can I leave a volunteer position with a not-great manager, but stay involved with the organization?

A reader writes:

I’m hoping you could help me with some questions I have about a volunteer position I’ve been doing for about 1.5 years now.

It’s a newsletter/communications position for one of the departments (Department A) of a local nonprofit that I really admire. I developed the newsletter program and it was a great experience, but after my supervisor changed last fall, the position has become kind of frustrating for me. I told my new supervisor last year that I could commit to the end of 2015, and I’ve decided I don’t want to do it past that, at least not for Department A.

My first question is, what’s an appropriate time/way to tell her? It’s a bimonthly newsletter and our June-July issue just came out, so there are two issues left for the year. I don’t want to delay the news in case she wants to look for someone to take over, but I also don’t want to sour the relationship too early, since from past stuff I think she might take it personally.

The past stuff is that while she’s generally a nice person, she doesn’t react that well when it seems like I’m working with someone else, even within the organization itself. (For example, she invited me to a community discussion so I could write a story about it, but when I sat with her manager instead of her–because she was late and I didn’t know anyone else!–she kept coming over to my table while we were talking to tell me to come sit with her group, taking one of our table’s chairs, reaching for my food to carry it over, etc., until I did. I had only known her for two months at that point and felt irritated and uncomfortable.)

The other reason I’m writing, though, is that I do want to stay involved with the organization, maybe even in another communications role, and so her habit of taking stuff personally has me stumped as to how to proceed.

Specifically, a while ago her manager asked if I’d be interested in helping run the organization’s general social media accounts (answer: yes!). I couldn’t at the time because of work stuff, but a few months later I had time and thought it’d be courteous to let my supervisor know that I was planning to get in touch with her manager about it. But when I told her about the possibility–obviously making clear that it’d be in addition to the newsletter–she was really unenthusiastic, immediately changing the topic to how Department A had a Facebook and she wanted to set up a Twitter and they needed my help there, and I could do that for them, couldn’t I?

I felt so wrong-footed that I said, “Yes, sure, I can do that” and ended up not emailing her manager. Side note: I know both those reactions are on me, not her, and that the position might not have been open any more. But it really was bewildering. (Icing on the cake, I later realized the Facebook page isn’t even for Department A but for a local park. The park’s in one of our neighborhoods, yeah, but we serve three neighborhoods, not one.)

I know this has gotten long, but my questions are–with the above context, do you think there’s a non-awkward way for me to try to stay involved in volunteer communications here, or would it just be really bad if I tried to move from Department A to doing general communications/social media stuff for the org? Is my frustration understandable, or am I being a bit of a pissbaby? And, again—is there a good way or a good time to tell her I’m leaving?

Well, first, tell her you’re leaving now. Since you’re certain that you are, it’s considerate to give her as much notice as possible, so that she has a head start on lining up someone else to do the work you’ve been doing. Particularly with volunteer roles, it can take time to find the right person, so you don’t want to spring it on her later on when you already know now. (And this is different from figuring out how much notice to give for a paid job, where your livelihood can depend on your employer’s reaction. In this case, if she pushes you out a bit early, that’s okay.)

Plus, you already gave her a heads-up that you weren’t committing past the end of this year. It shouldn’t be a terrible shock to circle back and tell her that you’ve thought about it and are indeed going to wrap up your role in December.

If she takes the news badly, you can address that at that point. For example: “Jane, I really love volunteering here and want to fulfill my commitment, but your reaction to my announcement is making it harder for us to work together. Can you ___ ?” (Fill in with whatever you need her to do: stop berating you, behave pleasantly, stop crying whenever she speaks to you, etc.)

Also, I’d reach out to that manager who asked you to help with social media a while back. Let that person know that you’re wrapping up the work you’re doing for Jane but would love to stay involved in their communications and social media in other ways. Ask if you can talk with her about options. And then, in that conversation, I’d strongly consider mentioning the issues you’ve had with Jane — because as Jane’s manager, she needs to know that Jane is alienating good volunteers. If nothing else, it sounds like Jane could use some coaching, and her manager may not realize that. Plus, raising it will also allow you to say, “Can you help me figure out how to stay involved without having weirdness with Jane over it?”

