August 7, 2010

The Totally Bad Volunteer Experience

Posted in Leading Volunteers, Managers Matter, Valuing Volunteers at 11:32 pm by Sue Hine

When a volunteer experience turns bad everyone gets to hear about it.  Not just in your local community.  You can go global on the internet.  Here is a desperate story from Mr X in Singapore about Why I’ll never volunteer again.

 “It was my first time volunteering with this agency – and it will be my last time.  When I got to the agency there was no one there to tell me and another two student volunteers what to do.  We were ill-equipped to handle client queries: we had not been trained and did not have expert knowledge.  I got invited to a ceremony for presenting awards for our efforts.  When I replied, I was told I should have received my certificate of appreciation once I had completed my volunteer assignment.  I am still waiting to receive my certificate. The whole process has been disorganised and unprofessional.”

You can hear in these messages some clear volunteer expectations.  Indeed volunteers have a right to expect better from an organisation.  And our hapless volunteer received a few other pointers about volunteering from others who replied to his post:

  • It is more dangerous to give wrong advice than no advice at all.
  • The gift of our time is the most precious thing that we can give and volunteer managers forget that at their peril.
  • Maybe it will be better to volunteer with SPCA.  At least the poor abandoned animals will show their appreciation by wagging their tails or by snuggling up to you.

I am not surprised Mr X never wants to volunteer again.  I am not surprised he is being recommended to volunteer with SPCA and tending loveable animals.  Humans can be such beasts at times.

What does surprise me are a couple of other comments sent to Mr X:

  • You should never volunteer if you expect something in return. 
  • Real volunteers never complain, and always prefer to remain anonymous.


Surely – please tell me – the people who made these statements were not real volunteers?  I shall save up my opinion on this kind of false sainthood for another time.

Right now, what Mr X’s experience is telling us is how utterly critical the role of manager of volunteers can be for an organisation, starting with being ‘organised’ and ‘professional’.  Maybe it is an extreme example of what can go wrong, but the signposts to disaster are clear for any manager to avoid.


  1. DJ Cronin said,

    Great article Sue and a reminder on why effective Volunteer management processes are vital. It brought back memories of an experience of mine, or rather of a close friend of mine. A few years back he registered to attend a training course for a major volunteering organisation. Due to circumstances beyond his control he had to pull out of this course and informed the organisation. 3 months later he received a certificate for his completion of the course and thanking him for being a volunteer with the organisation!


  2. LJ said,

    I recently paid alot of money to volunteer overseas I was sent to a rich kids kindergarten…I agree volunteeers should not want something in return for their efforts but the reality is volunteers do want the good feelings and satisfaction that comes from genuinely helping people…I was disgusted with my experience as i was there to help at risk children not rich children (who were beautiful and lovely). I felt tricked and angry being sent to a place that had no needs to service.


    • Sue Hine said,

      Thanks for your comment Larna. You might like to know this particular blog is the ‘most viewed’ in all my year or so of writing, which tells me there are a lot of people sharing your experience or similar. Which is not a good look for Management of Volunteers, or for Volunteering. ‘Voluntourism’ is a growing business / practice around the world these days and your story is a cautionary tale. With any volunteer opportunity we need to treat information like a job applicant, do the research, ask other people, get the info – so we know what we are letting ourselves in for. I hope your next volunteer experience will be more fulfilling and rewarding.


  3. […] year ago, almost to the day, I posted a glib off-the-cuff piece on a bad volunteer experience.  One year later it turns out to be the ‘most-viewed’ of everything I have written, by a wide […]


  4. Gi said,

    More and more people don’t want to, heard bad things, and don’t think it’s worth doing because of giving free labor where in some cases they are patronized by staff/management who are paid. I loathe the phrase volunteer opportunities when many positions are really for paid staff or people willing to make extra income or start on minimum wage or below. Then when put on a resume it is more of a filler than may or may not be taken seriously. It is bad enough that people have to go in debt to attend school then get into the vicious cycle of more training etc because may jobs require experience/more credentials whereby volunteering gets thrown into the cycle. What really is upsetting when corporate companies having volunteer duties (especially if you are there just to volunteer) or making employees volunteer. Mandatory volunteering for high school would actually make some to many just want to just work instead unless they must intern for a post-secondary course. It also seems that non-profit organizations are not really much better as at times they do act like corporate. It’s amazing how there are people who used to volunteer and had liked/loved it in the beginning would slowly vanish because of how they are truly treated especially by the public and in some cases staff (if you are not a favorite, or a true mover and shaker open to change for the benefit of the community they are serving – corporate or not). It also seem’s like a catch-22 as a volunteer can be appreciated to some degree but not respected as much as staff who themselves feel burnt out and don’t want to truly care anymore. It is considered nice when people do it from the bottom of their hearts but in reality most feel they have to do it as part of their career path. Real volunteers will complain or really want to but feel ashamed to do so. They also want to feel useful without being downplayed as tools doing free labor for organizations to save money and have the pretension of sainthood.


  5. Agnes said,

    from Singapore and had a horrible experience trying to help street children eating at a soup kitchen in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The founder asked TWICE, directly where I got my funds from! The uniforms donated, which I requested to have pictures as proof, never appear too.


  6. […] gets to your HQ, there’s no worse experience for them than seeing total chaos and having no one tell them what to do. When volunteers arrive, someone should be dedicated to introducing themselves immediately, telling […]


  7. the supervisor who was supposed to train me never did and instead I was taught by a fellow volunteer who was an old lady who didn’t know what the hell she was doing. got fired on my 8th day without even the slightest performance coaching (which all the sources on firing volunteers say you’re supposed to do before firing as a last resort), Yeah I think most volunteers would be “high maintenance” if you DON’T TRAIN THEM.


  8. Dan D. said,

    Found this piece after a Google search inspired by another frustrating interaction with the head honcho of a local community media outlet I’ve started volunteering at. Thanks for sharing.

    While I get (and to a degree am sympathetic) that the person responsible for my frustration is in fact very busy and has been asked to wear a lot of different hats by the board of directors of the org, he barely took the time to train me, 6 months after getting back to me and admitting he’d entered my information wrong.

    Two weeks in, management style wise, I get the impression he was hired solely because of experience producing results/deliverables in the private sector and not because of his ability to effectively lead others in a nonprofit organization: he has poor management and communication skills and is only concerned with the “bottom line”. Now, I’m not here to argue that the bottom line isn’t important; it is, but HOW you get to the bottom line (ensuring your volunteers have the necessary knowledge and resources to produce results) is equally as important. Namely, if I tell you a week in advance I’m not going to be able to fulfill my duties because I’m on vacation and you choose to ignore the message, you have poor management skills.

    With regards to the two comments you found offensive in response to Mr. X’s story, people love to pretend they’re tough on the Internet. If those commenters truly believe “real volunteers don’t complain” and that volunteering is a purely altruistic endeavor, there’s a strong chance they’re delusional. Therapeutic venting via the raising of concern is part and parcel of the human experience, and it’s probably impossible to act purely out of regard for others.


    • Sue Hine said,

      Thanks for your comment Dan. I’m sorry you have had such a bad experience, and even more that ‘people managers’ still do not understand best practice based around communication skills and building relationships.

      Please do not let this experience put you off volunteering for ever. There are better managers to be found, and significant research to show social and health well-being benefits to people who volunteer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dan D. said,

        Oh, for sure Sue. This experience has been a little disheartening, but I’m still a huge proponent of volunteerism and the positive effects it can have on a community.


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