how to fire a volunteer

A reader writes:

My question is not regarding my job, but regarding a board I serve on for an alumni association. We are all volunteers, and we have various committees that other alumni serve on. It’s hard to get much help sometimes, so we try to find something for anyone who wants to help to contribute.

However… We have one volunteer who seems to suffer from delusions of grandeur. He is not an elected board member, only a volunteer on one committee. He talks about his “position” as if it’s a real job, and even gave himself a fake title that doesn’t exist and told others associated with our organization that this is his “job” and that we have given him “authority” to do certain things that we haven’t.

The head of this committee, a board member, is fed up (as am I–he has told other board members in IMs, which we of course share with one another to confirm, that I’ve given him permission to say/do things that he never even discussed with me). At first, we gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he misunderstood, but after so many times it’s clear that he is making things up to further his perceived importance. He came into this annoyed that his ideas had been ignored in the past and hoping to implement them through us. These involve him soliciting corporate donations. We don’t want him representing our organization to the public.

If this were an employee, the answer would be easy! In this case, I know his reaction will be “you said you needed volunteers and then you turn away someone willing to help?” And yes, bodies are good, but we don’t want to be misrepresented or lied about, and he is not willing to follow the procedures of our organization (or says he is, then does the opposite, then claims he misunderstood).

As we discuss this further, I’d like to support the committee chair’s decision if she chooses to “fire” him. My instinct is that we need to be very clear about why he cannot be involved without being too soul-crushing, but I do think we need to be honest that his actions are in direct conflict with our mission and goals. If that leads to him telling others we mistreated him, that’s probably not as bad as having him out there running off his mouth to potential supporters.

How would you handle this?

How clear have you/the board been when you’ve talked to him about this in the past? Has anyone directly and clearly told him, “It’s not acceptable to do XYZ, and while we appreciate your work, if that continues to happen, we can’t allow you to continue in this role”?

Oftentimes, people have conversations about issues like this that aren’t that direct. They soften the message because they’re uncomfortable delivering a tough message, or because they think a softer message will still get the job done. And then they’re frustrated when the problem continues. This is common in employment situations, too — and it’s even more common in volunteer situations, where people feel extra uncomfortable because the person is working for free.

So that’s my first question. If he hasn’t heard a clear and unequivocal statement that this needs to stop, someone (probably the board chair or committee head) should deliver one.

However, if you’re at the point where his behavior has convinced you that a clear and final warning won’t make a difference, and your concerns about his judgment are so serious that warning him and then waiting to see if it sinks in would simply prolong the inevitable (and potentially give him more time to do additional damage in the meanwhile), then you’re under no obligation to wait. You can move to the final step right now, which would be removing him from his role.

To do that, the board or committee chair should tell him: “We really appreciate all your work. However, your not following our policies and misrepresenting your role in the community has been an ongoing problem, and as a result, we’re removing you from your role on the committee.”

It’s going to be important for you all to keep in mind that it doesn’t matter that he’s working for free. You have certain work that you need done and certain policies that must be followed, and if it’s unwilling to follow them or incapable of following them, then the organization can and should turn down his help. You can be kind about this, and openly appreciative of the work he’s put in, while still being firm about the fact that it’s not working out.

If he pushes back or questions why you’d turn away volunteer help, simply say, “We do appreciate help, but we need volunteers to be willing to work within our procedures. Being a volunteer doesn’t change the need to comply with our rules.” And if he continues to push, then you simply say, “The decision is final. We hope you understand.”

Good luck.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. COT*

    Alison’s exactly right–you treat this “firing” much as you would a paid employee. Lay out the expectations clearly and take action if they don’t meet them.

    There’s definitely a tendency to have lower expectations for volunteers than paid staff, and in some settings that’s okay. For instance, when I have managed volunteers, some positions allow for more flexible attendance than I would expect from the paid staff.

    I think one reason that firing volunteers is tougher is because there aren’t as many excuses you can give–particularly when someone is trying their best and doing okay, but not great. It’s tough to say, “We always need all help… except yours.” But this situation is different. He’s not just not great; he’s actively bad. When someone is actively damaging your work, your reputation, and your relationships with the rest of the team, that’s not acceptable.

    I think you should actively prepare to do some damage control–he may leave quietly, he may not. Make sure he doesn’t have access to your social media accounts, letterhead, or anything else he may use to continue misrepresenting you. Have a neutral, clear response ready if someone comes to you with questions about what happened.

    Volunteer Match offers free online webinars, and they do offer one about difficult volunteers. It might be worth checking out!