And yes, your frustration sounds plenty understandable to me. But before you get too frustrated, assert yourself about moving out of the stuff you no longer want to do and speak up about the work you’d rather do instead. That might solve the whole problem, in which case, no frustration necessary.

{ 9 comments… read them below }

  1. AMT

    Sounds like OP has succumbed to the guilt that sometimes comes with dysfunctional volunteer positions. You wind up putting up with things you’d never put up with at a paid job, usually because you’re doing something you like and it’s for a good cause. Say it loud, OP: you are NOT being unreasonable for wanting a manager who isn’t nuts. You are NOT unreasonable for wanting to stay with the organization, but switch roles/managers/whatever.

    1. Ama

      And really, you’re not unreasonable to leave/switch roles even if Jane wasn’t difficult and you just wanted to do social media more than the newsletter — I deal with a lot of volunteers at my org, and every so often someone who has been volunteering on one project for years just decides the time commitment is too much and they want to do this other task that’s less involved, or we start a new project that they’d rather work on. Part of keeping volunteers involved with an org is matching them to tasks that not only suit their skills but their interests.

      1. Connie-Lynne

        Yes! Especially if you’ve been doing the same role for a while. It’s one thing if you came in and shortly were all “oooh! Next role! Squirrel!” but you clearly have a long-term commitment to this org.

        We move event volunteers around to new positions every year — their skillsets changed, their ability to commit time changed, we loved them as volunteers so we put them where they’d be happy so that they’d keep coming back!

  2. Jerry Vandesic

    “Well, first, tell her you’re leaving now…”

    No. Absolutely not. You give two weeks notice when you have something else lined up and are ready to leave. You don’t owe this bad manager any special favors, and keeping to a two week notice period minimizes any difficulties she might impose on you.

  3. OP

    Thanks for the reply! Especially for the advice that I should tell her now, and that it’s fine for me to reach out to the other manager about other volunteering options. I was worried it would seem rude to do either of those things, so I’m glad to hear that it isn’t!

    Also for this: “But before you get /too/ frustrated, assert yourself about moving out of the stuff you no longer want to do and speak up about the work you’d rather do instead.”

    After I sent the letter (which I wrote right after the newsletter publishing date, so I was kind of stressed/tired) I wondered if maybe I was caught in a bit of a self-perpetuating negative loop. It’s helpful to hear that my frustration’s warranted while also getting the (necessary!) reminder that, hey, I /can/ actually take action here :P

    1. Lily in NYC

      OP, I have never seen the word “pissbaby” before and it cracked me up. Is it a UK term or do you just have a way with vulgar words (I mean that as a compliment)?

  4. Lisa Petrenko

    It is a volunteer position. You are being way overly accommodating to a toxic environment and not even being paid for it. I would let her know you ate leaving, ask whoever about any opportunities you may be interested in , and bee very transparent about why you want a new opportunity. You are a volunteer, they shouldn’t be stressing you out in ways that would be toxic and unacceptable even if they were paying you.

  5. VolunteerCoordinatorinNOVA

    Anyone who works with volunteers should know that people come and go and sometimes it stinks but it sounds like you’re giving her plenty of time to find someone else to help. I’d love if all my volunteers were around forever but I know anytime someone comes in, they could be here for a day or a year or 10 years.

    The other thing is I would definitely mention this to her supervisor as she may not know this is happening and is probably happening with other volunteers as well. I’ve had this happen many times as I manage the overall volunteer program at my org but if someone is volunteering within a specialized position, I’ll send them to the staff that’s most appropriate. I’ve sent volunteers off to them, haven’t heard anything for a few months and then I get an email/phone call about how they’re about to quit and the staff person hasn’t been doing this or that. At this point, I’m talking them off the ledge so if I knew what was happening all along, I could better address it. Sometimes staff don’t understand that working with a volunteer is very different than working with another staff or client and they need some training on that.

    Hope it all works out!

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