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It's Not Me, It's You: Dealing with Difficult Volunteer Leaders

Posted by Tara Puckey on Apr 12, 2017 12:00:00 PM


There’s something good to be said about volunteer leaders. Wait, let me think a little longer. I’m just kidding. Volunteer leaders are, for the most part, one of the greatest things about your association. They bring all the feels to your cause and they work hard, out of the goodness of their hearts, to inspire others and do good work for the organization. As staff, we love them. But, we also know there are some who are difficult to love and we definitely don’t love dealing with them.

So, what do you do? How do you fire someone from a job they aren’t paid to do? Should you fire them? Is that even a thing? Don’t worry. Here are four tips for dealing with difficult volunteer leaders.

Start with the Roots
Not those roots, the root of the problem. We all say, “They are the problem,” but that doesn’t get us anywhere. It could be one of many things, but it’s likely you can boil it down to two causes: competency or character. Maybe they don’t have the skills they need to do the job right, or maybe they think they do, but they still don’t, which makes it even harder. Or, if it’s character, maybe their personality clashes with the group or they aren’t responsible, trustworthy or any other number of qualities that are critical to good volunteer leadership. No matter what, defining exactly what the issue is will go a long way to finding the solution.

Make a List
Once you’ve identified the problem, make a list of the specific things the problem impacts. For example, if character is the issue (for any number of reasons), your list might include things like: doesn’t meet any deadlines and have one excuse after another; makes XYZ uncomfortable in meetings because they point out flaws or mistakes publicly; doesn’t want to support any idea that isn’t theirs. You want a long list, but not one that’s hostile or pointing fingers. Keep it to the point and stick to the facts.

Counselor or Principal
I’m a firm believer that the first step isn’t for staff to “handle” said volunteer. For many volunteers, negative interactions with staff can be likened to being summoned to the principal’s office, especially if you don’t already have a close working relationship. Peers – as in other volunteers – are like counselors. They have a better angle to approach the volunteer: we’re all here in this together because we care about the organization and I understand that we don’t get paid, we work hard and we want to succeed. But, if other volunteers have already written your leader off, this might not be an option. Or, if your culture is that staff deal with the difficult things, then…you deal with it.

No Dodgeball
You need to get to the point. A personal conversation with either staff or a peer needs to explain exactly what the challenges are. Use the list you made and be specific about the things that are making it harder for the team to be successful. Reiterate the goals and then – here’s the key – provide solutions to remedy the problem. For competency issues, suggest a course or online class that might be helpful, or offer to sit down and go over the project one on one. For character issues, lay out a responsibility checklist to keep them accountable, ask them to commit to trying one idea from someone else each meeting, or let them know that XYZ is sensitive about being publicly criticized and suggest they have a private conversation instead. Whatever you do, make sure the issues are clear and share actionable items to address them.

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Topics: Association, Volunteers, Associations

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