Who rules the roost?

Andy Fryar May 1, 2008 7
Who rules the roost?


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

I am lucky enough to travel a lot and to meet many volunteer managers from all walks of life in the process.

Like most trainers in volunteer management, I find that there are a number of recurring themes that arise in the questions I get asked. The really obvious ones relate to volunteer recruitment and motivation, which is no surprise, but in addition, I also field lots of questions about issues that include:

• How do I overcome ‘cliques’ and dysfunctional volunteer cultures?

• How do I set clear boundaries for my team?

• Can I ‘sack’ or discipline a volunteer team member?

• How do I make changes or introduce new policies without offending anyone?

• How can I get long established volunteers to come to training, be more cooperative or move on?

• …and the list goes on

It is not these questions themselves that are problematic, they are fair and reasonable issues that we all need to tackle from time to time and they need to be asked.

The problem for me is that in 90% of these cases the question is usually being asked from a position of what I dare call ‘weakness’. That is, all too often I believe that volunteer managers feel so powerless in their positions that when there comes a time where they need to forge change for the benefit of the program, they are almost apologetic in the approach that they take. You only need to re-read Liz Scarfe’s excellent Hot Topic from last month to be reminded of just how powerless our sector appears at times. (…and why is it that there was not a single response to Liz’s challenge for readers to share positive examples of how they feel empowered!?!?)

Anyway, I digress slightly – but here’s the point I want to make.

I believe that in far too many agencies, we have gotten the balance wrong and forgotten some fundamental principles about the roles which volunteers should play in our organisations – and I challenge you to consider if it is time for a re-think of how the role works in your situation.

Volunteers are important to the success of any agency which engages them. Let’s make no mistake – I am a huge fan of the difference that well led volunteers can make. But I ask this question of each person reading this Hot Topic — why does your agency engage volunteers?

Sure, there are a myriad of reasons we can cite, everything from ‘saving money’ to ‘bringing the community into our organisation’. But what is really at the core of your volunteer engagement? Ultimately, it should be to help achieve the goals and mission of your agency – whatever they may be. To save a forest; to rescue Pandas; to improve the health of your local school; to alleviate poverty; to kill cane toads!

When we properly understand this we can begin to better appreciate that it is the organisation and its purpose which should drive everything that goes on within that agency, and when it comes to engaging volunteers, two things are clear:

• Volunteers are primarily engaged to assist our organisations to achieve the mission of the agency &

• It is only through our organisations that we are able to offer volunteers the opportunity to contribute towards making a change they are passionate about

Now not for one minute am I suggesting that volunteers are, in any way, a secondary consideration. Indeed, it is senior staff in our agencies that more often than not need to better understand that adequately resourced and well led volunteers are critical to their organisations achieving their mission in the first place. But at the end of the day there is a key point which needs to be stated.

The organisation and its mission is ultimately larger than that of any individual(s).

If we believe this to be true, then surely this reality should drive our policies, our practices, our direction and the way we lead our volunteers.

So why is it that in so many agencies the volunteer manager seems to spend all their time trying to appease volunteers who do not wish to tow the line?

Dysfunction begins when we allow our focus to move from what it is we set out to achieve.

• If training is required and necessary, make sure volunteers understand why and be clear of your expectations that they will attend.

• If volunteers do not meet the expectations you have set (assuming they are fair and reasonable), then they need to be aware of the consequences.

• If cliques exist and new people are not made to feel welcome, break them up

Now I can hear many of you already thinking thoughts of dysfunctional volunteers getting angry, leaving the organisation and maybe even being very vocal about the whole affair. These are indeed concerns that warrant due attention, but are the few people who cause your program grief really worth persevering with if it means you cans retain any new members?

Again, let me painfully state that I am not advocating that we treat our volunteers poorly, our aim should always be to lead volunteers in a manner where they feel well equipped, proud of their work and valued as a contributor to the agency.

What I am suggesting – and this is important – is that as volunteer management professionals we don’t need to be apologetic about doing our jobs and insisting that volunteers follow the guidelines we set for them!!!

If we are to be leaders of volunteers, then we need to be out front showing others the way, rather than forever going round in circles and trying to put out spot fires. As much of the evidence suggests that future volunteers will expect strong leadership, it is high time we started rectifying this in many of our agencies.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic:

• Do you agree / disagree with what I have written?

• Do we in fact worry too much about upsetting volunteers and not spend enough time being strategic, strong leaders?

• Do you have real life examples of how you have become more direct in your own management approach that you can share? • Any other thoughts?





  1. ozvpm_andy March 25, 2012 at 10:41 am - Reply

    Response posted on July 4, 2008 by Helen Geltch, Family Services Coordinator, Sids & Kids ACT, Australia

    Hi – I also agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed in this month’s hot topic. I believe that we do no-one any favours by expecting and accepting lower standards from volunteers than we do from paid workers – most of all our clients. I would be interested in knowing more about the disciplinary procedures that Hazel Maynard spoke about in her response – I am in the midst of developing such procedures now.

  2. ozvpm_andy March 25, 2012 at 10:41 am - Reply

    Response posted on June 1, 2008 by Susan Williams, Volunteer Coordinator, Murray Mallee Community Health Service, Australia

    I find it difficult to turn away an individual who wants to volunteer – even when I am concerned about their capacity to be a really useful and productive member of our volunteer group. Working in a health setting I sometimes asked to talk to clients who wish to become volunteers. Some do have the capacity to be a real asset, while I know others who really want to help will end up being more of a liability.

    There are several reasons I can think of as to why I find it hard to say no. One of those reasons is I think that everyone has the right to contribute in some way if they want to, no matter how small that contribution may be, another reason is that I have a couple of volunteers who really do not contribute a whole lot, but who as a result of becoming a volunteer have really improved their social and emotional health.

