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Too much of a good thing

Posted by Peter Post  July 23, 2009 07:00 AM

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Q. What advice do you have for handling difficult volunteers? You may think I'd be happy to have "too much help," but I've found a few who want to take over, take control, and cannot take direction. It gets to the point that I don't want that personality to volunteer at all, because even if Iím specific and match talents, they cannot stay within the scope. I can even easily give up "all the credit," but how do I rein in "too much" help, even though I'm the recognized "boss" but everyone is a volunteer?
L. F., Watertown, MA

A. First step: does your organization have a volunteer policy that spells out volunteer rights and responsibilities? Such a policy gives you leverage to resolve the situation. Itís important that volunteers understand their roleóand the limits of that roleóin your organization.

In the future, make sure that projects assigned to this over-enthusiastic volunteer are specific and have clear-cut boundaries. Then, put it in writing. Although this can be extra work, youíll have proof if the volunteer takes the project too far or assumes authority you havenít granted. Summarize whatís been decided both verbally and in writing with a follow-up memo or e-mail. Then, if the volunteer goes beyond the scope of the project, use the memo to remind them of what was agreed to and to require them to explain their actions.

If the volunteer is heís still being difficult, then youíll have to have a heart-to-heart talk. Build a solid set of examples with documentation, if possible, and then lay out your concerns. Have a third person, preferably a paid administrator or supervisor, attend the meeting. Open the conversation with something like this: ďJohn, I have to be honest and tell you that some of your actions are beyond the scope of what weíre asking you to do and even what we want to accomplish. While I value the experience and dedication you bring, itís a problem we need to discuss and resolve.Ē If heís still intransigent, you may have to let him know you wonít be calling on him in the future.

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3 comments so far...
  1. Wow, you folks sure make volunteering sound dreary. I've had none of your experiences as a happy volunteer. I'd absolutely hate to volunteer for L.F. - or Peter Post. I'll go places where people appreciate my limited time.

    Posted by reindeergirl July 24, 09 04:13 PM
  1. I think it depends on the type of volunteering you are talking about.
    If it is a social or recreational situation, and you need volunteers to help 'run it', allow for some original thought from your volunteers. People who give their time for FREE like to feel they are needed, and wanted, and provide a little bit of themselves or their talents to make the occasion successful.

    If it is more business like or 'formal' situation, then you should provide 'jobs' with 'job descriptions' (including specific tasks that must be accomplished) for each job. It is up to you as the Coordinator to do your best to match the right volunteer with the right 'job'.

    I can tell you from a volunteer's point of view (for a social / recreational club), I like to do a good job at what I am asked to do, but I do not appreciate being 'told' what to do or be micro-managed. If I go a little overboard, it is only to make the occasion more fun or enjoyable and not to cause anyone else any extra work.

    Another thing that volunteers do not appreciate is being scolded or spoken to in a harsh manner if something is not perfect - or not done exactly as the coordinator thinks it should be done (if there were no specific guidelines for the 'job').

    Remember, volunteers are not paid for their time. And volunteers should not expect any 'payment' for their time.
    A successful occasion or a 'job well done' and the chance to enjoy the occasion is usually payment enough for a volunteer.

    Hope this helps.

    Posted by MML July 24, 09 04:41 PM
  1. Dear Mr. Post:

    Your answer assumes that the volunteer coordinator is managing volunteers fairly, considerately, and with appreciation. Perhaps L.F. would have an easier time managing volunteers if he/she actually thanks the volunteers for their FREE contribution rather than trying to enforce a power dynamic. For instance, L.F. could say:

    "Thank You for your contribution to X. I especially liked specific thing 1, specific thing 2, and specific thing 3. Your time and effort is very much appreciated."

    If L.F. is being PAID to WORK with volunteers, part of L.F.'s job responsibilities is to make volunteering a pleasant experience with her organization. It sounds like L.F. is failing miserably.

    Posted by Volunteersalot July 26, 09 01:21 PM

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