    1. clobbered*

      I want to echo what COT said about damage control. It is hard dealing with volunteer structures; for example, it will sometimes be the case that the volunteer is also a well-connected client or donor. Then you have to worry about what will do more damage – keeping them, or having them go around telling everybody what a nasty board you are.

      While I agree that workplace standards should apply (I am shocked at how many non-profits allow conduct in their boardrooms that would never be acceptable in the workplace), the reality is that the power structure that (at least in theory) underpins a manager’s authority in the workplace is not always replicated in the volunteer world.

      1. COT*

        That’s a really good point. With paid staff, it’s almost always quite clear that the manager is more powerful than the person they supervise. It can be a lot more ambiguous with VIP volunteers or donors, which I believe we’ve seen in past columns on this site (and I’ve seen it in my own work, too). Because most nonprofits are incredibly dependent on community relations, sometimes we have do things in the name of those relationships that we wouldn’t otherwise do.

        OP didn’t mention that as being a factor in this situation, but it’s worth considering. If this volunteer leaves, will he take other important people or funds with him? Is that a price you can afford to pay in terms of fundraising, PR, etc.?

        1. Coffeeless*

          There’s always the potential for fallout when firing a volunteer. Sometimes, I think organizations avoid firing because of it. At a previous job that shall not be named, one of our older volunteers made all the African American kids sit in the back of the room during a presentation, with the white kids in front. You would not believe how difficult it was to even get someone to talk to her about it, because nobody wanted to offend her.

  2. Just a Reader*

    It doesn’t sound like there’s been a cease and desist. I think this is great advice and it’s important to be crystal clear.

    1. Brett*

      Agree. There is no reason to believe this person will stop misrepresenting themselves just because they have been told they are no longer part of the group.

      Also, the alumni association needs to make absolutely sure that their by-laws cover this situation! If the committee members are not officially appointed, then how can they tell this person that they are no longer a committee member? If there is no procedure for expelling someone from the association, then how can they tell this person they are no longer a member?

      If the by-laws are not built for firing a volunteer (and often they are not), then a cease and desist might be the necessary step.

  3. Kim*

    I used to be a volunteer manager and I had to fire many a volunteer in my day. The field (sexual assault crisis intervention) sometimes attracted people who had their own unresolved issues with being victimized and ended up making the volunteer experience all about them and their trauma. That was a sticky situation and required a lot of sensitivity. I would always tell them how much I appreciated the passion that they brought to this work, but that it simply wasn’t the right time in their life and our volunteers needed to focus on our clients and our mission. Everybody was very understanding and I never had a bad reaction. Be kind, but firm.

  4. Chinook*

    OP, you are probably already thinking about this, but be aware of how the fired volunteer might react publicly to this firing. This is. NOT a good reason to not fire him, but since he has already shown poor judgements, he may end up saying lies about how you took advantage of his generosity, felt he was becoming to powerful in the organization or anything else that makes him look like an innocent victim. A bad reputation can make it harder to recruit new volunteers.

    On the plus side, this volunteer probably has his own reputation and the comments will be dismissed by the community.

  5. Laura*

    Oh, this kind of thing is so hard to deal with. I volunteer on the committee that plans the auction to raise money for my daughter’s school, and there’s one person in the group who is rude, pushy, and condescending. She alienated one donor so much that the donor was ready to back off, until the chairperson called and smoothed things over.

    She’s very talented at specific tasks, but she just wants to take over everything. Plus she’s always trying to make side deals for herself. One year she was the auction chairperson, and coincidentally opened up an event planning business the same year. Then she “donated” a bunch of her time to the auction, thereby getting herself a bunch of free advertising in the auction materials. Another year she worked out a side-deal with a sponsor that she would get a referral bonus for every new customer that sponsor got as a result of the auction. She promised to give a portion of those proceeds to the school, but how do you monitor something like that?

    We’ve been trying to come up with a way to not have her on the committee next year.

    I think Alison is right – lay out the expectations, and what will happen if they are not met, and proceed accordingly.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Could you talk about it in terms of conflict of interest and tell her that to avoid any appearance of impropriety, she can’t make deals like that? You could have that rule for everyone.

      1. Jessa*

        And if the rules don’t already have that in them, someone needs to go through the rules process and add it. There should ALWAYS be a rule about conflict or appearance of conflict of interest in anything involving money/time etc. That kind of thing can ruin a charitable organisation.

      2. Laura*

        That was my advice to the auction chairwoman, who is a friend of mine. But we agreed that this woman is so aggressive and pushy that even if she was told she couldn’t do things like that, she would do them anyway and say, “But look at how much money this raised!” So that’s why we thought just cutting her out of it altogether is the better way to go.