    While I can think in my head and say to work colleagues that we are not a “baby sitting service”, I feel that occasionally this is what has happened. How do I find a balance, and dare I say it – become “tougher” without sounding offensive to people if I really want to say no to them.

    I would be thrilled to have some advice/suggestions – please!

  3. ozvpm_andy March 25, 2012 at 10:41 am - Reply

    Response posted on May 22, 2008 by Liz Scarfe, Manager, Volunteering Resources, Villa Maria, Australia

    Well I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments in your hot topic. For me, the main issue at the core of these management problems is our attitudes to conflict. If I have a “conflict-negative” attitude, I will do everything I can to avoid conflict (which includes not setting clear boundaries, let alone ensuring people adhere to them) and if conflict does arise, I will do everything I can to avoid not having to deal with it. Developing an attitude of “conflict-acceptance” is a step in the right direction; I will accept that conflict is inevitable, will have the courage to set boundaries and also deal with breaches of them, even though I find it stressful. Even better though, is the “conflict-positive” attitude where I see every conflict as a gift and opportunity to growth and learning for all involved.

    One other thing about boundaries I was told once was not to create boundaries that stop things happening, but that create the conditions that allow what you want to happen, to happen. i.e. “What boundaries do we need to have in place to allow xyz to emerge/succeed etc?” as opposed to “What things do we need to make sure don’t happen around here?” It seems a semantic point but I think it really makes a difference.

  4. ozvpm_andy March 25, 2012 at 10:41 am - Reply

    Response posted on May 6, 2008 by Jennie Holdom, Volunteer Coordinator, Catholic Care, Australia

    Having just read your thoughts on “who rules the roost?” I can empathise with those volunteer managers who have volunteers who resist change, training, etc.

    But I agree with everything you have said. If the program benefits from the change and it is necessary and we endeavour to explain in reasonable terms the need for this change then we should not be apologising for making the required changes. As professional people we need to become adept at managing change and sometimes this means that some people will be unhappy. I think this state of apologetic behaviour can in some cases be traced back to how much power or say we have, in how we manage the volunteer projects in our organisations.

    I have to ask the question do you as volunteer managers have the same power to make deci

    sions and direct how volunteers are involved in your organisation as other managers who manage staff in your organisation? We need to ensure we are professional in our work ethics and management skills so we can demand the respect of staff and our volunteers. Believe in yourself or others won’t.

  5. ozvpm_andy March 25, 2012 at 10:41 am - Reply

    Response posted on May 6, 2008 by Maryanne McKay, Palliative Care Volunteer Coordinator, Port Macquarie, Australia

    Hi Andy
    Yes I agree…!!!!…I am very lucky as I work in Health and have a line manager who “gets” what a Volunteer program is all about….we aim to treat our Volunteers in a manner as similar as possible to paid staff…with the main difference being -Volunteers are not paid $$$ to be involved…thanking you…

  6. ozvpm_andy March 25, 2012 at 10:40 am - Reply

    Response posted on May 6, 2008 by Lyn Parker, VSMP Coordinator, Australia

    Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with your article. I have had in the past a lot of problems getting the volunteers to attend extra training , (which they requested) and various functions put on for their benefit and as you say I believe it was because I was coming from that position of weakness.

    I have since then held Team Meetings and referred them back to their Initial Training where it is made clear that these things need to have some priority as the outcomes can affect the reason they volunteer with this program and also keeps them in touch with each other. I am always respectful of a volunteer’s family, social or work commitments but if you are going to commit to volunteering then it has to be a commitment to all of it and not just the bits that are convenient.

  7. ozvpm_andy March 25, 2012 at 10:40 am - Reply

    Response posted on May 6, 2008 by Hazel Maynard, Acting Retail Operations Manager, St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria, Australia

    Hi Andy

    It’s timely (for me) that you have raised this topic. I agree entirely that we have spent too much time as a sector avoiding the realities of volunteer management – that is, human nature is such that volunteers like any other sector of the population will not always have the right motivations for doing what they do nor will they necessarily adhere to the policies and procedures of our agencies. Why do we tolerate behaviour from a volunteer that would be unacceptable from an employee? There is an accepted standard of behaviour for employees, so why not for volunteers? In the main we as practitioners have a reactive, head-in-the-sand response to issues, rather than accepting it as inevitable that at some time in our agency’s existence, there will be volunteer performance issues (which would be much easier to resolve and manage if procedures were in place to deal with them).

    We recently introduced policies and procedures for volunteer discipline and dismissal – a scary prospect for a long-established, faith-based agency. Our reality is that with five thousand plus volunteers across ninety-eight sites, we have a number of behavioural and performance issues. We are fortunate that ninety-nine percent of the volunteers are with us for the right reasons and without them we would not exist. However, the remaining one percent causes a number of problems, ranging from dishonesty to bullying to breaches of OH&S regulations, and we owe it to the majority to deal with the one per cent.

    But more importantly, I believe, it is vital to have those frameworks for discipline and dismissal in place not to punish volunteers but in order to protect volunteers’ rights, and to ensure, fairness, equity and consistency in dealing with performance issues. If we don’t, we will continue to have a two-tier system in our agencies where employees have rights and the expectation of fair practices, whilst volunteers do not.

    Our policies and procedures have recently been rolled out at workshops for volunteers and employees in leadership roles, and have been incredibly well-received. As part of their induction and orientation, new volunteers are made aware of the existence of these policies and procedures right from the start – existing volunteers are receiving training in each of their work sites. My initial trepidation at introducing these policies and procedures has been unwarranted – in fact, it is seen as a key development in our agency’s evolution and an example of strong leadership in our volunteer program.

    I’d be happy to share more detailed information with anyone who is interested or thinking about this development for their own programs.

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