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Shandran Thornburgh

About Shandran

Volunteer Discipline: It All Starts With You

Do the thoughts of talking to a volunteer about a performance issue sometimes make you cringe? Do you put it off as long as possible? Chances are, you are not alone! Many of us may perish the thought of having to correct one of our favorite (or maybe not-so-favorite) volunteers. I would venture to say that many managers of volunteers frequently rely on compassion, employing subjective ways to evaluate situations and act accordingly. It’s easy dealing with the positive, but the negative? Not so much. Even so, there is no escaping it! With a few tips and tricks you can handle those often delicate situations with a little more ease.

Step One: Develop an overall good working rapport with your volunteers. How is your relationship with the volunteer you are having a problem with? Have you proven yourself early on as someone who cares about what they are doing for your institution? Have you taken the time to learn a little something about them? Establishing yourself as an advocate will go a long way when the time comes to…as I say, have a “chat” with them about how they may better handle themselves in a future situation. If volunteers feel that you are on their side, they will be much more amenable to correction. At a workshop early in my volunteer management career, I learned an important lesson: for volunteers, feelings are facts. Keeping this in mind when you need to address an issue will improve the chances of a successful outcome, but remember to keep in balance the needs of your organization as well.

Secondly, develop a thick skin! Realize that a gruff volunteer will generally not be “out to get you.” If the volunteer is angry about being corrected, or adamant about their point of view, it has more to do with what’s going on inside of them, and not as much about you. Don’t allow them to push your buttons. If you become angry in return, little will be accomplished. Instead, try to ask questions that give you clues as to what is behind their reaction. Try to see things from the volunteers’ perspective. Give them a chance to explain their side and empathize whenever possible. Again, you will need to keep this in perspective, with your mind focused on the best interest of your organization.

Another tip: inventory yourself…your emotional self. Check your ego and make sure you don’t allow personal feelings to get in the way of the objective: effectively addressing a performance concern. If the issue at hand is a heated topic, consider giving yourself a quick “time out” to get your head on straight and think through the issue. This will help you maintain a professional demeanor. Trying to deal with something when you are angry does no one any favors, and often makes things worse. Be aware of your tone of voice and take care not to belittle or demean the volunteer. Separate the behavior from the person. In other words, address the behavior, and do not attack the person. Make sure you are coming from a point of professional concern, not of personal animosity.

As difficult as it can be, deal with any discipline situation consistently among volunteers. Allowing one volunteer to bypass the dress code for instance and enforcing it with others sends the wrong message. Volunteers ultimately will not trust you. Are you, by chance, intimidated by the other person? Time to check yourself! No matter what, all volunteer managers must consistently enforce policies equally among volunteers.

When the time comes, approach the volunteer in a non-threatening manner. For example, say “Hi Jack. I’m glad to see you! I want to follow up on the crying baby situation from last week. ” Once you are behind closed doors, you can begin with “I understand that there was an issue with a parent and a child last week. What can you tell me about it?” Remain firm on your policy, but give them an honest chance to explain. This allows you to acquire more information and see a larger picture of the incident. If this is their first offense, make sure they understand the policy and what to do in the future. Garner their support that it won’t happen again. Afterwards document briefly in your files, the factual information regarding the discussion and note the date.

If there is a second offense, you can open with “I know we spoke about this issue last month. Another incident has happened. I’m worried about you. What’s going on?” Showing genuine concern will lessen the volunteers’ defensiveness. Underneath it all, it may very well be that the volunteer is not in the best possible position to meet the needs of your organization. Is it an option to change the placement to another area to alleviate the problem? If not, again remain firm, but tactful on your point. You are wise to document this in a letter with space at the bottom for the volunteer to sign that they have received the letter and understand any future consequences, including the possibility of termination. Give them a copy.

If you should arrive at the point of termination, it should not be a surprise to the volunteer. You can be honest and state that you are concerned that it has gotten to this point. You have counseled the volunteer along the way and given him or her a chance to rectify the issue. If the problem has persisted, it may be time to let go. If it is, do so in writing.

Remember, it is the responsibility of the volunteer to abide by policies and your responsibility to keep them on track. You are not being the bad guy when you do so. Your organization counts on you to maintain the quality of your volunteer program. You can show compassion, while at the same time holding them accountable for their actions. It all starts with you!



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