Daily Archives: 31 July 2014

When volunteers compete

Have you had problems with mission-competition among volunteers: an environment where volunteers compete in terms of more-devoted-to-the-cause-than-thou, or have mission-purity-tests for their fellow volunteers?

Some examples:

Several years ago, an animal shelter in a large city asked me for advice. They were working towards becoming a no-kill shelter. That means they wanted to create the conditions that would allow them to never have to kill adoptable dogs and cats – where they could have the resources to house every adoptable dog and cat, at the shelter or in foster homes, and get those animals adopted permanently as quickly as possible. That’s a massive undertaking. It requires vast amounts of money, facilities, messaging and volunteers.

The shelter was quite successful in recruiting a lot of volunteers to the cause, but a problem had appeared, and was growing: volunteers who were against hunting wanted to exclude people that were hunters from volunteering at the shelter. Arguments were erupting among volunteers with different viewpoints about hunting. A lot of volunteers were threatening to leave, either because they did not want to work with hunters or because they felt such hostility from other volunteers.

A few years before that, I was volunteering with a pro-choice coalition, made up of members representing a variety of groups working to ensure women’s access to safe, legal abortion services. Some of the groups were focused primarily on improving legislation and helping law enforcement to understand their responsibilities, while other groups were focused on defending health clinics from protesters on a day-to-date basis. Some groups members were anti-religious, while others felt their religious faith was the basis for the pro-choice work. While everyone was on the same page regarding reproductive choice, feelings about abortion varied HUGELY. Volunteers from both groups clashed often over which was the best approach for protecting women’s health decisions.

I thought about these two situations when I read this comment from a friend’s Facebook page:

This…..this whole “Lemme tell ya somethin’ ” attitude….. is THE reason I am getting out of dealing with non-profits. I will not be volunteering to do anything for a non-profits ever again. I can not tell you how many times I’ve gone into a situation full well knowing that I will put my prejudices aside ( organic food) to work for the larger picture ( sustainability or local farmers…etc…..) only to realize that *I* am the only person in the room who has checked their own personal agenda at the door.

Preventing this kind of mission competition among volunteers is far easier than trying to solve a problem that has festered too long. Some ideas:

  • Screening volunteers for attitude
  • Explaining to volunteers at their orientation, at other meetings and in your online group for volunteers what the mission of the organization is, and that the mission is ALWAYS the primary objective – that it can usurp how long someone has volunteered with the organization, a long-practiced tradition at the organization, etc. Be explicit about what mission competition among volunteers might look like, and why you want to discourage it.
  • Explaining to volunteers at their orientation, at other meetings and in your online group for volunteers your written rules regarding respect among volunteers. Very easy to find statements regarding workplace respect on Google.com or Bing.com.
  • Explaining to volunteers at their orientation, at other meetings and in your online group for volunteers your acknowledgement of different points-of-view among volunteers regarding why they support your organization’s mission.
  • Talking with volunteers directly that may be creating this mission-competition among volunteers.


How do you know if you are facing this problem? ASK! Ask volunteers why they are leaving, and ask volunteers what stresses them at your organization. Don’t just ask once: ask in informal meetings, ask at formal, official meetings, ask in feedback surveys, and ask on your online community.