how to fire a volunteer

A reader writes:

I serve on a board 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 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 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.

I know his reaction if we remove him from his position 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?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. SadieMae

    Great advice by AAM! And, OP, in terms of this man badmouthing your organization to others by saying you had no reason to kick him out or that you must not need volunteers that much, I would just say, people like this tend to be like this in all areas of their lives. I’m guessing most of this fellow’s friends and family know him well enough to know there’s probably more to it than he’s admitting. And even if a few people believe him, one guy isn’t going to derail your organization’s overall reputation. If anyone asks you about it directly, you can just tell them, “We appreciated Fergus offering his time, but he wasn’t a good fit for our organization,” and leave it there.

    I’ve had to do this myself as a volunteer coordinator, and it’s no fun. Sorry you’re having to deal with this, and good luck!

    1. zora

      I second this. And, the reverse can actually be true, that your good volunteers will stay, and not be driven away, because they appreciate that you support them and have gotten rid of the person that is probably negatively affecting their volunteer experience. The quiet majority of good volunteers will usually be very happy that uncooperative volunteers are not allowed to derail everything by being obnoxious.

      1. Elizabeth West

        This is true–it’s no different than dealing with a bad employee who is making the other employees miserable. Plus, if you’re conscientious about a well-run volunteer program, it makes it much more likely that people will want to lend their time in future. Word of a crappy experience and a wimpy board will get around.

    2. TCO

      As someone who’s also fired volunteers, I totally agree on the reputation thing. Unless your volunteer is unusually powerful in the community (and they usually aren’t), having one disgruntled person out there won’t sink you. Most people will take that person’s comments with a grain of salt, especially if your organization’s reputation is otherwise stellar.

    3. NoMoreMrFixit

      There is also the question of how this person’s behaviour is impacting other volunteers. Is he pulling attitude on other volunteers? Getting tarred with the same brush as the problem child here? Same impact as a bad employee – everybody else in the organization suffers. Time to show this guy the door and politely close it behind him.

      Yes good volunteers are always needed. But not when they become a problem for others.

  2. HR Chick

    “you said you needed volunteers and then you turn away someone willing to help?”
    “You’re not helping. You’re making our jobs harder”

    1. NotAnotherManager!

      +1

      This is EXACTLY what I thought reading the letter. Of course the organization needs more help, and if they need more help, they don’t have time to do damage control and mop-up duty.

    2. Mookie

      Exactly. They’re seeking volunteers to fulfill specific functions, not a despot who thinks he knows better.

    3. Snark

      I’ve said this. I got this passive-aggressive “well, I’m just here to help” line, and said, “Okay, well, when you’re ready to start doing that, I’m happy for you to work on my project with me.”

  3. ThatLibraryChick

    This letter makes me wonder if there were any more updates from the person who was in charge of the museum volunteer who had artifacts at his house and the museum was ok with it.

    1. Museum LW

      A quick update:

      I’m still here at the organization. I’m extremely dedicated to turning this organization around, and it’s slow going but I feel like we’ll get there.

      The rogue volunteer, Steve, has pulled back quite a bit from the organization. The collections objects are still at his house, for now. We recently updated our strategic plan, and one of the initiatives is to get everything out of his house in the next year. We found a temporary storage location that we can use for free for a few months this summer, and our Collections Manager will be moving everything from Steve’s house, using volunteers to help inventory the objects and choose items for deaccession, and then attempting to reorganize our other storage units to fit what we’re keeping.

      We have had a large decrease in the number of people donating money over the past few years, and we’re starting to investigate now and see if it could be because of Steve badmouthing us. I think that’s likely the case, as he was our main donor-relations person before all of this. Steve and three other former staff members meet weekly for lunch to complain about the current staff and the way we’re taking the organization. It’s a pretty toxic situation overall. Hopefully we can find new donors and come out of this without too many scars from Steve.

      1. M-C

        Good for you, Museum LW! It sounds like you’re making good progress.
        As a follow-up of my own, I should say that we’re extremely pleased that we bothered to formally expel our Evil Couple. So that when nearly a year later we find, for a recent example, that they’re still telling a major funder (of ours) that they had to leave because we were so inefficient, we can set the record straight. That ‘expelled’ word is essential.

  4. Jaybeetee

    If you’re concerned about how other volunteers/other people might react to this news, it might be helpful to come up with some sort of soundbyte to deliver to everyone else, just to quell the usual anxieties that pop up when someone gets ejected from a low-turnover place.

