, even after additional training.
  • The volunteer claimed they had skills or certifications that they do not actually possess
  • The volunteer has shared the private data of the organization or its clients

How to Fire a Volunteer

If you have followed this guide and there has been no improvement in behavior, or if your volunteer has crossed the line, then you will need to release your volunteer from service. 

Firing a volunteer is never an easy task, and should be done respectfully and professionally. VolunteerPro suggests that you inform your supervisor and schedule a meeting with the volunteer. Ideally, a third-party witness or your direct supervisor will be present during the meeting.

During the meeting with the difficult volunteer:

  • Respectfully explain the reasons your organization is dismissing the volunteer. Identify specific behaviors and also note any failed attempts at remedying the situation
  • Clearly describe how the volunteer’s behavior has failed to meet your organization’s expectations
  • Present a termination letter and ask the volunteer to sign it. Present them with a copy for their records
  • Ask the volunteer to return any of your organization’s property including uniforms, keys, badges, computers, etc

After the meeting, write a short report of the meeting for your internal records. You can also update their profile within your volunteer management software to reflect the date and reason for their termination.

Strategies for Preventing Difficulties with Volunteers

Prevention goes a long way in minimizing problematic behavior with volunteers. By implementing the following strategies, you can reduce potential difficulties and create a more cohesive and healthy volunteer program: 

  • Write a Volunteer Handbook. Volunteer handbooks prepare volunteers for their roles, and can help reduce confusion around duties and responsibilities. Share your volunteer handbook during volunteer orientation so your volunteer has everything they need to be successful from the very beginning.
  • Implement a Volunteer Code of Ethics. Have volunteers read and sign a Volunteer Code of Ethics during onboarding. A code of ethics outlines your organization’s expectations of volunteer conduct while performing their duties. It can help remove ambiguity from the volunteer experience, and can also allow your organization to be more objective in disciplinary actions. 
  • Offer Robust Volunteer Training. Volunteer Training helps volunteers fulfill their volunteer roles successfully, confidently, and independently, and can prevent underperformance. Ongoing training may be necessary for volunteers who began working with your organization under a different program or administration, and are finding it difficult to adjust.
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Managing difficult volunteers is one of the most challenging aspects of volunteer leadership; however, it’s necessary to address these misalignments for the overall health of your volunteer program. With the right policies and procedures in place, you can transform these challenging situations into opportunities for program improvement within your organization.

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