Managing Volunteer Conflict

Posted on Oct 12, 2015 in Conflict Resolution,HR,Latest Articles . 0 Comments.

We have recently worked with a number of organisations that have really struggled to manage conflict that is occurring with their volunteers. In one organisation it was amongst the volunteers, in another it was between the volunteers and the paid professional staff, and in a third, it was between the volunteers and a key service provider.

Volunteers are great but things go wrong…

We think that volunteers are AWESOME!!!! We love them. After all it is a major part of our professional (we are on a number of NFP Boards) and personal life (work we do as a family) to volunteer our time and professional expertise. We enjoy a pro-bono relationship with a number of organsations including Beacon, who do AMAZING work with young people to transition them from education to be job ready

Volunteers drive engagement, at times providing ‘many hands’ and others providing key skilled labour and services. Often volunteers are the ‘raison d’etre’ of an organisation, however it is not always, actually it’s almost never, plain sailing.

So to pick up on example two that I mentioned above, a volunteer was in conflict with the paid professional staff. This was a skilled volunteer who came in regularly to provide services. He was a stalwart of the organisation, a former President who had decades of service. Whilst well respected for his skills the paid professional staff hated it when he came in. He was rude, aggressive, and dismissive of them and they felt he was totally ‘untouchable’. This volunteer had even caused one of the professional staff to go on stress leave.

So, is managing conflict with volunteers different to with paid staff? Well, YES and NO.

Why is managing Volunteer Conflict difficult? What drives conflict in volunteers?

  • Volunteers come with huge amounts of goodwill and don’t want to be seen as complaining or as a ‘drag’ on the organisation.
  • Volunteers often don’t realise that they can ask for help from the organisation. Even when they do, they often don’t know who to ask
  • Volunteers may come in regularly, however the time between their attendances may be significant. This means quick action is almost never taken and often the other people required to be part of a solution are not around. Accordingly, issues can fester for very long periods without being adequately addressed.
  • Volunteering is a very personal matter. Giving of their time is generally linked to their personal identity. So when things go wrong they tend to have an even greater impact for the individual.
  • Volunteers are often long-termers with entrenched views on their role in the organisation.
  • Issues remain ‘hidden’ in the volunteer base and those who can do something about it often don’t know about the problem.
  • Volunteer conflict issues are often deprioritised by professional staff – lower attendance means lower organisational priority.
  • Volunteers may not have the skills and experience to deal with conflict and they are almost never trained in how to deal with conflict in their role. They are coming in to chop vegetables, pack boxes or provide a highly skilled service, not to manage interpersonal relationships.
  • Volunteers rarely receive feedback on how they are performing or behaving, so they often lack an awareness of their personal style and its impact on those around them.
  • Volunteers are often left out of the organisational communication loop so they miss out on key information that relates to the organisation as a whole or how they do their ‘job’ within the organisation.

It’s plain to see is that almost every single one of the above points could equally apply to a permanent paid employee or indeed to a contractor. So yes, the issue may be particular to your volunteers but the diagnosis is similar to that of paid staff.

Where to from here?

What we did with the above situation was to diagnose the key issues driving the conflict with this volunteer. Then we provided hands on tangible support to the organisation to address the systems and behaviours that were driving the conflict between him and the professional staff.

Do you use volunteers? Do you have a conflict issue? We’d love to understand how you are managing that conflict.

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