Rob Jackson: Why we can't ignore problem behaviour by volunteers

Charities are here to make a difference: if problematic behaviour from volunteers obstructs this, then it must be addressed

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Over the summer, BBC Radio 4's In Business programme aired an episode called "Managing Volunteers: Free and Easy?" It’s worth listening to, because it does an excellent job of highlighting the importance of volunteer management and outlining why experience of managing volunteers can lead to better management of paid staff.

One aspect caused me some concern, though. During the show it was implied that volunteers can’t, or shouldn’t, be disciplined or dismissed. I disagree. Here are three reasons why.

First, the vast majority of organisations that involve volunteers do not exist for that purpose. They exist to cure cancer, end child cruelty, end animal cruelty, fight discrimination and myriad other reasons.

Volunteers (and paid staff) are a means by which that mission is fulfilled. If a volunteer is not helping an organisation achieve its aims, then it is only right that we should take action to correct that. Ideally this would re-engage them in work that moves the organisation forward, but if that isn’t possible, the mission is more important than the individual.

Second, what volunteers achieve matters. People want to make a difference and not have their time wasted. If someone’s problem behaviour gets in the way of others making that difference, then it must be addressed.

Not doing so implies that we don’t really care about the contribution of volunteers. This can be demotivating for other volunteers and can undermine your efforts to show others (in the organisation, in the community and so on) that volunteers are important contributors to the mission of the organisation.

Third, any volunteer-involving organisation will have standards for how it does what it does. You wouldn’t expect paid staff to behave in an inappropriate way towards clients, colleagues and the public: such behaviour would be addressed promptly and firmly. The same should be true of volunteers. Just because they are unpaid does not mean they are exempt from that standards of behaviour that your organisation expects. Ignoring inappropriate behaviour by anyone, whether they are a paid staffer or a volunteer, is as good as condoning it.

In most instances (barring gross misconduct), whenever we encounter problem behaviour we should try to correct things and keep the volunteer engaged. In doing so, we might not use the formal language of discipline or performance management, as we might with employees, but the goal would be the same: to get the volunteer contributing positively to the fulfilment of the organisation’s mission in a way that is consistent with appropriate standards of behaviour.

Dismissal of a volunteer is, therefore, a last resort to be pursued when all else has failed. But it must remain an option if no other solution can be found.

I hope I have convinced you that we can, and should, discipline and (occasionally) dismiss a volunteer. The question is, how do we do that? Unfortunately I don’t have the space to answer that question now, so please check back in November for part two: "How we can tackle volunteer problem behaviour".

Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant

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