by Brendan Prout
Originally published 2/20/13
'Tis the season.... to burn out your volunteers! So I thought it was worth revisiting this topic and republishing this article I wrote nearly two years ago.
So you’ve got an organization that depends largely on volunteers. Whether it’s a church, club, non-profit org, school, foundation, or a business that relies on the good will participation of donated time and energy, common sense would dictate that you value your volunteers and utilize their skills, abilities, and availability to maximum potential, for the benefit of your group’s goals. You might even want to return the favor of their labor by giving them enhanced training, providing them opportunities to grow in their fields of expertise. It can and ought to be a two way street.
Unfortunately, many such organizations that depend on volunteers have a bad habit of grinding through them like a food processor, chewing them up and spitting them out on a fairly routine basis. Want to be just like that? Here are some tips:
1. Under-utilize your volunteers. After all, you’re threatened by volunteers who have more experience or education or passion than you, so don’t give them anything to do appropriate to their ability. A graduate degree in the field and years of experience? Don’t give that one oversight of the rookies who could really benefit from their wisdom and train them to help your organization be more successful. After all, that would only make you look bad, and they might be after your job.
2. Delay a really long time to respond to people who have expressed interest in volunteering. Nothing says you value their desire to serve like making them wait until they lose interest. It shows them how important you are and puts them in their place.
3. Don’t communicate with them routinely. Leaving them out of the loop of what is going on within the organization will only make them want to be in the inner circle. Soon, they’ll be circling like sharks, trying to get in on the good stuff.
4. Never say thank you in a meaningful way. Instead, only tell them where they can improve. After all, just because they’re working for free doesn’t mean they can slack off.
5. Reject outright all their suggestions for improvement within the organization. After all, if they really had something meaningful to contribute, they’d be on paid staff. On the off chance they do offer a really good idea, reject it initially, then present it as your own idea and refuse to give them any credit for it.
6. Offer them incentives and benefits for volunteering, then take them away without explanation. Everyone appreciates a good bait & switch tactic when well played.
7. Change procedures often, without letting your volunteers know. It keeps them on their toes. Letting them get blindsided is one surefire way to let them know how insignificant and unimportant they are.
8. Keep double standards. Treat paid staffers with a much higher level of respect and regard than you do volunteers.
9. Make unreasonable demands and expectations of them. Make sure what they need to do could only be actually accomplished by a full time staff member, and set them up to fail early and often.
10. Give them an area of direct responsibility. Then continue to make and execute plans as if they don’t exist or have any input to that area of responsibility.
Example: tell them they are in charge of developing Area B, and then without consulting them, have someone else plan and execute a training workshop for Area B. Let them be surprised when they receive the e-invitation to that workshop.
11. Talk badly about them in front of other staff or volunteers. It builds character and trust that you’ll always be brutally honest.
12. Talk badly about the organization’s higher up leadership. Nothing builds loyalty within the ranks like verbally tearing down those in charge; after all, it makes the troops have to rise up to defend their leader, right?
13. Show blatant favoritism. The folks you like can get away with not carrying their fair share; after all, that’s the reward for getting in good with you. Everybody else can pick up their slack; that’s what they’re there for. Make sure the folks you really like get special perks, and keep them almost secret. Letting it slip that a couple people got special privileges or rewards is a great way to motivate the others to work even harder.
14. Refuse to address problems that are your responsibility to correct. Blame-shift and pass the buck right back to the people who have no authority to handle it. They’ll need to exercise the independent ability to problem-solve in life, and you’re just helping them.
Hopefully, the sarcasm in this list is apparent. If not, let me break it down into a simple message: if any of these practices are part of your management style, you are being a jerk. Don’t be a jerk. Nobody likes to work for a jerk, and nobody will stick around long to put up with such treatment, especially if they’re providing you with services for free.
Unfortunately I’ve seen these examples at work time and time again, to the detriment of many good organizations. I would hope that any organizational leader or manager of a volunteer base would take these issues seriously to heart and avoid doing such things.