Fight or flee – the choice is yours

Andy Fryar August 1, 2006 2
Fight or flee – the choice is yours


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

A colleague and I were recently faced with the following scenario that involved volunteers working in a hospital environment.

Volunteers had been undertaking a particular task for a number of years. This role involved assisting the nursing and medical staff to restock medical trolleys in the hospital’s Emergency Department, Intensive Care Unit and general ward areas. It was a long established role undertaken either in the store room of the ward, or in a few cases, the drug room of that unit. Strict volunteer screening was in place, training provided and job descriptions were being adhered to.

Suddenly one particular pharmacy staff member objected to the volunteers having access to the drug rooms. In spite of the long term and problem free nature of this activity, it was reported to the (relatively new) Pharmacy Manager, who naturally followed up the concern of her team member.

Her response however was interesting.

Firstly, she did not make contact directly with the volunteer management team to ascertain the history and facts of the volunteer role in question. Rather she made the choice to send a broadcast email to senior staff of the hospital, insisting that the practice stop immediately. Her email made a whole range of assumptions about the involvement of volunteers and was worded quite definitively.

She claimed in her email that only ‘authorised’ people were allowed to have access to the drug rooms – and by that she meant doctors, nurses and pharmacy staff! She made the further categorical statement that because volunteers were not ‘authorised’ they were not covered by insurance should they be injured while working in those areas.

As far as she was concerned – that was that! .volunteer involvement would cease forthwith and the problem would be solved!!! No questions asked, no discussion to be entered into!

Sadly this kind of approach by agency staff to ‘solving’ issues involving volunteers is not an uncommon one. Sadder still is the common observation that many volunteer managers simply don’t feel equipped to ‘fight’ back when faced with situations of this kind.

So how might you have responded given that same situation?

Would you have fought or fled?

I can imagine a whole range of responses being considered right now which will include everything from ‘I’d have stopped the volunteer working in that role right away’ to ‘I’d have given her what for!’

For us, the solution was a no-brainer and ‘fighting’ was our first instinct. We started at the top by calling the Insurance Manager at the Department of Health to clarify our understanding that volunteers were in fact covered by insurance and that they could be considered ‘approved’ persons. Taking the time to clarify and consolidate your thinking and facts before reacting is always a sound tactic.

We then sent a reply email to the pharmacist (being careful to also cc the other senior staff involved in the first message) respectfully refuting the assumptions she had made and providing clearly documented answers to the objections that were raised.

The result for us was twofold; firstly volunteers are now continuing happily with their role, but secondly, and more importantly, we were able to harness a great opportunity to educate a number of staff about the role and professionalism of the volunteer department.

So why then is it that my experience suggests many volunteer resource managers are seldom any good at standing up for themselves when faced with adverse situations such as these?

Well I believe that there are a number of reasons – so let me list just a few:

Lack of time & resources – Many VPM’s are just far too busy to have the time or inclination to fight back. Sadly however, not fighting back is often the reason they are under resourced in the first place

Undervalued – VPM’s are often placed disproportionably within their organisations, with the result being that when issues get raised with (or by) senior management, they often do not have sufficient relationships developed with those people or departments that count to sufficiently feel it is their place to launch a counter argument.

Working in isolation – Because so many VPM’s work as the sole paid staff member for their program, they often feel isolated. A common symptom of this is that they do not have a good network of peers to rely upon and ask the advice of, when difficult situations arise.

Not valuing their own role well enough – As the key person employed by their agency to oversee volunteer involvement, volunteer managers should see and understand their role as being the volunteer specialist within their agency. After all isn’t that what they are being employed for? A change in mindset from simply considering themselves as a ‘supporter of volunteers’ to a ‘volunteer management specialist’ can make a huge difference to work attitudes and to the way they may handle situations that arise

Now I know I am generalising a little, and I do acknowledge that there are many great VPM’s who can hold their own when their volunteer programs come under fire, but I’d argue that in the scheme of things this group would be the minority.

