Don’t let this happen to you! A cautionary tale arising from poor volunteer management. #wiseupwednesdays

success-failureI was browsing some previous posts and I came across this excellent blog post by Rhonda McClung, talking about how charities use up volunteers’ goodwill and willingness to volunteer by not treating them well or appreciating them properly. It still seems so relevant and I thought I would share it again:

“The compassion and benevolence that generate the goodwill that initially brings volunteers through your door can easily evaporate if your volunteer has even one bad experience.”

This is so true and having spoken to volunteers who have left organisations, one of the biggest reasons is that they don’t feel appreciated/valued or they feel underused.

“How do organizations use up their volunteers’ goodwill? Mismanaging their time.  Asking them to take on roles in which they are not comfortable.  Failing to communicate the importance of the assigned role.  Leaving them without the training necessary to be successful in the tasks for which they are responsible. “

This got me thinking about Volunteer Retention.  Does the above sound familiar? Are you logging why volunteers leave your organisation? Do you use exit interviews or feedback forms to gather valuable information? If not YOU SHOULD!  Only by monitoring why volunteers are leaving can you tackle the underlying reasons behind it.

Planning is important when involving volunteers and there are things you could be doing from when they join the organisation to help prevent them from leaving [hopefully!]. There are some volunteers who are with you for a finite period such as students, but many volunteers are in for the long haul, unless something causes things to change.

Nominate someone to be responsible for volunteers – who has the right skills and experience. If they haven’t, help them upskill.   It may be that you have someone looking after a team of volunteers who needs training or skills in managing volunteers, perhaps they have HR experience, but volunteers are totally different. If this is the case, discuss it during their supervision sessions and approach your local Volunteer Centre, who may be able to offer them the training they need.

Ensure your volunteers have regular support or supervision sessions – ensure you have frequent opportunities to chat to your volunteers and see how things are going. What’s going well, what’s not going so well, are there any issues to be resolved etc.  Other reasons a volunteer may leave could be difficult clients, conflicts with other volunteers – perhaps those who have been there for years, do things their way and don’t like change?  If you are seeing a volunteer regularly, hopefully these issues would have been picked up and resolved.

Develop a good rapport with your volunteers – if volunteers feel they can talk to whomever may be looking after them and they have an easy, relaxed relationship, they are more likely to talk when things are troubling them or something has gone wrong.  Many issues causing volunteers to leave have escalated because either the volunteer was frightened to discuss them, or the person managing them, swept them under the carpet and hoped they would go away.

A cautionary tale …

A prime example of this was a local day centre where female volunteers kept leaving for no apparent reason.  The issue only came to light when one of them [let’s call her Sarah] came into the Volunteer Centre with her mother, who was adamant that I be told of the issues there. Apparently a long-standing male volunteer [let’s call him Clarence] was responsible for locking and unlocking the centre, laying out the chairs/tables etc and generally being indispensable. He had an issue with younger women and liked to bully them, making comments laden with sexual innuendo and generally treating them poorly.

Sarah had been volunteering there for approximately 4 weeks and loved it. The old people attending the centre adored her and Bill, who never spoke to anyone, suddenly started chatting to her and enjoyed doing the crossword together.  Clarence resented the fact that Sarah was popular with the older centre users and infuriated that Bill would talk to her and not him.  He decided to keep her busy in the kitchen, so she wouldn’t have time to talk to anyone!  Sarah spent ages helping to prepare lunch, cleaning the kitchen – the oven was her weekly treat!  She did so much washing up, she developed very dry skin on her hands, but Clarence said she would need to buy her own rubber gloves if she wanted them.  When Sarah did this, he cut the fingers out of them!

The final straw was when Sarah dared to ask another volunteer why Clarence didn’t like her. He was incensed and threw her brand new mobile phone in the washing up bowl.  This was the final straw for Sarah who fled the centre in tears. She had to confess to her Mum what had been happening, expecting her to be very angry about the phone. Her Mum was more angry about how she’d been treated and marched down to the Day Centre.  Clarence was summoned and told her that Sarah was lazy, upset the centre users and was unreliable!

Mum then marched down to the Volunteer Centre, justifiably incensed about Clarence’s slanderous comments.  When I investigated and spoke to other volunteers at the Centre, many of them were frightened of Clarence and didn’t get involved because they feared the repercussions and his temper.

Next stop was the Centre Manager who initially accused Sarah of being exactly as Clarence had described her.  When challenged about this they declared that they were glad she’d gone as she was a troublemaker!

Having run this situation by my Chief Officer, I tackled the next stage of management for the organisation, who summoned the Centre Manager to their office for a chat.  It transpired that Clarence was indispensable and they put up with volunteers leaving as they needed him. The Centre Manager refused to get rid of him!

Not surprisingly the Centre no longer gets volunteers from us and I heartily advise any prospective volunteers to give it a wide berth.

So what have we learnt from this and why would it never happen in a well-run organisation?

  • the person managing the volunteers did not have the right skills to do so
  • the volunteers did not have a good relationship with the person managing them, so daren’t raise their concerns
  • there was no support or supervision sessions with volunteers, which would have flagged up the issues
  • Clarence was allowed to run the Centre as he chose, which should have been tackled by the volunteer manager
  • the manager did not investigate why female volunteers were leaving

This could easily have led to the Centre gaining a poor reputation as somewhere bad to volunteer. Sarah’s Mum was going to the local paper as she was dissatisfied with the outcome and Clarence being allowed to remain at the Centre!

3 thoughts on “Don’t let this happen to you! A cautionary tale arising from poor volunteer management. #wiseupwednesdays

  1. Excellent post Eileen as there are so many things here to learn. From allowing one volunteer to become indispensable to becoming complacent in a volunteer exodus, this story clearly shows how poor management can erode a volunteer program. Leading volunteers takes enormous skill and examples like this illustrate the importance of a committed and skilled volunteer manager. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your kind comments. I think this is one thing I have to keep banging on about to ensure volunteers are treated well and enjoy a positive volunteering experience 🙂


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