It’s the part of the job most managers dread – dealing with tricky or sensitive problems involving volunteers.

Problems are inevitable from time to time, even when your volunteering programme is well managed and resourced. You may recognise some of the following types of situations:

  • A conflict of interest between what a volunteer wants to do, and what the organisation requires.
  • Interpersonal differences, between staff and volunteers or between volunteers themselves.
  • A volunteer struggles to master the skills required for a role.
  • A long-standing volunteer becomes less fit physically or mentally for service yet reluctant to let go of the social support and sense of meaning that the volunteering provides.
  • A volunteer may become demotivated and negative about their experience, affecting others in the process.

A process for addressing problems

People meetingWhen there is a problem the first step is to identify clearly the issues that need to be addressed and a range of acceptable outcomes.

At some point, a semi formal or formal meeting will take place with the volunteer, to talk the issues through and agree a mutually acceptable outcome.

A well-managed conversation will give the volunteer time and space to share their perspective, and will aim for a joint resolution to the problem. For many of us, this conversation is the most challenging part of the process. To reach a positive outcome for all those involved, it pays to prepare for the meeting in advance, and to structure it effectively.

You will want to decide on an appropriate time and place, and prepare for the conversation, ensuring you have researched the relevant facts and that your knowledge is accurate.

Check whether the volunteer would like someone to come with them to the meeting. This may not be needed for a minor issue, but if a problem is serious or hasn’t been resolved despite previous efforts, it may be a good idea.

A structure for managing the meeting

It can help to go into the meeting with a belief and expectation of a successful outcome, whilst also being aware of your “bottom line” for an acceptable way forward. The following structure will help give your meeting the best chance of success.

  1. Find a quiet space (no interruptions) and welcome the person. Be aware they may be confused or unaware of any problem or nervous about what you might say.
  2. Say what the meeting is about: describe the situation as you understand it, including the impact or consequences of what is happening, and explain you want to understand her or his perspective and find a positive way forward
  3. Listen to what the person has to say. And then reflect back to them by rephrasing and summarising what you are hearing without judgment. This is important both to demonstrate empathy and to check your understanding,
  4. Give your viewpoint, once you are clear about theirs.
  5. Look for common ground about your mutual perceptions of the problem
  6. Look for solutions together. For example: can you adapt the existing role, help the volunteer into a different role, offer additional training or buddy support, provide closer supervision, or release the volunteer with dignity?
  7. Check the person’s commitment to improve/address the situation.
  8. Identify specific actions (What?  How?  By when?).
  9. Discuss what support might be required.
  10. Agree on a time to review together.
  11. Finish on a positive note.
  12. And finally … Keep a record of the conversation, a true reflection of what is discussed. And ensure you have a way of monitoring and following up on any actions agreed.

It is a good idea to have a problem solving policy in place, as part of your wider volunteer policy. If you don’t already have one, then we would be happy to send you a sample policy, please email us for a copy.

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