5 Ways To Mismanage Volunteers

I’m a bit of a volunteer junkie. Since high school – which was a long time ago – I have been the first one to raise my hand or sign my name when someone asks for volunteers. When I was a police officer, I moved to the other side and managed a large contingent of volunteers while running the Neighborhood Watch program. In the past several years, my volunteer efforts have been concentrated on HR related groups and animal rescue/shelters.

Through all of these years of interacting with organizations that rely on volunteers, I have seen the same mismanagement and mistakes made again and again. Just like mismanagement of a paid workforce, these errors cost the organization their most precious resource: people.

1. Micromanagement by boards of non-profits. The main function of a board of directors is to set goals and policy.  The details of carrying out those decisions should be left to the staff or volunteers of the organization, whichever is appropriate. When boards debate every little detail about running the organization, causing eager volunteers to wait around for their decisions before they can accomplish any goals, those volunteers are going to walk.

2. Making it unreasonably hard to join your organization. Some organizations, such as the HR groups that I belong to, require membership in the group, and it is from that membership group that volunteers are solicited. Homeowners associations rightly require you to actually live in the subdivision or community. But if the organization takes too long or has you jump through too many hoops to get in, potential volunteers may just decide that your organization isn’t worth their efforts.

One HR group I joined took two months to approve my membership – because their board had to decide on every potential member. (They obviously were violating #1.)  One humane society made everyone attend an orientation scheduled sporadically in the middle of the business day after filling out all kinds of forms online. When I attended my meeting there were 3 volunteers. By contrast, another humane society has an orientation once per month on a Saturday morning, and no forms required before orientation (that is done at the meeting in an ultra-organized way). There were about 75 people at the meeting I attended. In response to my question, I was told they sometimes get 125 people.

3. Failure to follow through.  When I worked at a law firm (before the proliferation of email) I was required to respond to every phone call within 24 hours. When email first came on the scene, it was considered polite to do the same. So if your organization depends on volunteers, then you must respond to their emails and phone calls and offers to help with the same type of urgency. I could give you several examples of organizations that have literally begged people to volunteer, but then failed to followup for weeks or even months with the people who responded. How much work can you expect from a volunteer after that kind of treatment?

4. Accepting animosity between volunteers and paid staff. If an organization depends on volunteers to function, then those volunteers are just as important as the paid staff, and both groups need to be able to work together harmoniously. If the paid staff is disconnected from the volunteers or fails to embrace them – your organization has a big problem managing both groups.

In my experience, this is often created by poor management communication with either group, as well as failure to properly train either. No matter what the reason for the problem, needed volunteers are not going to tolerate the issue the same way paid staff will, because nothing is as valuable as their time.

5. Failure to include. A lot of volunteer organizations have some kind of yearly recognition lunch or dinner, for their volunteers. That’s all well and good, but if you have spent the remainder of the year shutting them out of other functions, or ignoring them when you are planning an event, or never asking their opinion about areas where they have valuable knowledge, then that yearly function isn’t going to keep your volunteers from an early exit.

One organization I am a part of goes so far as to have a board position that is filled by a volunteer, and acts as a liaison between the volunteers and the board. They learned very early that volunteers need to be included to keep them interested and engaged.

Do you have volunteer experience? Was/is it good or bad? Let me know in the comments!