Dancing with a Difficult Volunteer

Public Domain Photo by Piotr Siedlecki

—As seen in The Cambrian

Charlie was the kind of leader who wouldn’t say a bad word even when warranted.

He was my tap-dancing godfather who brought me into the world of volunteerism. Since then, my nonprofit/volunteer work has a promenade history that shimmies from agriculture to the underserved.

When Charlie lead a campaign for a man running for California’s assembly, he had some rough moments with the opposition. Charlie never yowled and cursed the way folks do today. Instead, he said something like, “Well, they must say what they must say to get their man elected.” And when Charlie worked to bring a state of the art hospital to our community and had a rough time with one of the other volunteers, he simply said, “That lady’s a pistol.”

Pistol was a polite synonym for a few bad words commonly used today.

Which brings me to this month’s subject. Opposite to my February post about difficult leaders, what can leaders do about difficult volunteers? You know, those pistols.

Volunteers are gold. But sometimes, volunteers shuffle in with other agendas, or they simply are so out of step with the nonprofit that they become a liability.

Volunteer problems can include sobriety, troublemaking, honesty issues, lack of people skills, dependability, and even personal hygiene. These are challenges that are not easy for a leader to choreograph a solution.

Most nonprofits have written standards. From my experience, however, those standards are filed in a 3-ring binder that is stuffed in a box stacked in a dusty storage shed. And because volunteers are the inner mechanics of most nonprofits, the volunteer that insist on his way or the highway, may have to hoof it to the highway.

I have condensed the following suggestions from Energize Inc., a website for leaders of volunteers. Apply as if this was a pas de deux in a delicate ballet:

Don’t ignore the problem. It may go underground and be more difficult to confront.

  • “Fixing” volunteers will drain your energy, time and effectiveness and you will ignore the 98% of volunteers who are doing a great job.
  • There are some nasty people. Savior is not in your job description. Time won’t fix everyone and in the meantime you’ll lose good people and possibly hurt some clients.
  • Confront them carefully and calmly.
  • “If I’m really the caring and all-accepting person I should be, I can handle them.” STOP IT! You are beginning to believe your own press clippings. You’re a volunteer administrator, not a saint. They are the problem, not you.
  • If the volunteer becomes angry, so be it. You did what was best for the program and the people it serves.

Fortunately, difficult volunteers are the exception, not the rule. Not every volunteer can dance to the same rhythm as the rest of the volunteer line-up, so it may be a simple change of moves on the part of the leader to bring that volunteer to the front of the chorus line.

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