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What Volunteers Do to Each Other Is Not Always Pretty

What Volunteers Do to Each Other Is Not Always Pretty

As we’ve often noted, the most frequently-requested topic for a workshop that any volunteer management trainer receives has always been, and continues to be, employee/volunteer relationships. The tension between paid and unpaid staff surfaces in all types of organizations and settings, and program leaders want to find ways to develop effective teamwork.

Less often discussed, but just as prevalent, is conflict in volunteer-to-volunteer relationships. This can express itself in various ways:

  • Long-time volunteers being less than welcoming to newcomers
  • Cliques among various subgroups of volunteers
  • Volunteers resisting change, even if counter to the majority
  • Resistance to rotation of positions because of a sense of “ownership” of a long-held role
  • Discomfort between volunteers with traditional and unconventional lifestyles
  • Board volunteers mixing with frontline volunteers
  • Auxilians or friends groups operating as laws unto themselves
  • Simple dislike of one another (personality clashes)
  • Sense of superiority of volunteers who work many hours on a regular schedule vs. those who serve short term
  • Institutional mergers forcing formerly-competitive volunteer group members to work together
  • Generational, ethnic or cultural groups that don’t mix with others
  • Perceived differences between those volunteers in the field and those working in the central office
  • “True believers” versus those who are “just helping”

The truth is that volunteers do not automatically work well together or even like each other. It’s up to us to foster good relationships among volunteers just as we seek to assure teamwork between volunteers and paid staff.

The Consequences of Volunteer/Volunteer Tension

There is a valid social element to volunteering. People volunteer in their free or discretionary time and so want to enjoy the work and the people with whom they do it. If it isn’t pleasant to be with other volunteers, it’s probable some will find another organization to serve. Tolerance for turkeys may be required on a paying job, but why bother when it’s volunteering? Over time, if enough volunteers leave because they don’t like each other, it will become harder to recruit new people – especially in smaller, rural communities where everyone knows what’s going on.

No one volunteers to be in an unpleasant situation, especially when that unpleasantness isn’t related to accomplishing the key work of the organization but is instead created by those you are working with. Whether one is the direct victim of the unpleasantness or just an innocent bystander while others squabble, the result is demoralizing and demotivating.

Employees, who already need training in how to work with volunteers, feel even more uncomfortable when volunteers don’t get along with each other. Paid staff is unsure whether or how to intervene and may, in effect, opt out of taking any action at all. This is especially true when top management watches an auxiliary or a friends group become dysfunctional through personality conflicts.

The most work gets done (and done well) when volunteers work in unison. So tension among volunteers interferes with the most important consideration of all: contributing to meeting the mission of the organization as a whole.

Remember that most volunteers – just as employees – are largely uninformed (or misinformed) about what volunteering is and who does it. After all, the comment, “I’m just a volunteer” was not coined by an employee! A volunteer will bring his or her stereotypes to the organization, amazing you with assumptions such as “most people volunteer because they can’t get a job,” or “young people today are apathetic and won’t commit,” etc. Of course, they are the exception to the rule!

Neglect Relationships at Your Peril

It’s a mistake to assume that all volunteers in an organization share a common vision of their service to us. While it’s reasonable to expect that all volunteers care about our cause or our client group, and have some degree of commitment to our organization’s mission, think about all the elements of diversity that might come into play:

  • Possibly great differences in age among volunteers, even those doing the same assignment. American author Sue Vineyard has noted that a volunteer program today can involve as many as five generations – volunteers from age 5 to 95.
  • Whether or not a volunteer has an external motivator such as an academic requirement to do the service.
  • Differences in the experience and perspective of someone who comes in on a regular weekly schedule vs. an episodic volunteer.
  • Someone who is donating her or his standard professional expertise compared to someone who is volunteering in a role far removed from his or her daily job.
  • Volunteers with a personal, emotional connection to the cause (their children have this illness) vs. those with a more cerebral connection.

Maybe it’s stunning that we can get this mix of people to cooperate at all!

The key is to anticipate and deal with what makes volunteers different from one another. This means paying attention both to how we integrate newcomers and to the messages our daily management decisions send to everyone.

Helping or Hindering Volunteer Unity

Examine the various functions of volunteer program management and assess whether you consciously incorporate “volunteer/volunteer relationships” as a consideration. Do not assume that the questions below imply the “best answer” is yes. You need to decide which answer is right for your situation…and why.

In your policies and planning, do you:

  • Have a vision for what you want the demographic and cultural make-up of your volunteers to be?
  • Compare the profile of your volunteers to the profile of those in your community?
  • Have policies regarding acceptance of volunteers from diverse backgrounds?
  • Have policies regarding discrimination against some types of individuals?
  • Involve current volunteers in planning the shape and direction of the volunteer program?

