Five Toxic Approaches To Using Volunteers

We all know the importance of volunteers for the success of any community project. Yet inappropriate attitudes and behaviors can spell the failure of any volunteer effort. Marlene Wilson, a specialist in volunteer training, offers these toxic gems[1]:

  1. Program director does all the work for the team.  The problem could be a lazy team, but more likely it’s an overactive director. Imagine gathering for a meeting to organize a food drive for the community pantry. At the first meeting, the convener, let’s call him Mack, goes into elaborate detail about the need, lays out his vision for the drive, hands out printed material, and adjourns. Later you and your team members realize Mack did all the talking. No one else spoke! Unless the team is asked to do something, the effort never gets off the ground.
  2. Leaders are asked to do several jobs at once—and retained for too long.  Juggling multiple tasks means that volunteers remain unable to give their best effort to any one thing. Unfortunately, this can lead to burnout. Ongoing programs, such as lunch programs, food pantries, and thrift shops, require a new influx of volunteers on a regular basis. Otherwise the regulars feel burdened and demotivated. The best approach: create a volunteer job description for everyone with a term of service built into it. When the term is over, volunteers may renew.
  3. Leaders require unrealistic time commitments that keep volunteers away.  There was a time, a generation or more ago, when lifetime volunteer service was the norm. No more! Marlene Wilson writes, “A major trend in volunteerism is that volunteers prefer three-,six-, or one-month assignments rather than longer commitments. The shorter time commitments fit better into volunteers’ busy lives.”
  4. There is no system for coaching volunteers.  Most volunteers’ definition of hell would be this: Being assigned a volunteer job with no one to be accountable to and no one to contact in case problems arise. Supervising is just as important for volunteers as it is for paid employees. The best approach is to created a documented process. Develop a coaching system and write it down.
  5. Volunteers are more committed to the director than to the program.  Every program needs a mission statement that answers the question, “What is our purpose?” and vision of where the program could be in five years. Without it, volunteers will latch onto an inspirational leaders. That’s never a problem—unless the leader leaves!

[1]Marlene Wilson, Creating a Volunteer-Friendly Church Culture, Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2004), 47-53.

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