It is particularly tricky to deal with a bad volunteer; it seems churlish to punish someone for a donation of time and effort.
Q: I volunteer quite a bit for my children’s schools, our house of worship and our community, so I work with dozens of volunteers. We all give our time in the name of contributing to the greater good, and we understand that we are often amateurs taking on roles as event planners, treasurers, fundraisers, historians, etc.
That said, every once in a while there are volunteers who do more harm than good. There are many variations on how this can happen — for example, by actually losing money on fundraisers, or inciting too much drama. How do you best “fire” a volunteer with a long history of chronic issues?
A: It is a lovely thing to volunteer. And thus it is particularly tricky to deal with a bad volunteer; it seems churlish to punish someone for a donation of time and effort. But schools, community groups and charitable programs don’t exist for the purpose of serving volunteers. It’s the other way around. And a problem volunteer can have disastrous consequences. If the organizer of a money-losing fundraiser causes other, competent volunteers to quit, the whole enterprise can be undermined.
So, unpleasant as it may be, proceed as if this were any other organization. First, ensure that there is relative consensus about this person among the broader group. Then consider whether this person has other skills that could be genuinely useful. If it’s purely a personality problem, discuss what can be done to minimize it: Maybe the drama inciter works better with some people than others. And maybe he or she has a particular grievance (an overlooked achievement? a perceived slight?) that could be addressed.
You may want to present the results in the context of a general set of changes, rather than singling out the individual. In other words: “It’s a good time to rotate responsibilities,” as opposed to, “Your bake sale was a catastrophe.” If the person resists, and if old problems persist or new ones emerge, be more direct. Again making it clear that this is a group consensus, point out the issues, note the attempted resolutions and offer this virtuous troublemaker the choice to shape up, or find another cause.
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You should proceed in a more deliberate and humane way than the business world sometimes allows. But if none of the above work, you’ll end up in the same place as any other enterprise that’s interested in having a future: The person has to be told that his or her services, while appreciated, are no longer required.
Submit questions to Rob Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.