        I also asked a couple tax accountant friends if there were any IRS rules around personally profiting from work done on behalf of a charitable organization, but sadly there is nothing concrete, at least not that they were aware of.

        My friend is now on the board of the PTO, which provides the funding for the auction, so she’ll have much more say in how things are done next time around.

  6. Rana*

    I’m reminded of that song from “Free to Be You and Me” about helping, specifically this bit: “Some kinds of help are the kind of help/ that helping’s all about/ some kinds of help are the kind of help/ we all could do without.”

    This definitely sounds like it’s fallen into the latter category.

    1. Dana*

      Love, love, love this reference. I’ve sung that one more than once both out loud and under my breath.

  7. the gold digger*

    I was fired from a volunteer job and it was mortifying. The alumni office at my college asked me at the last minute to attend a college fair – they didn’t want to send a recruiter to my town. I had never done this. I didn’t know what to say or do. One father kept pushing me, wanting to know if his daughter would be admitted to my college.

    Of course I DIDN’T KNOW! He said her grades were X and her test scores were Y and what were the minimums?

    Again, I didn’t know. However, I made the mistake of offering an opinion, which, unfortunately, was that his daughter’s SAT scores, based on what I knew of my friends’ scores in college, were probably not high enough unless she could throw a football.

    Then he asked me about my college leaving the Southwest Conference and joining a different one and I just shrugged, saying that alumni of my school were so used to losing that nobody paid attention to sports.

    He was not happy. Wrote to the school. Skewered me. They told me I couldn’t do any more recruiting.

    I just wish they had told me at the outset how to answer the questions they knew I would be getting.

    So. The point is this: Make your expectations clear to your volunteers! Either they’ll do it right or they’ll screw up, but if they screw up, they won’t feel like nobody ever said, “And whatever you do, don’t admit that you don’t care about the football team!”

    1. COT*

      Oh wow! Whenever volunteers are out representing you publicly, there’s a chance they’ll encounter controversy. Smart volunteer managers prepare for this.

      When my now-husband and I were students we volunteered at our school’s State Fair booth. Most visitors were friendly, but one woman attacked my husband, accusing our school of taking over the neighborhood even though she “was there first.” (The school’s 150 years old, so that’s not too likely.) In her tirade, she called us all “a bunch of Nazis.” My husband’s Jewish… fortunately he was amused, not really offended.

      Anyway, the point is your alma mater could have done a better job of preparing you, and a smart organization would have!

    2. Forrest*

      I just shrugged, saying that alumni of my school were so used to losing that nobody paid attention to sports.

      Ha! Same as my school. And my state’s football team actually.

  8. Not so NewReader*

    The by-laws of your organization should offer some clue on what to do with misaligned volunteers. Well written by-laws include what is expected and what will happen if expectations are not met.

    You can also check with older members to see if there is precedent. A previous situation might offer clues as best how to proceed.

    Going forward you can build some controls into your group- such as volunteer positions are up for renewal each year. This renewal process can include board review.

    My final thought is to build a list of rules that volunteers are expected to comply with. Have each volunteer sign the form in agreement to following the rules listed above. I am liking this idea because it is something you can implement right now. Then you can approach the renegade volunteer and tell him “It’s a new policy in this group that every volunteer must sign this agreement. Failure to sign means loss of volunteer status.”

    When asked why, you simply say that the board wants everyone to be on the same page. Make sure he takes home a copy to refer back to. (Well, make sure that everyone has their own copy … you get the idea.)

    Key points: Keep the volunteer form in place EVEN if he leaves the group. And definitely make sure that everyone in the group is bound by the same agreements you are asking of him. (This will help with any of his attempts at undercutting the group after he leaves. You simply shrug and say “Yes, we have implemented new policies. Our group is striving to be more professional about how we do our work.”

    If you have time to Google various volunteer organizations you will be astounded as to what they ask of their volunteers. “You must wear purple on Tuesdays between 1:20 and 4:45.” wth. What you are asking of this volunteer is far more logical and within reason.

  9. Marina*

    As a volunteer manager, one alternative to “firing” is to say, “This position doesn’t seem to be the right fit for you. The requirements of this position are x, y, and z. Are you willing to do that going forward? If not, let’s talk about what position might be a better fit for you.”