    I worked a previous job awhile back that was notable for having extremely low turnover – most people in my unit had worked there over a decade, and some people referred to the manager as “new” as she had “only” been in the position for two years (OTOH, I was there on contract in a short-term position). But they let go one of my colleagues who had been there something like 17 years, but I guess had had long-running problems and had failed to improve. When this was done, the entire unit was called into a meeting room for the joint purpose of breaking the news and reassuring people, and to give the poor woman a chance to pack her things and get out of there without a “walk of shame.” But anyway, the management emphasized that this was an isolated event after much consideration and work with her, that this was not “the start of a trend,” and while not dragging her through the mud, made it clear that they’d done as much as they could before letting her go.

    Anyway, a similar announcement might help quell gossip and anxiety among the volunteers, while also clarifying that you don’t plan to start axing people willy-nilly and that this was an exceptional situation.

  5. Kobayashi

    Fire the volunteer. I, too, work on the board of a nonprofit. We had a very dedicated but problematic volunteer who had been with us for years. We finally “fired” him. It ended up being the right decision, for sure. That one volunteer was causing strife, drama and in some cases PR issues that disappeared as soon as he left.

  6. the_scientist

    Huh, this is hilariously timely! My organization has a troublesome volunteer and no one is quite sure what to do with them, so I’ll be following this for sure.

  7. memoryisram

    I’ve actually had to fire a volunteer in my role in non-profit management – and it’s a shockingly awkward process, I think due to the fact that being as people ARE volunteers the expectations are a little different (especially, in my case, in terms of flexibility re: deadlines). Directness is key here, both in among yourselves and to the individual. In my case, I think, the volunteer was mad at me for quite some time, and there were mistreatment rumors (that we were luckily mostly able to squash), but I think in the end, it was seen as a wake-up call to the volunteer, and future volunteers, that we can’t have people who aren’t on the same page.

    1. zora

      I agree. I have had to do it as well. It is REALLY not fun, but it is an important element of having a robust, effective volunteer program. It’s an important skill to learn if you consistently work with volunteers, and it does get a little easier with practice, and once you really have personally absorbed the concept that your organization will be harmed by allowing bad volunteers to stay.

      Also, it can really help in the long run to make sure you do have policies written down in some form, and some kind of written guidelines for volunteer behavior. It’s even a good idea if you use a lot of volunteers, to have a sit-down conversation before they begin volunteering where you go over the guidelines and have them sign that they have received and understand them. When I was running all-volunteer organizations, having clear policies laid out in our by-laws about appropriate conduct for members and a process to remove members if necessary was a major priority when setting up the organization.

      1. Artemesia

        Really second this. I used to place interns in non-profits a lot and often encountered just awful territorial ‘volunteers’ who were like angry banty chickens ruling their little roost and often driving others away. I would think an orientation that included the need to take direction and the importance of following procedures of the organization would be critical and also that makes it slightly easier to be able to reference when the person doesn’t. Some people get really wound up in power and status in a volunteer setting and can do a lot of damage.

        1. zora

          definitely, it makes it MUCH easier when you have something to refer to in the conversation, like policies you went over on their first day. it’s a much more awkward conversation when it seems to the volunteer that it’s coming out of nowhere.

          Also, I love your banty chickens simile, it’s so true!

      2. zora

        Another thought I want to add, it’s also okay to fire a volunteer for just not being helpful, even if they aren’t like this guy, being an active problem for the organization. You really have to do a cost-benefit analysis of how much staff time this person is taking up and how much they are contributing, and what the mission of the organization is. If the mission is to support a particular community, you might have to get creative to find ways to include a volunteer who isn’t very helpful.

        However, in one case, I was the only staff member in a particular city, and had to start a program with only volunteer support. One woman was very nice and wanted to help, but after several days it became clear that she could just not do any of the things we actually needed to get done, no matter how much time I spent training her. We were not in the position for me to spend hours every day with this woman who didn’t have the skills we needed. I had to very gently tell her we had nothing for her, while appreciating her dedication to the organization, and talking about how we might have needs that fit her better in the future when the organization had grown. Again, it was awkward, but even though she was a nice person, it was going to actively harm my ability to run the organization if I kept letting her come in for hours per week. It is okay to do this, even though it can be hard to accept it.

          1. Sabine the Very Mean

            Alison, I’d really love to read your thoughts on how you’ve grown as a firing manager. Do you have horror stories that you draw on to learn from? I was involved in one firing as an employee and one as a manager. Both were horrendously traumatic experiences where I knew both were done so poorly and would likely affect both parties for some time afterward. I was a witness to a third where the process was smooth and professional. How?

