Group of volunteers chattingWhat can you do when a longstanding volunteer starts to struggle in their role? This may be through age, declining health or some other reason.

As a manager of volunteers, you will almost certainly face this issue at some point in your career. And there’s no easy answer. Often, volunteering is central to the person’s sense of identity, or their social life. Each situation is unique, and needs to be dealt with sensitively.

There are two guiding principles to help you with this kind of dilemma:

  1. We aim to treat all volunteers with dignity and respect
  2. The needs of the organisation overall should be prioritised over needs of an individual volunteer

The second principle will help you decide if an intervention is needed. And the first one can help you in considering how best to approach the situation.

Some short-term strategies.

Start a conversation

If you are facing this situation now, then a sensible starting point is to speak with the volunteer. Offer them an opportunity to open up about anything they are struggling with. You may be able to identify a solution together. For example, a less physically demanding role, or an agreement that they work alongside another volunteer.

It can be helpful to start by giving positive feedback about the things you appreciate about their contribution. And offer them an opportunity to tell you what’s going well, and what they are struggling with.

If the volunteer doesn’t identify any concerns, you may need to clarify the precise standards that you expect. Then check they are understood. And you can ask the volunteer what support the need to achieve these standards?

If the volunteer is unable to see a problem, be prepared to offer concrete feedback about what you have observed i.e. when standards are not being met. Be kind but clear.

Conclude any meeting with clear agreement about next steps. For example, “we’ve agreed you will carry on in your current role and I’ll be keeping an eye out to see that procedures are followed. We’ll meet again in 6 weeks to review.” Or, “you’ve decided it’s time to contribute in a different way, by coming in to support the other volunteers, making cups of tea, washing up and keeping the kitchen tidy. Lets meet again in 6 weeks so you can tell me how things are going’.

If you find that the volunteer has not fully understood your conversation, due perhaps to declining memory, you need to assess the risks. This will include risks to the volunteer, other people and to your organisation. This could lead to a decision to contact next of kin, as you might if there were a physical health problem.

Clarify standards

This kind of situation can indicate a lack of clarity about what standards are expected. If this is the case, aim to involve volunteers in developing them. You might like to invite everyone to a volunteers’ meeting, where you will agree together service standards for each role. Write up the results, and use this shared understanding of standards in your conversations with individuals.

Or you could organise a volunteers’ meeting around your organisation’s stated values. A workshop session can help volunteers to identify concrete actions and behaviours that show how you live out your values.

Nurture model volunteers

Spend more time nurturing the volunteers who are doing a good job! These people are your potential allies and you don’t want to take them for granted. They will feel more motivated if you offer them positive feedback and development opportunities. And they may be able to influence other volunteers through sharing and modelling good practice.

Demonstrate through your actions that the volunteers who are keen to work to your standards reap the rewards. These might include additional development opportunities, a higher profile in newsletter, and invitations to represent volunteering at board meetings.

Some longer-term strategies

There are measures you can put in place to make it less likely that these situations will occur in future.

Communicate expectations

Review the way that you bring new volunteers into the organisation. Set clear expectations and clarify that both sides will review how things are going on a regular basis. State that you don’t necessarily expect volunteers to continue in the same role for years.

You could also consider how you organise the rota. Can you introduce a system where volunteers don’t always work with the same people? This can make it less likely that pockets of poor practice will develop. Volunteers often like to volunteer with their friends. But they may also see the benefits in working with different team members.

Regular reviews

Have regular one-to-one reviews with each volunteer, e.g. annual. Use the time  to review the year, celebrate achievements, discuss challenges and talk about the year ahead. It’s also a chance to identify any further training or development needs.

A culture of feedback

Create a culture where you and the volunteers exchange feedback on a regular basis, with the expectation that you will each act on the feedback. If you receive feedback that you can’t act on, explain clearly to the volunteer the reasons. This creates a much easier environment for engaging in difficult conversations.

Which of these approaches could work for you?

What do you think?

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