Rob Jackson: How charities can tackle problem behaviour by volunteers

Problematic behaviour by volunteers can occur for a number of reasons, and it's important for charities to be able to respond accordingly

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Last month I wrote about why it’s important for charities not to sweep problem behaviour by volunteers under the carpet. This month we are looking at understanding and addressing that problem behaviour.

If a charity wants to deal with problematic behaviour, the first step is to understand why it is happening in the first place. There could be many reasons.

For example, the volunteer might no longer be getting their motivations met by the role they were placed in, driving them to meet their motivational needs by doing things that are outside the scope of their role. This might be causing you problems, but it’s making the volunteer feel better.

Perhaps the volunteer doesn’t really understand the boundaries of their role. In seeking to be helpful to the organisation and client they are straying beyond what you think is acceptable for them to do.

Maybe they are testing you. Some people think rules are there to be broken. Just like small children (and some paid colleagues!) the volunteer is seeing how far they can push it.

Be clear whether the problem is a consequence of the volunteer’s behaviour or whether they are simply a problematic person. Some people can’t help themselves and are out to make your life a nightmare. It’s important to recognise the difference between that and someone who means well but isn’t quite going about things in the right way.

The second step is to recognise the organisation’s attitude to dealing with problematic volunteer behaviour. In her excellent article "Five Strategies to Shut Down Volunteer Conflict" Marla Benson asks which of the following best describes your view of volunteers.

Qualified Abundance We have plenty of qualified volunteers to help us with our mission.

Adequate Numbers/Imbalance of Quality We have enough volunteers, but wish many would perform at a higher level with less guidance and intervention from staff.

Scarcity of Numbers/Imbalance of Quality We never have enough volunteers. Because they are always scarce, we tend to take on (and keep) volunteers even if they are problematic or not a perfect fit.

If a charity is dealing with qualified abundance, it is more likely to feel confident and comfortable addressing problem behaviour, because even if the volunteer leaves there will be enough of the right people to keep things going. But because organisations have to deal with adequate or scarce volunteers, both in terms of quantity and quality, this becomes more of an issue. You might feel a desire to brush things under the carpet. Don't!

The third step in handling problematic volunteer behaviour is to respond accordingly.

Remember that problem behaviour is not unique to volunteers. Paid staff can be problematic too. This widens the pool of available advice and support from colleagues.

Be fair and consistent. Have policies and procedures to enshrine this in practice, and be clear when enforcing rules and boundaries so the volunteer knows where they stand.

Provide additional training and support. Assigning a problematic volunteer to a volunteer buddy can be a useful step towards helping them get back on track.

Increase the frequency of supervision meetings, and don’t shy away from difficult conversations. You might be interested in these free resources about having difficult conversations with volunteers.

Make sure your organisation has your back and won’t undermine you if the volunteer runs straight to someone more senior (this is important!).

Above all, act. Your organisation’s mission is too important not to.

Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant

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