So why is this?

Let me ask you the following questions:

  • How do you see and understand your role?
  • Do you feel ‘equipped’ to take on opposition to your program if it should arise?
  • How well do you network and how well do you understand the place of your program in your agency?
  • How much understanding do you have about the rationale for volunteer involvement in your agency?
  • Who would you turn to for guidance and advice?

Let’s hear from you?


  1. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Response posted by the Board of AAVA – the Australasian Association for Volunteer Administrators

    On behalf of the AAVA Board –

    One would hope that were any problems to arise re volunteering at an agency that the Volunteer Manager/Coordinator would be the first point of contact. As Andy points out, we are, after all, the volunteer specialists within the agency. Put the shoe on the other foot – imagine if you sent a broadcast email on the subject, say, re staffing at the agency. How do you think the HR Manager might feel?

    Staff need educating when these issues arise. We need to do that by setting them straight and responding to their concerns with facts and a Senior Exec’s involvement never goes astray. This is something all VPM’s must work on as support from the CEO or Exec is vital when rebutting an incorrect report or accusation. Usually when explained most staff & managers are pretty good, occasionally there will be someone who no matter how good our argument is they won’t change their minds re volunteers (the issue is usually to do with something else), sad, but in this type of case it would be better volunteers are not in that environment as they will not be valued.

    Our roles must be understood and taken seriously by our colleagues at the workplace. It is up to us to make sure that this is the case. Many of these problems can be avoided if we put ourselves “out there” to begin with. We need to educate management and staff, from the outset, on what our roles are and what roles the volunteer play. How?

    Here are some of our suggestions

    Set appointments with individual managers in the agency. Meet with them and explain your role
    Send the book ’12 Key Actions of Volunteer Program Champions’ by US author and trainer Betty Stallings to your CEO/General Manager (Available for free from the OZVPM website). Ask them to read this book and inform them that you will set up an appointment with them to discuss within a month!
    Hold some staff education sessions. Do a PowerPoint Presentation on your wonderful volunteer Service. Give facts figures and stats. Show them how valuable volunteers are to the agency. Explain to them your role. Volunteer management is a dynamic and complex role – show them!
    If you are not on the Management team in your agency ask why this is so?
    Form a volunteers committee who meet with you regularly to discuss future directions of your program and address any issues that arise. (Imagine the power of a letter from this type of committee to the staff member in question that halted a volunteer task without consultation!)
    If you cant find a volunteer managers network in your area, ring around to check if other VPMs in your area are interested in forming one
    Join AAVA and be part of an Association that understands your role and the territory that comes with it. Enquire about mentoring from AAVA. Seek guidance and advice from its board members. They are, after all, here to support you. When you join, AAVA will also inform your manager that you are now a member of the Association
    These are only some tools our Board members have used to good effect in the past. Above all we would encourage Volunteer Managers/Coordinators to be confident in their own roles by being equipped with the knowledge of Volunteer management essentials, to have an understanding of current and changing trends in volunteer management and volunteering itself and to have pride in a role that can be just as rewarding as it is demanding.

    Equip yourself so that when the next “flight or fight” moment arises, you will keep your feet on terra firma and look at the situation not as a problem but as a challenge for you to navigate with confidence!

  2. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:23 am - Reply

    Response posted by Kelly Boutilier, Volunteer Coordinator, Walkinston Association, Dublin, Ireland

    I really appreciated reading this article and some of the questions that were brought up. I was hired as a volunteer coordinator in my association last March. When I was hired (for 8 hours a week), I didn’t receive any formal induction, had no work space and even had to write my own job description! The volunteer program has been running for a number of years without any structure and I have found that even though I was hired to develop a structure, I’m met with passive ressistance. I feel I understand my role, but I do not feel that my supervisor does, nor does he value it. I can say I wouldn’t have much confidence should a matter arise which required a flight or flee, because I simply don’t feel that my position is anything more than token at this time.

    Sad, but true…

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