Back in 2010, as I was touring Australia to conduct advanced volunteer management training, I asked audiences of managers of volunteers how their executive leadership at their organizations define success regarding volunteer involvement. And one of the answers really disturbed me:
It’s successful if no one complains.
The person who made this statement didn’t think this was a good measure of volunteer involvement at her organization; she was acknowledging a reality at her organization, but did not like it. And at least two other people said similar things about their organizations — that senior management did not want to hear about any problems with volunteers and, if they did, it meant the volunteer manager wasn’t doing her (or his) job.
It means that just one volunteer complaint — including complaints about being reprimanded for not following policy — would result in senior leadership displeasure with the volunteer manager. One person said that her supervisor, in regards to complaints by a long-time volunteer who did not want to follow policy, “I just don’t want to hear it. Make her happy.”
Over the last four years, I’ve heard a version of this answer frequently. Senior management seems more displeased about getting a complaint from a volunteer, especially if that volunteer has been helping for many years, than they are that the volunteer has violated a policy and been given a verbal or written reprimand, or created an environment that drives away new volunteers.
If you are facing this kind of measurement of your volunteering program, and want to change it, confront it head on:
- Consider meeting one-on-one with each senior leader who thinks this way, to discuss why a complaint from a volunteer isn’t a sign of a failure in the program, why it’s often necessary to do something that upsets a volunteer (just as it’s sometimes necessary to do something that upsets an employee), etc. Talk about the consequences of not addressing problems with volunteers – driving new volunteers away, frustrated volunteers sharing their negative feelings with friends (who could be potential donors), even blogging about it, and worst of all, creating a legal issue (such as a filing for sexual harassment). Even if you walk away thinking you haven’t changed his or her mind, you’ve at least planted a seed of doubt in the senior manager’s mind about his or her thinking about volunteer management.
- While volunteer management is not exactly the same as HR management, volunteer management does involve HR management, and reprimanding volunteers because of policy violations is an example of that. Meet with the HR manager to make sure your policies and procedures — and enforcement — are in line with each other, and that he or she endorse your practices at a staff meeting or a meeting with senior management.
- Consider conducting a brief workshop for staff (over lunch is a great time) about how and why volunteers may be disciplined, why following policies and procedures is vitally important for the organization’s credibility and for staff and volunteer safety, the consequences of not addressing policy violations, how complaints from volunteers are handled, etc.
- Include information about problems you face as the volunteer manager in your regular reporting and how you systematically, dispassionately address such. Familiarizing senior staff with such challenges can help them understand that your job isn’t about just dealing with nice, good-hearted volunteers.
- Define the kind of culture you want for volunteers at your organization in writing. For instance:
We aspire to create a respectful environment where all volunteers feel welcomed and honored for their work, where they feel empowered to share sincere, helpful opinions that can help improve our organization, and where they make the mission of our organization the priority in all of their decisions and actions as volunteers.
It’s a statement that you can encourage your volunteers to help edit, which can, in turn, help them to embrace it. Then it becomes a statement you can point to when you are having an issue with a volunteer – to show how a volunteers statements or actions are in contrast to the stated culture your organization is trying to create for volunteers.
And on a related note, here is my interview with OzVPM Director Andy Fryar, talking about the trainings in Australia back in 2010.