When It’s Over: Firing Volunteers

Nobody likes to hear “your services are no longer needed.” But when the recipient of that message is not being paid for her services, it can be even more devastating. And the reverse situation—being told your organization is not meeting a volunteer’s needs—can be just as troubling.

Still, letting volunteers go is part of the job of managing them. It’s not fun, but the opposite can be even worse. A non-performing or ineffective volunteer can be a drain on resources, paid staff, and fellow volunteers. Workplace morale is harmed when problems are not constructively managed. Besides, if a more-qualified volunteer is waiting in the wings, it only makes sense to replace the position.

Procedures are Important

The same guidelines that help employers transition employees out of a job apply to the volunteer relationship: it’s important that effective procedures are established and adhered to. Position descriptions should be supplied to each volunteer in the beginning, so they know exactly what their job entails and what is expected of them. And just as paid staff members receive performance reviews, volunteers should, too.

Basic workplace rules must be communicated to everyone—whether paid or volunteers. Drug and alcohol use, tardiness, absenteeism, physical or emotional abusive behavior are examples of zero-tolerance activities that would be grounds for dismissal.

Performance issues are different. If volunteers are given clear guidelines and communication is open, the volunteer manager should know what the volunteer feels they are succeeding and struggling with. Give the volunteer opportunities to improve, and let them know up front how the organization’s needs must dictate policies.

Ideas to Consider:

If you must let a well-meaning volunteer go, here are a few guidelines:
1. Do it when you are in control and calm. The heat of the moment (like right after she breaks the copier for the fourth time that week} is not a good time.
2. Do it when you can be supportive and caring. If you’re not having a particularly good day, wait for a better one—it’s not like you have anything to lose by waiting.
3. Don’t do it in front of anyone else—except a witness. Just as when employees are terminated, a private office setting with another staff member present will suffice. Don’t allow that person to interact with the volunteer, if you can avoid it.
4. Don’t over-explain. State the reasons for the decision and keep the focus on the volunteer’s performance, and the organization’s needs and goals.
5. Be kind. It’s okay to say nice things about the volunteer, and to thank them for their contributions. In fact, starting and ending with positive words are a great way to structure the conversation. Put the constructive criticism and feedback in between.
6. Don’t forget to collect any organizational property such as keys and name tags.
7. Do let others who work with the terminated volunteer know that she won’t be coming back. No explanation other than “she is moving on” is necessary.

Remember that the volunteer probably has a circle of friends in the community. You cannot ensure that anything said about her experience with your organization will be positive, but you can limit the damage by a professional, friendly, and appreciative send-off.

Finally, knowing your volunteers well can limit the number you have to let go. Volunteer screening is the best way to limit your non profit organization’s risk and protect your clients and staff.

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