Volunteer programs should not be shaped merely by accident; there should be a conscious strategy for determining what mix of people can make the greatest contribution to the work of the organization. Volunteer program managers who don’t have an organized plan for recruitment will usually end up creating a volunteer force that bears a remarkable resemblance to the volunteer manager – we tend to naturally gravitate toward those who are like us. In the long run this leads to inbreeding and eventual death of the program. Volunteer programs that aren’t growing and expanding involvement tend to be dying.

When you recruit and screen new volunteers, do you:

  • Let current volunteers know about the vacancies you are trying to fill and enlist their help?
  • Include current volunteers in the interviewing and screening process?
  • Accept new volunteers mainly on the recommendation of current volunteers (who may be friends or relatives)?
  • Prepare current volunteers for new volunteers who might be consciously different in some way (age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.)

Volunteers may feel completely out of the loop when it comes to increasing their ranks. Is the introduction of new volunteers understood and welcomed, or seen as unnecessary or even offensive (implying that current volunteers aren’t doing enough)? Is it possible that an influx of newcomers who are substantially different in some way from current volunteers will change the work environment enough to make longtimers feel uncomfortable? Is this a good thing or a bad thing – will shaking things up actually help in the long run?

When you orient and train new volunteers, do you:

  • Inform current volunteers who the newcomers are? And vice versa?
  • Explain why the program involves the range of volunteers that it does?
  • Make a point of introducing volunteers to each other?
  • Ask an experienced volunteer to buddy the newcomer?
  • Provide training on dealing with diverse populations?
  • Highlight the contributions of many different types of volunteers?
  • Include case studies of possible volunteer-to-volunteer relationship problems in your training?
  • Ask experienced volunteers to assist in the training?
  • Evaluate how well the experienced volunteers do the training?
  • Provide a range of learning opportunities, mixing classroom time, online information, audio and videotapes, etc.?
  • Provide similar training and information for paid staff who will be working with volunteers?

A delicate balance is needed here: assuring that veterans feel recognized for their experience and skills while encouraging newcomers to suggest their own ideas and methods. Employees get acquainted in formal and informal ways, over the many hours of their work time together. Volunteers see each other much less frequently and, unless helped in some way, may not feel that they know each other even after several months of service.

As work proceeds, do you:

  • Pay attention to whether and how tasks are shared among volunteers on the same shift or assignment?
  • Ever rotate assignments? On a regular basis or under what circumstances?
  • Listen to what volunteers say about one another?
  • Troubleshoot incidents of conflict?
  • Pay attention to social interactions among volunteers, such as who eats lunch with whom?
  • Foster social gatherings or meetings among all volunteers?
  • Conduct performance assessments on all volunteers? Done by whom? Ever as a peer review by volunteers of other volunteers?
  • Work to the lowest common denominator of volunteer, such as not moving to an electronic newsletter because a few holdouts don’t like computers?
  • Proactively assist staff who are directly supervising volunteers in dealing with volunteer conflicts?

Watch for telltale signs of insider vs. outsider behavior, especially if one or more volunteers appears to be alone most of the time. For self-organized groups or committees, assure that decision making is done fairly and in open meetings, not just among the leaders, especially if these are self-appointed. Make sure that staff appointed to supervise volunteers feel comfortable with their role, especially if there are disparities in age, cultural background, professional status, etc.

At recognition time, do you:

  • Thank everyone equally although not everyone contributes equally?
  • Recognize longevity above all else?
  • Give special attention to all committee chairs and team leaders, even if they did not do as much work as the members of their teams did?

Long-time service to your organization deserves thanks, but it shouldn’t be the only factor. Some volunteers log many hours but no one knows what they do when they are on site! Rewards based on duration of service or a grand total of hours may end up undervaluing the contributions of volunteers who spent less time but accomplished more. It also establishes an artificial hierarchy of importance.

Concluding Thoughts

It is easy to forget that volunteers are just normal people, behaving in ways that are common to us all. The act of volunteering doesn’t make one perfectly easy to get along with – it can even make one quite difficult, as is occasionally the case among very highly motivated volunteers. And the social groupings which naturally form in volunteer settings can be both a strong bonding agent and a means for excluding those who don’t fit the mold. Volunteering doesn’t immediately change some of the basics of human nature – not everyone is always comfortable with new experiences or new types of people.

But one of the values of volunteering is that it allows those of diverse backgrounds to come together to make a contribution to society. Often it allows volunteers to interact productively with those with whom they would not otherwise come into contact, and to be exposed to very different points of view. The results of this, while not always obvious, are beneficial to the community, and can be easily seen among programs which involve young people as volunteers, greatly broadening their view of the world.

Managing this system is not always smooth or simple. Differences can easily create discomfort and conflict. But differences and diversity, when managed, also create richness and breadth.

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