August 14, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough

Posted in Best Practice at 2:02 am by Sue Hine

Last week I was putting some distance between HR and management of volunteers.  Now I am backtracking, to illustrate just when and how some HR principles can be really useful.

The tales of woe about managing volunteers who are poor performers are legend among volunteer leaders.  ‘What to do’ with the long-time loyal but now aged volunteer attracts repeated attention, and a close second is declining a volunteer application or calling a volunteer to account over a policy or ethical transgression.

I get to hear confessions about feeling sorry for the volunteer, worry about causing personal offence and potential damage to the organisation’s reputation in the community. There is a reluctance to take action, thereby compounding volunteer poor performance and risking the overall credibility of volunteer services – not to mention the manager’s ability to manage the programme.

This is where all that policy stuff comes into its own.  All that programme design, written obligations in a signed agreement, a job description, and ongoing training and supervision that was such a chore to complete – it’s there to protect the volunteer, and the organisation and its users.  And it is all basic HR practice related to performance management.

Managers of volunteers often pride themselves on being ‘people-persons’, being caring and attentive to individual interests and being really good communicators – yet encounter a mental and emotional block in communicating ‘bad news’. It is time to grasp the nettle, and HR people might just offer some good tips!

I am not your HR person, and there’s no point in me telling you what I would do, because you are not me. But here are some principles that might help achieve a mutually satisfactory outcome for you and the volunteer.

  • Don’t let the issue or incident fester – act sooner, not later
  • Whatever the context – ageing, unsuitable applicant, contravening policy – describe specific behaviours and why they are matters of concern.
  • Outline options for supporting and/or improving performance, or alternative volunteer responsibilities
  • Firm up an agreement for change and review; or agree that exiting is the best option

This process is not a magic bullet, though it is a responsible way to demonstrate your expectations and organisational standards.  And it is a way to maintain respect and dignity on both sides.  Here are two more tips:

  • Know your volunteers as individual persons.  Then you are more likely to be able to suggest a range of options relevant to the volunteer’s circumstances and personal style.
  • Know your community and its resources.  Then you can suggest possible alternatives to the unsuccessful applicant or the ‘released’ volunteer.

Of course the plot can still turn messy and unpleasant for all concerned.  The bottom line is risk management, and sometimes it is better to wear an ex-volunteer’s bad-mouthing than to jeopardise the quality and integrity of the volunteer programme.


  1. DJ Cronin said,

    Thank you Sue for this helpful post. It is an area where I’ve heard many seeking guidance and I feel the principles that you list are spot on and can be very beneficial to people in our profession!


  2. Great Blog Sue. I can relate to everything you say – particularly the bit about not letting things fester.


  3. Teresa Gray said,

    Very helpful and simple points, but still very dificult when we have to approach the volunteer and deal with the situation.
    It is a very sensitive matter to the volunteers who want to do good and be helpful without realising sometimes the consequences of their actions.
    Thank you


  4. Alexis Smith said,

    Thank you so much Sue for your wisdom and down to earth posts. I can say without any reservations that todays post is true. I have used the standard process to manage out volunteers that have displayed bad behaviour that has gone unchecked for a long period of time. Follow the process and focus on the behaviour not the person. In my case I made sure that the person/s managing the volunteer was on board with how the proceedure worked and was part of the solution as well.


  5. Alison said,

    The bottom line is risk management, and sometimes it is better to wear an ex-volunteer’s bad-mouthing than to jeopardise the quality and integrity of organisational services.
    I loved the above, your closing sentence. It is also surprising who comes out of the woodwork and supports the decision you had to make, other volunteers also see behaviours they don’t want to be associated with. So well done Sue, you always hit the nail on the head and inspire us to be the best we can by sometimes having to do the extra hard stuff.


  6. Sue Hine said,

    Much appreciation to all of you for these comments. It seems I have touched a chord, or a nerve, or something. If other readers find this outline helpful then maybe we will hear less of wringing hands and ‘what should I do’ agonising.


  7. Tara Mallon said,

    Thanks for referring me to your blog it is all relevant 2014 thanks a million for the tips! Kia Ora


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