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I Got Dumped: The Dark Side of Volunteer/Staff Relationships

Reprinted from Contributions Magazine

I feel the need to do a follow-up to my article about volunteer management, "The Day We First Met." In that article, I compared volunteer management to dating. I focused on the get-butterflies-in-your-tummy phase of courtship, the proposal phase, and ultimately, the marriage. But from the responses I got from volunteer managers, there is clearly a need to address the darker side. You know—after the period of bliss has passed. How do you handle these precious relationships when things go south or you begin to feel, well (gasp), married? Or even worse, you get dumped?

"He's Not Who He Appeared to Be"

One volunteer manager said, "I'm second-guessing if he's the one for the job. He's not who he appeared to be." Whether truly in love, or desperate to fill a void, we tend to put on serious blinders in the beginning of a relationship. We're so happy to have this person in our life that we become oblivious to things that, in retrospect, we can't believe we missed.

It's only over time that you build trust and develop a sense of reliability. If possible, try to get to know your volunteers BEFORE you put them in leadership positions. Also, observe the volunteer under pressure. Notice how he or she handles it. This will help you put volunteers into roles where they are best suited.

"He's Just Not That into Me"

People change, and circumstances change, and the only way to get through that is to communicate. Volunteering requires passion about the mission of the organization. By learning the motivation behind your volunteers, you'll get a good idea of how dedicated they are to your cause. It takes passion to raise money, facilitate programs, and oversee projects. If you find out a volunteer is not that into you (or your mission), then you'll want to delegate the leadership position to someone who IS into you.

Passion sparks relationships and ignites ongoing commitment. Without that spark, it's hard to keep the fire burning. Help your volunteers find their passion and then let them blaze their own trails. Your organization will be better for it!

"I Got Dumped"

Another volunteer manager said, "I am distraught ... I just got dumped." Now that is a bummer, but it happens. Whether it's due to conflict or relocation or a disconnect of some sort, people move on, so expect it. But don't take it personally. Losing a volunteer is a great time to ask yourself, "Is this something I could have prevented?" If the answer is no, move on. If yes, work to improve your organization and prevent others from following.

So what can you do? Develop open and ongoing communication with your volunteer leaders. Learn to recognize when they are struggling, frustrated, or feeling overwhelmed, then put in measures to help them. Perhaps they need more subcommittee members to support them. They might just need encouragement and inspiration. And always have a safety net in place (another volunteer who also knows the job). This will take the panic out of the equation when you lose a valuable volunteer, whatever the reason.

In summary, remember, volunteer management is relationship management. When you find Mr. or Ms. Right, yes, there may be some rocky times, and there will be some give and take, but do all you can to nurture the relationship. It may not be easy, but you, your volunteers, and your cause will benefit from your efforts.

Becky Lunders, teamWorks
© 2010, Becky Lunders. Reprinted from Contributions Magazine, vol. 24, no. 8. Reprinted with permission.

Becky Lunders of teamWorks specializes in helping nonprofits achieve more by utilizing volunteer leaders. As a leadership development consultant, speaker, and facilitator, Becky helps organizations build capacity through volunteer management. Her philosophy (recruit, retain, and recognize) paired with her passion and motivational style help organizations mobilize their volunteer communities.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice