Are you a victim of the ‘niceness syndrome’ ?

Andy Fryar March 1, 2004 2
Are you a victim of the ‘niceness syndrome’ ?


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

I’d have to say that volunteer program managers are amongst the nicest people I know.

Let’s face it – they are constantly dealing with members of the community who want to give their time for no monetary return ~ so it stands to reason that simple acts of politeness, courtesy and appreciation go a long way.

Now while there is certainly a place for ‘nice’ in the leadership of volunteer programs, I am concerned by the number of colleagues I meet in volunteer management circles who appear to have few other dimension or qualities to their leadership. That’s not to say they are bad volunteer managers, on the contrary their programs are often the ones where you’ll find some of the happiest volunteers.

What I am saying is that this style of management as a stand-alone mode of operation is often short sighted and non-progressive; where volunteer program managers appear to lack the intestinal fortitude, drive and the conviction to advocate effectively on behalf of their volunteers, their departments and their profession.

I’d even go so far as to say I believe this to be a major problem for the development of volunteer management as a profession.

Let me explain

Ever heard the phrase ‘terminal niceness’?

It’s a term that so very succinctly addresses the pitfalls of our incessant need to be pleasant to everyone.

My own phrase for this is the ‘Niceness Syndrome’ .

The Niceness Syndrome is a condition that creates a volunteering environment that typically looks like this:

Long standing volunteers feel well rewarded. They receive plenty of ‘pats on the back’ and they are generally not challenged with any new initiatives. It’s a comfortable place for this group and also for the volunteer program manager who similarly doesn’t need to think too hard or be bothered with external influences. They are not challenged and they don’t need to challenge the attitudes of others. The same place is also one where little thought is ever given to new legislative guidelines, changing trends, strategic visions or program development.

The end result of course, is a volunteer program that is forever only half managed!

It’s a little bit like changing the tyres on your car every few months but never once getting the engine serviced!

There are a number of reasons this may occur. One of the more prevalent of these relates to senior staff only ever seeing and understanding the management of volunteer resources in terms of the ‘warm and fuzzy’ surface interaction that occurs with volunteers at the ‘coal face’ of service provision.

In the process they fail to understand the huge managerial and legal requirements that often need to be met ‘behind the scenes’, and consequently, more often than not, they employ people strong in human interaction skills but weak in the harder edged management abilities.

Consequently, these same volunteer program managers when faced with lacking resources, dwindling budgets and non-existent support structures, tend to simply respond by smiling, saying ‘thank you’ and then complaining to their colleagues for weeks to come!

Don’t believe me?

Then let’s look at some of the more common problems I hear about on a regular basis:

. Difficulties with termination and discipline of volunteers . Program dysfunction

. ‘Renegade’ volunteers

. Lack of support by senior management

. Lack of resources available to volunteer programs

. Low retention rates due to volunteers feeling under-utilised

Now think about how these topics relate to the ‘niceness syndrome’. The solution to all these problems lies within the ‘hard edged’ sphere of volunteer management and all are perpetuated by an inability to deal with issues in anything but a ‘nice’ and inoffensive manner.

Let me offer another analogy – think of your volunteer program as being like a computer.

At one end (the ‘nice’ end) , you have your web browser.

It’s easy to work with and interprets all of the other information being fed to it in a way that is easily understood by the end user. You never need to worry too much about the advanced circuitry or the amazing technological wizardry that makes it tick. Even when things go wrong, we tend to diagnose the problem at that level (eg. the picture is all blurry).

I believe that one half of our jobs – the ‘nice’ part – is to ensure that our programs operate like a browser for our volunteers. We need to create an environment conducive to involving community participation in the easiest way possible.

But our jobs don’t stop there!

Imagine for a minute that you have called a computer technician to investigate the blurry picture on your computer screen. They arrive at your office, switch on your monitor, see the distorted image, scratch their head and say “the problem here is that you have a blurry picture!” They then proceed to write you a bill and go on their way!

Why would this be a surprise? Well clearly because you’d expect a computer expert to be able to look beyond the obvious problem, diagnose the cause and give you strategies to fix your equipment.

Sadly, for those volunteer program managers who operate only using ‘nice leadership’ the parallels with this example are all too familiar. They hear of a problem, scratch their heads and think it is all unrelated to the way the overall volunteer program is managed. They remedy the problem and not the cause.

The truth is that regardless of whether we are talking computers or volunteer management, the back end circuitry IS important, as is the need for us to be able to both understand and manipulate those more complicated driving forces.

While it may not be easy – and it most certainly won’t be comfortable, the need to take a stand on some of these issues is critical to the long-term health of your program.

Believe me, once you’ve got some runs on the board, you’ll feel great about yourself and your program, and you will gain the respect of others in your organisation too.

Let me end by stating that the opposite of this essay is also true.

I’ve seen volunteer programs that feel more like the military than a community organisation – where it’s all about rules, regulations, program outcomes and order. Leaning too far in this direction will also only ever lead to an unhealthy volunteering environment.

