A Tale of Two Volunteers- Part One: Hostage Crisis 4

Earlier this week I was speaking with an executive director of a faith based non-profit and we were discussing a volunteer crisis that she is currently facing. They have a volunteer who has been with the organization for approximately five years. To say that the volunteer is difficult would be kind. Other volunteers refuse to be involved with major, crucial projects if this volunteer is involved in any way. She is consistently abrasive, demanding, unkind, and has routinely discussed her criticisms of the organization with outside collaborative partners rather than addressing her concerns with the staff or the executive director and giving the organization an opportunity to resolve issues internally.

This year’s annual fundraising event is in jeopardy because after heading up its organization for the past four years, she decided to step away with very little notice to the organization, yet wants to remain involved on a smaller scale. She is the only one (besides the ED) that knows how all the working parts operate, but not a single other volunteer in the organization is willing to be part of the event if she is involved at all, due to a history of abuse at her hand. There are volunteers who have left the organization specifically because of her behavior and the inability to escape interaction with her, including those who had significant enough experience with the annual fundraiser to be able to take her place as organizer.

My first question, of course, was about the interview/training/ and orientation process of new volunteers. The organization does employ an in-depth initial process; and the ED said that there were no red flags during this process, and that for the entire first year of her tenure there was no indication that she would become the dreaded difficult volunteer.

My second question was whether there was a statement of faith and values signed to indicate alignment with that of the organization. Yes. A volunteer expectation agreement? No. A volunteer handbook expressing policy and guidelines which volunteers signed to indicate receipt and understanding? For program-specific volunteers only, so that only applied when she was operating in that capacity (which she also left with insufficient notice to be replaced). Any ongoing development and training of non-program specific volunteers? No. An express grievance policy which volunteers agreed to abide by to resolve concerns or perceived problems? No. Any form of performance evaluation and feedback for non-program specific volunteers? No.

Of course, the root of the issue here lies in a failure to implement certain systems and processes of organizational accountability. In theory, the organization knew and understood the need already, because most of the necessary systems and processes were in place for program-specific volunteers. The ball was just dropped when it came to the other, just as crucial, volunteers. It wasn’t gross negligence. It wasn’t ignorance. It wasn’t that the organization didn’t truly value all volunteers at the heart level. It is a term that my non-profit friend with a heart of gold calls “mission blindness”.

The programs of this organization met the direct needs of the cause at hand. All energy and care was focused into the programs. But lost somewhere outside the peripheral vision was the fact that the people supporting those programs with countless and invaluable man hours of administration, organization, fundraising, and other unsung tasks needed to have the same structures of accountability in place. So, not for lack of a system, but for lack of a full and comprehensive system, the organization has suffered.

As much as the difficult volunteer failed the organization in this story, the organization failed her. Not from a place of malice or neglect. Simply from a lack of intentional stewardship in viewing all volunteers with the same care and value (program specific vs. non-program specific) from an organizational perspective. How can a volunteer live up to expectations that are never expressed? How can their inappropriate behavior be gently corrected if inappropriate is never defined? How can anyone be held accountable to standards that have never been set? And now, faced with current circumstances, how will this organization be able to “fire” this difficult volunteer in a way that honors her prior commitment and work, honors the organization itself, and honors God?

Does this story resonate with you? Have you ever suffered from mission blindness? Have you ever felt as though your entire organization was being held hostage by one difficult volunteer? Have you ever compromised a system or a process or sound practice in the heat of a moment when you needed to “just get it done?” We are all human, and all at risk of making these, and many other, mistakes. How can we avoid them? How can the biblical principles of stewardship and discipleship shape our leadership to sustain a thriving and healthy volunteer force? I want to hear from you!

Come back next Tuesday to share in the story of an organization that has found thrive in its volunteer force!


*I was given express permission to share this story by the organization in question; in turn, I gave the assurance of anonymity.

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4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Volunteers- Part One: Hostage Crisis

  • Bethany

    Interesting perspective that can be elusive if you’re in the situation. I’m sending this to a couple leaders who have dealt with this before and would like not to repeat the scenario. Thank you for the insight.

  • Michelle

    Interesting concept. I never really considered treating volunteers in the same manner as regular employees, but it completely makes sense. Good leadership builds good employees (volunteers). Management is not the same as Leadership. This example clearly supports that distinction.

    • Heather Owen Post author

      That’s a point where I hope to dig deep with others, what does good leadership look like? Not simply according to organizational management textbooks or the latest book from the latest expert, but in terms of a biblical perspective. How are discipleship and stewardship being applied or neglected, and how is that specifically impacting the organizational culture, ability to thrive, volunteer retention rates, donor development, collaborative partnerships, and community relationship? In my years of experience on both sides of the table, I have seen so many incredibly good intentions get completely wrecked because “mission blindness” caused leaders to neglect strategy and intentional behavior on many levels, concentrating all of their focus on a specific program or initiative. The importance of starting small and properly laying a solid foundation cannot be overemphasized….or of repairing the foundation in an organization that is already starting to wear from structural issues. Sorry to ramble, but I’m really passionate about helping organizations thrive by showing them how to rip out their issues at the roots and plant new seeds for healthy growth!