Expert Advice

Bad Nonprofit Volunteers: How Do I Dump the Dead Weight of Unhelpful Helpers?

| Updated February 16, 2018

Volunteer training, assessment and oversight. Does your nonprofit have all the pieces in place?

Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, is joined by the president of Tech Networks of Boston, Susan Labandibar, and nonprofit consultant and outcomes expert Bob Penna, for the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

I hear a lot about the oh-so-precious volunteer and how nonprofits and charities don’t train, support and and show enough gratitude to these selfless heroes.

I know that there are plenty of great volunteers out there and I sincerely appreciate those generous people. What I don’t appreciate is the volunteer who is just looking to fill empty hours, find new best buddies or drone on to a captive audience who will listen to their (time-wasting) personal life stories and empty-headed philosophies.

These same volunteers don’t show up on time, promise help but rarely deliver, act like normal humans in front of the executive director and cause problems with everyone else; in other words, they volunteer because no employer would ever pay them given their poor work habits and emotional neediness. I hate when I get assigned a new batch of “trained” volunteers, knowing full well that most of them will quickly prove to be a waste of space.

Look, I’m just saying what no one wants to say: supervising volunteers often takes more time and effort than it's worth. And the hard-working nonprofit employees who shoulder their half-completed or badly done tasks? We smile, attend appreciation luncheons, sign group gratitude cards and pretend that we just love these folks — thank you, thank you, hug, hug.

Why doesn’t anyone ever speak up about problem volunteers?

Kathryn says …

Have you ever heard the term curmudgeon? You are edging dangerously close to sounding like one.

Yes, you are correct. Not every volunteer is your dream non-paid employee. Volunteers, like all human beings, come in all variations of intelligence, competency and emotional health. Recruiting, training, supporting and recognizing volunteer contributions to our nonprofit does necessitate real work for all involved employees. Got it.

Nonprofits spend time and money creating and managing volunteer programs for several important reasons. First is the good work that most volunteers accomplish. Volunteers across the globe give literally billions of hours of their personal time, representing hundreds of millions of dollars directed toward mission delivery. In 2015, 1.1 billion people worldwide, volunteered for a charitable cause.

We also nurture volunteerism to foster a sense of community around nonprofit mission delivery and collective impact on social problems. In the best of worlds, nonprofit funders, policymakers, staff and volunteers are partners in making their community a better place. Volunteerism provides tangible opportunities for community members to learn more, help more and ultimately, give back more to their chosen locality or cause.

While I agree that most nonprofits do not choose to issue public proclamations about the downside of utilizing volunteers, the types of problems you describe are often talked about amongst volunteer program professionals. People and personality issues are always something to deal with. But consider that you will also build some of the most rewarding relationships of your career. Ask any volunteer coordinator you meet.

Approaching challenges with a welcoming, “can-do” attitude might make a big difference in your volunteer management experience. People can sense disapproval and dislike. Your volunteers may feel that it is no use to trying to team with you — you’ve already decided that most them are, as you say, “a waste of space.” I certainly would not be motivated to perform my best work with your killjoy clouds hanging over my head.

Perhaps you need some training on how to best support and utilize volunteers. If others in your organization share your toxic attitudes, your entire organization could use some additional training. Talk to your executive director about your concerns and how to access more support for you and/or your colleagues.

Instruction and an attitude adjustment could do wonders for you and for the poor volunteers who are now assigned to work with you. It’s time to turn this around.

Susan says …

This advice-seeker could be seen as a victim. While you are right in that a good volunteer manager is someone who genuinely likes working with people, we all know that nonprofits often require employees to wear multiple hats.

Volunteer management may not be what this person signed up for when they joined the organization.

Bob says …

Dear Captain Obvious,

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to remind us of what we already know: the fact that not every volunteer is perfect, and that some are far from it. You asked, "Why doesn’t anyone ever speak up about problem volunteers?" OK. You did it. We hope you feel better. But, as happens with most chronic complainers, beyond venting your spleen, we must note that your kvetching contributed nothing to a solution.

Kathryn suggested training for you and your colleagues on how to best support and utilize volunteers. While this idea is not entirely without merit and may actually be needed in your organization, it glosses over the central issue — a volunteer who is a bad fit with your organization.

The fact is that not every human relationship works out. Just as few of us have found a “perfect fit” with every job we’ve taken or with every personal connection we’ve begun, so it is that not every volunteer is right for every organization.

The former executive, for example, may at some level still be the autocrat he or she was before they retired, and sees countless opportunities to “improve” the organization for which they have volunteered. Or perhaps you've got someone who's never had any sort of leadership role and lacks the confidence to take any initiative whatsoever, waiting to be told what to do next. Then there’s the classic “church lady” volunteer who wants to have a finger in every pie and generally drives everyone nuts.

But the responsibility for identifying that situation before it becomes a problem rests primarily with the organization.

Next, look at what your organizational process for the screening and training of volunteers. And by “screening” I mean one or more in-depth interviews to ascertain a person’s actual fit for an organization and what it does. With today’s emphasis on making volunteers feel appreciated, I fear this step is too often overlooked.

Screenings should give volunteers a clear sense of the organization’s expectations and gain a sense of theirs. It means getting a picture of how a volunteer sees his or her potential role, and knowing what an organization’s target goals are, what its structure is and crucially, how it does its work.

Too many organizations say they want volunteers, but with no plan in place, volunteers are quickly reduced to the status of gofers or movie set extras, truly just taking up space because no one in the organization really has any idea of what to do with them.

Determine if your organization has a set group of jobs or tasks for which it seeks volunteer support. Do you seek volunteers to accomplish certain things or just extra sets of hands? Have your volunteers been given a “job description” with documented responsibilities? Do your volunteers report to any sort of a manager? What about training and review of a volunteer's progress? If not, these shortfalls could be part of the problem you face. Few of us would hire someone and then just let them loose in the office with instruction to “find something to do.” But this happens frequently with volunteers.

Volunteers are important to many nonprofit organizations and absolutely crucial to many more. But just like employees, not all are without their problems. Nonprofit leaders have two choices when faced with this situation: they can do something about it and improve their volunteer program or they can complain. In your note, you chose the latter. Now that it's out of your system, I suggest that you turn your attention to the former. It will do far more good.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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