            1. AnonEMoose

              I’m going to second this one. Firing people (whether it’s a paid job or a volunteer thing) is hard, whichever side of the desk you’re on. So, how do you take care of yourself, knowing that this is part of the job?

              And how do you deal with the hate that’s going to get flung your way because you fired someone? Something I struggle with is that the fired person can run around saying pretty much whatever horrible thing about the organization, the manager, etc., that they want to, but we really can’t go around talking in public about what happened and why. The community I deal with tends to really like their rumors and conspiracy theories, and it’s tough to deal with sometimes.

              1. Cafe au Lait

                I was the writer of letter #2. I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought of your letter over the years. I haven’t had to fire anyone since. (Low turnover in staff + a job change on my end). Plus, the morale of staff improved after she left. They were already a pretty tight group (think employee organized group dinners, bowling nights, Wii tournament events at each other’s houses), and I didn’t think they could get any tighter. I was wrong. That group ended up working completely in-sync with almost seamless transitions during shift changes.

                That firing, hard as it was to do, was 100% the right move to make.

              2. Sabine the Very Mean

                Thank you! It is like breaking up and I am still the woman who puts it off. I’ve tried to remind myself how much more I value candor and total honesty as the recipient as a way to help me stay direct. Contrary to my user name, I’m often too nice and it has hurt me.

  8. AnonEMoose

    This is definitely one of the least fun things about being “in charge.” Because no matter how well and sensitively you handle it, some people are going to be upset; that’s just how these things work. But you and the other board members have a responsibility to the organization, and if this guy is doing more harm than good, or dealing with him is taking time that you would be better off spending on other things, he’s a liability. If you think of it that way, it might be easier to decide and move forward.

    I seriously contemplated firing a volunteer last year. Ultimately, I didn’t, because I was able to shift things around to keep her in a position where her skills outweigh her deficits, and put others in place to handle what she doesn’t do well. It was worth it to me because she has some very definite strengths that are extremely valuable.

    Granted, we’re not hearing everything about the situation here, but it sounds like this guy is more detrimental than helpful. It’s possible he’s actually driving off other volunteers. While I think a volunteer organization does need to extend more leeway in terms of people needing more training (because some people do use volunteer work to develop skills they don’t already have or need experience in) and/or dealing with some behavior that wouldn’t fly in a paid job, that doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – infinite.

    Some things shouldn’t be tolerated. For me, these would include engaging in harassment or bullying, misusing the organization’s funds, and misrepresenting their position with the organization (because that has the potential to cause a LOT of trouble for the organization). It sounds like this person has done at least the last one.

    I agree with Alison – if he has not a clear, unambiguous warning about the behavior, then he should receive one. And if he steps out of line again, he’s done. But if he has been warned and has continued, then it’s time to cut him loose. And while it will no doubt be upsetting for him, at least this is not his livelihood!

  9. always in email jail

    There seems to always be one in a batch. Back when I used to have to manage a volunteer program, we had multiple instances of individuals including a “made up” title within the organization in their personal email signature, inappropriately adding it to their resume (under professional instead of volunteer experience, with fabricated job titles) etc. It’s very frustrating.

    1. zora

      Ha, definitely. My most egregious was the guy who was coming in every Saturday to canvass for a political campaign. He was so reliable and knocked on so many doors, we thought he was one of our super star volunteers.

      Then we found out he was talking about the Illuminati on door steps and telling people they shouldn’t vote for our opponent because of how he was part of the Grand Conspiracy, etc etc etc…. ummmmm, yeah….. we got him out of there so fast that day! (but politely and as nicely as could, while being firm).

  10. Anna

    I’ve just recently had to contemplate firing a volunteer because of some incredibly obnoxious behavior. In the end, I did not because it didn’t actually affect the outcome of the event at all and even though they are a pain in the ass to manage for ME, other folk in my org don’t mind managing them so much.

    Either way, if it comes up again, at least I’ll have some guidance on what to do.

  11. Volunteer Coordinator

    Out of all the volunteers I’ve had to fire in my career, most of them aren’t really that surprised when I’ve done it as I’ve had multiple conversations with them beforehand. I think people are often afraid to have those difficult conversations with volunteers and so everything boils over, it can be a bit of a shock sometimes. The other thing that I’ve found really helpful is having position descriptions and volunteer agreements that lay out what a volunteer can or cannot do. People often don’t get why I spend a good amount of time going over these in orientations but it’s much easier to have those challenging conversations when I can pull up their form and remind them what they agreed to and see if they can live with that or if it’s time to move on. A toxic volunteer can really cause a lot of issues with other volunteers, clients and staff and it can be hard to get rid of them for various reasons but once you do it, it can take a huge weight off you.

