Dealing With a Difficult Volunteer Leader

Sticky Issue: Dealing With a Difficult Volunteer Leader

Following last week’s posting one of the regular leaders wrote to me and said she was glad someone was willing to write about issues and conflicts that are not always addressed. She raised the issue asking how professionals and volunteer leaders should handle dealing with a volunteer leader who is either inappropriate or destructive in the organization. This is a very sensitive issue especially when the person is very committed to the organization and volunteers and/or provides financial support.

Unfortunately the challenge these difficult lay leaders and volunteers provide is not an isolated case or unique to specific situations. Organizations that recruit social capital to strengthen their leadership pool and their source of financial support tend to attract a variety of personalities. Some people are drawn into the circle of leadership because they have heard about the excellent contribution the organization makes within the community. Others identify with the purposes of the agency because of a personal connection through a family member. Some contributors become volunteer leaders through their financial support of the non-profit. By virtue of the fact that they continue to make donations, they are then encouraged to become involved in the organization’s governance processes and to serve on committees and perhaps on the board of directors.

In all of these examples, the volunteer becomes increasingly involved and identified with the agency. As the person interacts with colleagues at meetings and events either a stronger bond is formed with the other volunteers and professional staff members or it becomes apparent that the person is not appropriate for the culture of organization. Inappropriate behavior can take the form of monopolizing the discussion, interrupting others, being rude, making unrealistic demands on staff members or just being insensitive to the needs of others, among other behaviors. When this happens the person can be encouraged to look for another place to volunteer their time and effort. Of course, the process requires a great deal of sensitivity and understanding and the aim is to not alienate the person or place the organization in a poor light. At best, the person would not leave upset or angry and talk about how they wanted to volunteer time and/or money but that the agency just sent them away.

The process of discouraging a person from becoming involved in an organization is more manageable when it is handled at the beginning of person’s connection to the agency rather than after the person is already involved, perhaps occupying a leadership position. When this happens, it is important for the person responsible for speaking with the volunteer to document the specific incidents that signaled the concern about of the person’s behavior. It is imperative that a process be initiated between the volunteer and the supervising professional and/or volunteer leader.

There is never a time when it is comfortable to speak with someone who is not appropriate for the position they presently occupy or aspire to fill. However, it is more complicated to ignore the impact the person has on colleagues within the organization. It is also not helpful to speak in vague terms about the person’s interactions at meetings or in conversations with other volunteers. Once the decision is made to encourage the volunteer to either step down from their position or to seek a position more suited to their talents and abilities, the first conversation should take place either in a private place or informal setting like a quite coffee shop or restaurant. The atmosphere can sometimes alleviate the anxieties caused by dealing with difficult issues.

At the same time, the focus is on the person’s inappropriate behavior that has a detrimental impact on others, there should be a way to frame the discussion so that equal emphasis is given to the person’s positive qualities. The desire to contribute to the organization and to volunteer their time should be emphasized. There can be a focus on identifying more appropriate venues for their involvement and desire to contribute to the community.

These kinds of discussions can be difficult and require strength on the part of the professional staff person responsible for working with volunteers. The key to the success of the conversation is discussing specific behaviors and/or specific incidents and avoiding global generalizations about the volunteer leader’s behavior or impact on colleagues. It is also important to maintain the organization’s concern for the volunteer’s continued involvement in the realms of both programming and governance.

Difficult conversations are not easy and may not always be successful but avoiding them can have a more adverse impact on the organization. Taking the risk of confronting a volunteer leader in a supportive way has the potential of making a positive contribution to the lay leader by assisting them in finding a more suitable place to volunteer their time and being appreciated elsewhere. Simultaneously, this strengthens the organization by providing a place for a more appropriate volunteer in the new opening that is created when the person moves on to a different position or organization.

This is just one of a number of “sticky issues” and they require a great deal of planning and forethought so that they are handled in a sensitive and meaningful way both for the people involved and the organizations we are working to strengthen and develop.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.