Elephants and volunteers – sometimes its the same

It happened twice in one week – there was a huge elephant in the room that all the volunteers worked around during their meeting.

In both cases, dedicated and likeable volunteers dropped their respective balls. Each had legitimate challenges which lead to the “dropping”. Each also had resources to minimize the effect – resources they didn’t tap. Each have a long history with their respective groups and so are known and liked. Each made the perfunctory apologies. Still the work didn’t get done. There was scrambling to make an important deadline in one case.

What angers me – and truth be told the other volunteers in the room – is that neither of these volunteers will be called out. I’m not asking for a public berating. I am asking for a one-on-one follow-up by the leader with the volunteer to talk through the situation. The conversation needs to include a candid assessment of how the volunteer’s performance affected the project and the rest of the group. It needs to include feedback on how the volunteer could have used the tools available to ask for help or at least alert the team on the situation.

Then, the leader needs to acknowledge there was a problem to the larger group, assure us the issue has been discussed and reiterate the expectations for volunteers: that if we can’t meet our obligations, we are obliged to alert the team and leadership as early as possible.

At a recent leadership conference, I led a session on developing your volunteer pool at which the age-old question was lobbed: can we fire volunteers and how? This is the elephant in the room for all of us. We have volunteers who aren’t able to meet their responsibilities. Sometimes it’s for really good reasons. But it doesn’t matter. If we don’t make it clear that volunteers must perform, then we can’t effectively help those who can’t fulfill their obligations. If we make performing optional, then we can’t expect volunteers to consistently perform or to honestly alert us when they can’t.

What I am saying is that we are our own enemy. When we don’t set clearly defined expectations and then insist on performance on those, we have to expect non-performing volunteers. We have to learn to live with the elephant in the room.

Let’s change the paradigm. We must if we want to build our volunteer pool. I can tell you that in the one of the cases I noted above I was among the volunteers who were irritated. I am a good volunteer – do you want to lose a good volunteer to help another “save face”?