What’s important is creating a healthy ‘nice / hard edge’ mix – where the tougher issues are dealt with but where volunteers continue to feel rewarded and valued.

So let me ask you a few questions:

. Do you believe the ‘niceness syndrome’ is as big a problem as I am suggesting? What are your own observations?

. What are some of the experiences (successes and barriers) you have had in trying to develop a ‘tougher’ style of management?

. What does your own ‘nice / hard edge’ mix look like?

Let’s hear what you think


  1. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Submitted on March 4, 2004 by Susan J Ellis, President, Energize Inc, Philadelphia, USA

    Wonder how many of your readers are thinking, “now it isn’t nice of you, Andy, to call us to task”! But you are absolutely on target with this essay and it is a world-wide problem.

    I think that some folks confuse “nice” with important characteristics such as friendliness, courtesy, and open communications. They perceive assertiveness as aggressiveness, honesty as insult, and taking action as asking for trouble. What really concerns me is how much of this is classically “female” behavior–another of the image issues of our field.

    Of course, it also depends on your definition of “nice.” Is it nice to allow volunteers to be taken for granted or exploited? Nice to allow paid staff to denigrate volunteers? Nice to let an obnoxious volunteer get away with poor performance while many more excellent volunteers bear the consequences? In other words, if “nice” means passive acceptance of whatever happens–but with a smile–I’m not so sure it’s all that nice.

    We have a responsibility to do what’s best for our organizations, the clients and staff involved, and the volunteers who are contributing their time and talent. Sometimes that requires taking a stand…and that means taking sides. It also calls for a degree of courage. A long time ago, in my first job as a volunteer program manager, someone gave me a poster that is still hanging in my office today. It says: “Behold the turtle. It only makes progress when it sticks its neck out.”

    We cannot always be liked by everyone, but we can make sure we create a positive, enthusiastic, standard-upholding environment. Now that’s what I call nice !

    By the way, I credit colleague Marilyn Mackensie of Canada for coining the provocative term “terminally nice” for our field in a book about 20 years ago.

    Thanks, Andy.

  2. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 11:46 am - Reply

    Submitted on March 3, 2004 by Rosie Williams, Team Leader, Volunteer Support, SA Ambulance Service, Adelaide, South Australia

    Ok I’ll bite!

    I have been working in the voluntary sector since the early eighties and during that time I have seen lots and lots of changes from when things were really informal to putting appropriate processes, guidelines, and strategic directions in place. I would not overlook how far we have come during this time, and minimise the great achievements the sector (and the workers in it) has made. Yes maybe we still have a long way to go. In life we are always moving, growing and things are changing.

    Let me begin with the comment you made that suggested that because workers in this sector have strong ‘people leadership’ skills that they lack dimension and qualities to their leadership….. what is the definition of leadership?

    Most of the studies I have undertaken on ‘leadership’ claims it is not ‘management’ rather leadership is the ability to lead, motivate, promote, council, set an example to the workers we are responsible for, recognising that people are our greatest asset. After all if we didn’t have those happy, motivated volunteers in our programs we would not have a job and in many cases our clients would not get a service!

    I doubt that our flaws lie in the fact that we are complacent and comfortable I think that we all work far beyond what could be reasonably expected of us, and the fact that we do have few resources and time often means that we need to make some tough decisions about our priorities (it is like the chicken and the egg isn’t it!)

    Although the sector is changing I find that still today many workers in the role of Manager of volunteers:

    – are often offered the role on a part time basis

    – workers are often paid at low levels compared to other professions

    – they are more often than not working in organisations where volunteering is not the core business

    – they are often employed to do other work and the volunteer program is an added extra

    – they are usually the only worker involved in volunteering in the agency and therefore do not have a supportive team of people who understand the sector that they can bounce off

    – and I have seen more times than I can count, organisations employing people from outside the sector to fill vacancies rather than taking on people with experience in the field.

    So I guess I am saying that the role is more complex today than ever before and there are only so many hours in a day and we only have so much energy (unlike you Andy most of us mortals need to stop working and get some sleep during the dark hours :O))

    In regards to your comment that we scratch our heads and look for simplistic solutions to problems, I would like to highlight one group out in the Northern Suburbs of Adelaide called the Northern Collaborative Forum. This is a local group of proactive workers from a range of agencies pulling together towards addressing common issues such as lack of resources, training, recruitment strategies and so on. In fact my expereince of this sector is that we do assist each other, network, look for soluntions, push the boundaries and demand change (other wise we would not have moved to where we are today and in my opinion we have come along way) however we do this in addition to the all ready heavy and demanding work loads of our day to day lives.

    The final comment I would like to make is that I believe no matter how strategic and ‘harder edged’ we become and no matter how well a volunter program is managed there will always be some level of dysfunction, renegade volunteers etc, (because we are dealing with people!) . In most sectors there is a lack or resources and dwindling budgets – that seems to be the trend of the year 2004 and how life is, but in spite of this we do seem to get the job done and our targets are met.

    Sorry I am going to have to go now, my computer screen has gone ‘all blurry!” :0)

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