    For the future, though, I’d recommend trying to avoid this situation in the first place. Every volunteer should receive training on what the policies and procedures of the organization are. If there are misunderstandings of policies, willful or not, they should be addressed directly and IMMEDIATELY with further training. If they occur multiple times, that should also be addressed directly. None of this has to be in a confrontational or rude sort of way. I try to start these conversations with a) objective statements about what I saw/heard, b) objective statements about the requirements of the position, and c) an open-ended question about what they’re thinking. Sometimes they say they’re just not willing to comply with the requirements, but then it becomes THEM saying they’re not willing to do this volunteer job, not me firing them. Both of us leave the conversation feeling better that way.

    And I would REALLY strongly recommend stopping the “warm body” policy. It makes it so much easier to avoid this kind of problem in the future if you make it clear up front that you need specific work done, not any warm body. It also makes your organization look better–a “we’ll take anybody” attitude works about as well for an organization as it does for someone trying to get a date. ;) And it makes your current volunteers feel special and valued and honored. You may be surprised by getting MORE volunteer applications when you make it clear you’re not just looking for warm bodies.

    1. Pam*

      Yes, this.

      Call/e-mail the person and say, “The board noticed that you have been doing x,y,z. The position you are in requires a,b,c.” Followed by a, “The board feels you may be better fit for X role”. Or even an open discussion on the topic, since they seem to be a disgruntled volunteer to begin with. “From my perspective, I think we’re a little off-track. Do you have any suggestions to how we can get re-aligned?”

      I always try to put new volunteers in the smallest roles possible so they can get familiar with the ropes. It is up to the committee chairs to keep them “in line”– in terms of either accepting ideas and implementing them or saying, great idea but I don’t think we can pursue for this year. I am 100% a “progressive” type leader but you need to have a least a year’s experience with how things are now in order to effectively implement change.

      But don’t fire the volunteer. Find a place where they can shine. Is there any part of your org that could really use the extra enthusiasm? With my “difficult” volunteers, I ask them to take on positions that have been abandoned and frame it as a challenge.

    2. Editor*

      A group I was in was having problems recruiting board members. We revamped the entire structure of the boards and committees and did job descriptions for all, but we also started much more specific recruiting.

      Recruiting for board members, for instance, had focused on “just one meeting a month.” When we changed it to explain that there was a board meeting every month, a committee assignment, and in the future a fundraising event every year, we got much better volunteers and got people who didn’t feel they’d been handed a bait-and-switch description of the job. We also developed some techniques to shorten the monthly meetings (agendas in advance, committee reports in advance so board members could read them before having to discuss them) and revised the constitution and bylaws as needed.

      We had a little orientation every year and handed out organization charts and job descriptions and introduced everyone. I never heard of anyone making up their own title, but when the volunteers have an organization chart, I think making up a title is a bit harder because delusions of grandeur have been preempted. And changing or expanding a job description can be done, but the board has to sign off on the change. This might sound cumbersome, but our board was responsive and handled changes like this easily and promptly.

      Because the group was run more professionally, we ended up with more local businesswomen involved, which really helped with visibility, fundraising, and overall efficiency.

  10. Pussyfooter, aka. OneoftheMichelles*

    I consider a volunteer job to be a JOB. It’s a promise to show up and accomplish tasks that others are depending on me for.

    If I hurt the organization/people I’m there to support, what’s the point of me being there? If I refuse or am unable to stop causing problems, I need to be let go.

  11. Elise*

    Sounds like the stuff of “Keeping Up Appearances.”

    Funny on a sitcom you watch — not so amusing when you have to deal with it yourself.

    Actually….maybe ways the church society dealt with Hyacinth might actually work. If you can’t fire him, could you redirect him to tasks that will keep him busy doing something out of the way and unimportant (but you make it seem important)?

      1. Cathy*

        My husband loves that show! I am particularly fond of Rose and the ‘dishy vicar’ LOL

  12. V*

    Yes, set guidelines or expectations for volunteers and have them sign an agreement. I wouldn’t refer to them as “rules” because that seems a little strict and high school, but overall it seems like you do need a standard document that outlines what is expected.

    I’m also curious as to what this person’s day job is, or do they have one? Perhaps they are just used to control in their position and don’t know how to step back.

  13. Lanya*

    We had a volunteer who used to do this at the (very dysfunctional) nonprofit I used to work for. We all hoped that our CEO would “fire” the woman, but instead he chose to harness the volunteer’s unbridled passion to help spread the word about our company, even if most of what she was spouting off was incorrect or inflated. Not unlike her ego. She even made her own business cards for herself, as well as her own personal advertisements for our organization. We appreciated her enthusiasm…but a wise CEO would have let her go.

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