Dealing With a Feral Volunteer

Bill came to realise that a problem volunteer is just as difficult to manage as a problem employee
Bill came to realise that a problem volunteer is just as difficult to manage as a problem employee

By Chris Gandy

I received a rather cryptic message on my voice mail from the CEO of a rural based not for profit which went something like this…..

“G’day Bill here, could you call as soon as you can. One of our volunteers has gone feral and is causing mayhem. We need to talk options – quick”

When I rang Bill back he sounded at the end of his tether and 60 seconds later after detailing some of the weird behaviour of the problem volunteer, I could understand why.

Bill was also extremely candid about his failed strategies to deal with the problem to date,  some of which you may be familiar wIth.

Initially Bill thought the person may be attention seeking so he ignored her. When things actually got worse he  started blaming himself for over-reacting and for a while convinced himself he was being overly precious about the situation. As matters spiralled out of control he rationalised that she would create such a scene if he confronted her that it was better to simply live with the problem.  That was until a delegation of staff and volunteers confronted him in his office and virtually told him:

“Either she goes or we go”

I didn’t need to lecture Bill on the merits or otherwise of his strategies to date. Informed by hindsight he realised that he should have spoken to her at the first sign of inappropriate behaviour. But she was after all a volunteer AND her family had been long term supporters of the organisation. However, Bill had finally concluded enough was enough and he was going to dismiss her and wanted my moral support.

“I am going to fire her and give her one of my ‘feedback sandwiches’ to limit the collateral damage”  Bill explained.

“Right”, I said,  “But there is something else you could try first”

All I could hear on the other end of the phone was huffing and puffing while I suggested another course of action to Bill. I could sense he didn’t like what I was saying, but, I ploughed on regardless.

Clearly the person had to be spoken with and I stressed that Bill needed to be in a calm state of mind when he spoke to the volunteer. Certainly today wasn’t the day and maybe not even tomorrow. He needed to set a mutually acceptable time and definitely not one wedged tightly between two appointments.

I then suggested Bill leave his ‘feedback sandwich’ in his lunch box (I have real problems with the old “clap, slap, clap” approach which I will save for another post) and try another approach.

I encouraged Bill to give very specific feedback on the person’s behaviour, actions and attitude and how this is directly impacting upon the organisation’s CAUSE. Talk about how a change in these areas could have a positive impact on the CAUSE. Ask whether the person would like help in changing. Give the person time to reflect on what they have been told and  on their future role with the organisation. Make it clear however that it is no-one’s interest to allow the CAUSE to be negatively effected by this behaviour. They are a valued human being and can make a fantastic contribution to the CAUSE.  Let’s concentrate on how their energy can be focused on positively enhancing the CAUSE.

That was almost three weeks ago and Bill finally rang yesterday. He said he saw the volunteer a few days after our conversation and  tried the suggested approach. He also said it required some thinking on his part in linking the behaviour to negative cause impact but he was eventually able to do it in a comprehensible way. He also said he felt less stressed and emotional during the discussion because rather than talking about how the volunteer was getting up everyone’s nose he was, in a way, defending and standing up for something he cared passionately about – the CAUSE. The approach also decoupled the conversation from the usual subjective “we don’t like what you are doing” rhetoric which almost inevitably invites a “well get over it” response.

As for the volunteer. After 60 seconds or so posturing and deflecting she became very contrite once she could plainly see how something she also cared about quite deeply was being damaged. And this damage was being inflicted by her.

Bill said he delayed calling to see whether the positive behavioural change was going to last, but so far so good.

What’s your approach in dealing with a problem volunteer?

About Chris: Chris Gandy is the Principal and Founder of Cause and Effective , a group that aims to help leaders of cause-based organisations to deliver on their mission by providing insightful practical information and linking them with affordable subject matter experts. You can contact Chris here

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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