  12. GenXer

    If you don’t have a contract for volunteers and a manual for them, you need one.

    A lot of organizations just let volunteers show up with no real background or reference checks, no contracts about what the volunteer will and will not do, and no manuals. This leads to very unprofessional behavior on both sides.

    Just because you aren’t paying someone doesn’t mean they should not be held to basic standards of professional behavior.

    What if, say, the volunteer were scheduled to work/do a task and didn’t show up? What then?

    This is why policies and procedures are so important.

    1. zora

      Totally! I said something similar above, but want to add +280000 to your comment, it is so much easier to have it laid out on paper ahead of time than trying to figure out what to say when you are in the middle of the conflict.

    2. Mookie

      THIS. The unpaid nature of the gig does not preclude appointed / elected committees or paid managers to install the same professional standards and expectations they would elsewhere. If volunteers want to use this to pad their resumés — and plenty don’t, not that there’s anything wrong with citing unpaid work for training, development, and experience — they should handle the position accordingly.

      It’s weird how especially territorial and dictatorial people become when the work is unpaid, as though because money isn’t directly in their pockets there are no financial consequences for the organization from producing dismal results or behaving unprofessionally. The lack of a paycheck or tax write-off somehow indicates, to these people, that they can never be let go, transferred, relieved of certain duties or handed additional ones, asked or demanded to leave. That’s not the way it works. Volunteer positions do not exist to make volunteers feel good and productive and useful, to stroke their egos; the work needs to be done, and there are many people in a good financial position to complete it without pay. It’s sometimes difficult to find them, but individual volunteers are rarely indispensable and responsible organizations take care to ensure that this is so.

  13. Non-Volunteer Volunteer

    I keep hearing “It’s harder to fire a volunteer because they’re not paid.” Not only is that BS but it’s the same binding yourself to a bad employee as “But they’re the only one who knows the job!”.

    I was a volunteer manager for an organization where one of the other vol managers was toxic. He lied about what he did or didn’t do, took credit for other people’s work and threw tantrums if he didn’t get his way. The end was when he went before a bunch of influential patrons and told an off-color joke. Everyone (but him) was horrified.

    The board didn’t want to get rid of him because of the “But it’s harder to fire a volunteer!” They lied to him and told him they were giving him some time off from his responsibilities, then after a month removed all his access to the organization. The resulting tantrum was a hundred times worse than the previous ones. It was a nightmare. All the board had to do was say something like “Thank you for your time and effort but we don’t think you are fitting in with our changing organization.”

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Seriously; this is a guide to “how to do everything the wrong way when firing a volunteer.”

  14. anon for this one

    This is timely. I’m currently dealing with a volunteer who literally thinks she is more important than the paid employees because she’s a volunteer. As in, “Employee told me I couldn’t use that computer because she needed it and I was like, you’re telling A VOLUNTEER they can’t do something???”

    1. Snark

      Yeah, I had this exact thing happen at a museum I worked for in college – a guy threw a total fit because me, age 20 and a collections manager, wasn’t as entitled to use the Mac Pro as he was, because he was 60 and had been a project manager at Raytheon DAMMIT

  15. Sheworkshardforthemoney

    When I volunteered at a non-profit we had to sign a code of conduct during our orientation and it was made clear that we were expected to adhere to it. One volunteer didn’t and continually stirred trouble until the director showed her the door. The code of conduct had to be re-signed every year so no one could plead ignorance or forgetfulness.

  16. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

    Alison, I have a related question, but if it’s too broad, please feel free to ignore.

    What’s the best process when a non-profit fires a problem volunteer like OP’s, but that volunteer continues to pretend that they’re affiliated with the organization and makes requests/pitches on the organization’s behalf?

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Do you circle back to companies he contacted under the false representation, or do you let it go (so as not to make it look like you don’t have your act together or that you’re feeding weird behavior) and wait until a company contacts the nonprofit?

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Depends on what happened. If the person was saying really egregious things or getting things wrong in a way that could cause problems, I’d contact them. Otherwise, probably let it go.

  17. HRish Dude

    I can’t not think of the Seinfeld episode:
    “I’m sorry, but there’s just no way we can keep you on.”
    “I don’t even really work here!”
    “That’s what makes this so difficult.”

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