Can we FIRE a Volunteer? 2010 LDC Reflections

During a time when "hiring" volunteers at an organization like AIChE is difficult, the question of firing a volunteer sent a deep quiet spell across the floor and the panel during the panel discussion on Volunteer Leadership at the 2010 Leadership Development Conference (LDC). This reminds me of an episode of


where Kramer is fired by his boss. Kramer says (at the end of the performance review?):"I don't even really work (for a pay) here." "That's what makes it so difficult," the boss says.

Leadership Development Panel with Doris Bush, Susan Laguardia, and Michael Paulonis

A young engineer posed a question to the panel, asking about encounters with some of the volunteers who slack on their job, making the task at hand a little more difficult. The panel, comprised of Doris Bush--the executive director of United Way of Greater Kingsport, Susan Laguardia--the executive director of Kingsport Tomorrow Inc, and Michael Paulonis--the manager of Six Sigma and statistics at Eastman Chemical Company, handled this question adeptly and their response is very useful to all volunteer organizations:

Leaders are Responsible for Managing Volunteers

Volunteers are self-motivated individuals and they align and associate themselves with the organization whose leadership vision matches their interest rather than just joining any organization. Volunteers commit their time and work hard in these organizations for a greater cause. One of the responsibilities of the leaders of these organizations is not to burn out these volunteers. The leaders should be outright open with the volunteers and should not understate the required commitment. They should constantly ensure that the workload is evenly spread out to different volunteers rather than loading one individual with multiple tasks. It is the task of the leader to confirm that the interest of the volunteers and their skill set are aligned and matched up with the tasks they are involved in.

There are instances when the volunteers may not be able to fulfill the agreed upon time commitment due to several reasons including the family situations. After all, volunteers are human beings. During those times either the leader of the organization or friends of the volunteers in the organization should talk to them one-on-one and discuss the situation.

Discussing Leader Attributes at LDC

If needed, the volunteer's task should be shared with others or assigned to others while he copes with his or her other personal or professional assignments. The volunteer should be reassigned to another task if there is a skills mismatch with respect to the current assignment. Or the volunteer could be offered a sabbatical if needed.

If the leader has not overworked the volunteer in the first place, the one-one-one discussion with the slacking volunteer during the tough times will generate better ideas and approaches to channel the spirit of the volunteer and keep the momentum going for the team or project. By this approach, after all, we may not lose a valuable volunteer to our organization.

Have you ever had a situation when you wanted to "FIRE" a volunteer? How did you manage to resolve it?

Pink slip image: "Scott Beale / Laughing Squid"
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Robert S's picture

As someone that has done extensive work with college affiliated volunteer groups - both as a worker bee and leader trying to find/manage volunteers - I agree with this advice. Ideally, the volunteer is someone that actually volunteers and is self motivated, then the main role of the leader is to align skill set and passion with a need of the organization. I always tried to make sure that any volunteer was aware of the potential difficulties in the position. Having someone volunteer and take on a task only until the difficult part comes along - and then they get frustrated and fade away - actually makes the job more difficult. The unfortunate result is that both parties feel like they have lost out. The volunteer feels frustrated that they offer a valuable service to have it wasted, while the leader feels that their job has been made much more difficult by wasting time with an unproductive volunteer. Much frustration can be avoided and, more importantly, much more is to be gained by the organization if there is a frank discussion about expectations and results earlier than later. This discussion was never a 'firing'. But sitting down with the volunteer and asking questions about what their passion and vision was, what did they want to get out of the role, or what did they envision contributing? How much time they have? Were there other priorities in their life that were conflicting? The resulting conversation usually shows the way quite plainly. Either a reinvigorated volunteer or both sides understand that this current role is not a good fit and they can move forward from there.

RC Ramaswamy's picture

I agree Robert. It is a very tricky issue. We had another speaker on sunday, Mr. Doug Fabick, who also mentioned that how it is the role of the leader to maintain and preserve the sprit of volunteers. The volunteers, at first place, join the organization with high motivation and dedication and if we donot burn them out, they will remain as a great asset to the organization. Another thing is a lot of 'thank you' and never ever 'scold' or shout at the volunteers. I have seen these in some of the church activities, which burn the volunteers and eventually lose them. __

ehorahan's picture

The great thing about volunteers is that they WANT to be there, which, at times, can be a stark contrast to the work environment. That doesn't mean that there aren't conflicting personalities, work ethics or expectations, but when someone actually wants to be somewhere and wants to do something, the conflicts can be worked out (with good leadership and communication as mentioned). It is hard to work in a group environment (work or otherwise) where people just don't want to participate - its kind of a poisoning environment.