Volunteer Managers: We’re still a little bit too Fluffy!


I've been to many workshops and conferences on Volunteer Management over the last 17 years. One that still stands out in my memory was a presentation by Martin J Cowling. My memory of it may not be precise but he showed a photo of what he felt many people thought of Volunteering. It was a big Teddy Bear.  Nice, fluffy, feel good and ever so cuddly. At the time it hit the target straight in the bull’s eye!

Unfortunately I think volunteering is thought of like that today. Nice, comfy, feel good emotions abound when people think of volunteering. Volunteers are the Lifeblood of society. Lovely volunteers. We couldn’t do it without your big hearts. Bleh!

Jayne Cravens, a Volunteer management consultant among many other talents has rallied against the fluffy language in which we describe volunteers and volunteering. She’s even warned us about International Volunteer Managers Day turning into something similar.

I recently read a blog on the difficulty Volunteer Managers had in firing a volunteer. Now don’t get me wrong. Releasing a volunteer can be an uncomfortable experience. But I am sure no more uncomfortable than a manager firing a member of paid staff. But in a comment posted by Rob Jackson he went on to say
“I recall being struck by Rick Lynch and Steve McCurley's thinking on this topic years ago. They were quite clear that if we have to fire a volunteer we have to acknowledge that somewhere along the line some aspect of our volunteer management has failed.” 

I couldn't disagree more with Rick and Steve!

This would not be the case for a manager of Human Resources needing to do what they needed to do. Sometimes something’s go bad. Through no fault of the managers. A volunteer who enters a program through the appropriate stages and who then repeatedly breaches either conduct or your mission and who is managed professionally and properly through these difficulties and who is eventually asked to leave may not be a sign that volunteer management has failed. Why take that simplistic view. And I am sure that most VMs would agree with me. Plus I believe the theory is dangerous insofar that it may discourage VMs to take firm action because they might think that some aspect of their management has failed!

The other thing that struck me about this blog on http://ivo.org/vmm/posts/thoughtful-thursday-the-hardest-thing-in-the-world was that fact that this is the hardest thing in the world. Please. If we can’t have the strength to do this and do this properly then we shouldn't be managing people. If we come to the end of the line and are worried about making this final decision and are worried about hurting feelings then we are lacking some key managerial skills.

Of course we should care about volunteers as any manager should care about their team. But if we can’t face a toxic or belligerent volunteer and have that difficult conversation then we need to question our ability to be a VM. Neither should we walk away from that final meeting feeling gutted and sad and sorry for the volunteer. As long as we are following due process we should walk away feeling that this is what we had to do and that this was in the best interest of the team and the organization.

If we want to advance as a sector and be taken seriously we have a lot of growing up to do. We are not there to “look after the Vollies”. We complain when organizations ask team members who have no VM experience to “look after the Vollies”. We need to advocate for volunteers and volunteering yes! We need to advocate for our own roles yes. We need to fight for resources respect and recognition Yes. But we should not contribute to the fluffy Teddy bear view of volunteering.

If we bring too much emotion to the job of managing volunteers we need to question ourselves. I once had a senior member of an organization express outrage at my decision not to take on a volunteer after I interviewed them. There were many good reasons I did not take on that volunteer and I stuck to my guns! Imagine a HR manager begin similarly criticized. It doesn't happen.

Being too nice simply because we are involved with volunteers can be dangerous. We become afraid to challenge toxic volunteers. We are weakened when we deal with volunteers who may bully. We take on volunteers we should never take on.

Yes we all know that volunteerism is a powerful movement. But it is a movement powered by people and sometime we encounter people who do not fit for various reasons and we need strength and confidence in dealing with this.

Not tears. Not guilt. Not hand wringing.

A cold view? No. A realistic and self-caring view. There are many VMs out there that need to hear this. The fluffy language of some commentary within our sector will not help them.


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