Going, Going, Gone!! What to do with a Runaway Volunteer

By Katie MacKenzie, Project Coordinator

Volunteers are vital to every non-profit organization. We rely on them to help us do everything from volunteering a few hours of their time, to helping with a project, to assisting us in raising money during annual, capital or stewardship campaigns.  We also rely on them to spread their drive and enthusiasm for our organization to their friends and circles of influence so that we can gain more donors and more volunteers who are champions for our cause.

Basically, we need volunteers to help our non-profits thrive and be as successful as they are and as we want them to continue to be. But what happens when we get what I will call a “runaway volunteer”?

Someone who is truly passionate about our organization but who hijacks our plans with their plans – which is not always in the best interest of the organization.

I recently had a client who ran into this problem. They had a large event planned to recognize their lead gift donors and to officially launch the public phase of their campaign. Things were going swimmingly with event planning and with the final pieces of the puzzle falling into place. Everyone, including the Executive Director, had signed off on plans and agreed on the direction in which the event planning was going.

Three days later we learned that not only had this volunteer added an additional 100 names to the guest list – which, keep in mind, this was an event with a very specific attendee cap – but had also changed several other things which the event planning committee had already meticulously laid out or ruled out. However, since the Executive Director didn’t want to upset the volunteer, they just went along with it.

Obviously, the above is an example of what NOT to do when engaging volunteers to assist in your work.

Here are a just few points to help manage volunteers before they become “runaways”:

  1. Don’t let your volunteers hijack your plans! Remember – they are volunteers – but you have to answer to your organization’s stakeholders, and sometimes what is best for your organization might come into conflict with how a volunteer wants to run things. So don’t be afraid to hold your ground! They are there to assist you, not hinder you.
  2. Lay out clear expectations for your volunteers. Let them know how they can help, what the expectations are, and how they can best channel their interest and passion for your organization into something that is beneficial for you both.
  3. Always be sure to recognize your volunteers for their hard work, achievements and contributions to your cause, but don’t let them forget who is in charge – YOU! Don’t be afraid to tell someone “no” on the off-chance you might offend them. Sometimes volunteers may not even be aware that they have overstepped their bounds. And quite honestly, if someone is offended that you have to politely decline their idea, then they might not have been championing your cause but their own.

Can you think of other points that have helped you to successfully manage your volunteers? Or do you have examples of when a situation with a volunteer went incredibly wrong or incredibly right?

We’d love to hear your thoughts!