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4 min read

Who rules the roost?

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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 real problem

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 a feeling of ‘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.

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.

Why does your agency engage volunteers?

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 organization 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 organization's to achieve the mission of the agency
  • It is only through our organization's 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 bigger picture

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.

What can volunteer leaders do?

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 can't 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.

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