Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When Volunteers Aren’t That Great – Part 2

Thank you to Katie Bull, Membership, Communication & Service Manager at Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) for writing this guest post. If you missed Part 1, check out November 1, 2011 post.

Lois Schmidt, NRS, Willmar, Marshall, Redwood Falls
While volunteer performance issues are not a favorite issue to tackle, they can become surprisingly clear when we dissect possible causes for the conduct. Problems with a volunteer usually stem from one of two things; organizational inefficiencies or behavior of the volunteer.

For instance, let’s look at one of the most common issues leaders of volunteers face when working with volunteers: dependability. A volunteer is consistently late for their volunteer shift, never calls to alert the staff of tardiness and shows little anxiety at showing up late. The first thought that might come to our heads is that the volunteer is lazy or just undependable- they can’t be trusted to be on time. However, we need to look past our initial judgments and look for possible reasons for this tardiness.

First, analyze the practices of your organization and volunteer program and ask a few questions: Was it explained to the volunteer during orientation or at the start of service the importance and expectation of timeliness? Do volunteers know that clients are waiting or other volunteers need to be relieved? Was the volunteer’s lateness pointed out and recorded at the first incidence or was it silently observed by staff? Asking these questions can reveal if there are practices that need to be improved to prevent this issue from happening in the future, and will help staff see possible reasons for the volunteer’s tardiness other than a personal quality.

Next, we can look at the behavior of the volunteer. It is important not to judge the volunteer on personality traits but instead to look at behavior and how it is affecting the volunteer’s work. Is there something preventing the volunteer from getting to the organization on time, such as transportation problems or conflicts? Is this behavior that has been ongoing since the volunteer started service, or has it just started recently? Could the volunteer’s understanding of time be different from that of the organization? Western cultures tend to highly value timeliness, while many other cultures have a very different understanding of time.

Now that we have looked more closely at what could be causing the problem, it’s time to address it. Here are some suggestions for conducting constructive conversations around performance issues:

1. Don’t attack personality, focus on performance.
2. Be specific. Do your homework and have specific examples of behavior concerning you. Don’t say: “You always do it that way.”
3. Keep conversations private.
4. Make the intervention timely, but do not approach until you are rational and calm.
5. Reiterate expected behavior using “I” not “you” language.
6. Get agreement on the problem. Allow the volunteer to explain from his/her perspective.
7. Determine a shared commitment for finding a solution to the problem.
8. Agree on a plan (both parties) to solve the problem.
9. Arrange for a follow-up meeting to determine if the issue is resolved or needs alternative solution options.

Often we think that issues with a volunteer means letting that volunteer go. But, after asking yourself the questions above and finding the root of the issue, other options will reveal themselves. Some of these alternatives to “firing” a volunteer are:

1. Re-assign to a new volunteer position within the organization, if appropriate.
2. Train/coach or re-train, depending on whether the volunteer received adequate preparation to handle the position in the first place.
3. Provide a more motivating environment for the volunteer if s/he has lost interest in the work.
4. Give information about any central referral source in the community or online where the volunteer might find a position better suited to him/her.
5. If the volunteer, due to age or disability, is no longer able to carry out the work and no other position is appropriate, retire him/her with style and appreciation for past service.

If you have any other questions regarding volunteer performance or leadership of volunteers in general, please feel free to contact MAVA at (651)255-0469 or

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