Conflict in Volunteerism: Part 1

In ten days, I’ll be presenting the keynote address The Colorado Conference on Volunteerism hosted by DOVIA Colorado (Directors of Volunteers in Agencies). I’m excited to bring ideas of Conflict Resolution to their work and have been wrestling with what ideas are most critical to share. To help myself focus and prepare for this event, I’ve been reflecting on my own experience as a volunteer and the ways in which tools for conflict resolution would be helpful for me as a volunteer or for the nonprofits and groups supervising my efforts. This second career as a consultant has allowed me more flexibility and time than I previously enjoyed for volunteering and I’m beginning to appreciate how the word “volunteer” applies to very different types of work, experiences, and conflicts.

While most volunteers come to their work with a shared hope of contribution, the ways to best invite, manage, and recognize those contributions vary greatly by the type of volunteer you’re working with.  I’ve broken down two types of volunteers here and I’ll talk about two more later this week. I invite you to read as a volunteer and/or as a volunteer coordinator. What are your experiences with each type of volunteering and what conflicts do you most commonly see?

Type 1: Helper for a Day

When we think of volunteering, the “helper for the day” may be one of the most basic and immediate images that comes to mind.  These are volunteer opportunities where people may have little connection to the organization before they volunteer and where they may have little connection afterwards.  It’s likely these volunteers bring a willing spirit to work that requires skills which can be quickly trained.  Preparing meals at a soup kitchen, building for Habitat for Humanity, building trails, participating in a litter clean-up, or wrapping presents during the holidays all depend on people who can pop in, help out…and then likely move on.

Conflict Challenge: Clarity of expectations and roles

For these one-and-done type events, everyone is brand new and won’t know where to go or what to do! Having clear instructions not only keeps them productive, they can prevent the most likely of problems.  Volunteer coordinators for these types of volunteers should focus on early and clear communication, appropriate screening, and clear and manageable tasks and instructions.  Assuming these bases are covered, remaining conflicts are most likely to come up between the volunteers themselves.  In these cases, the volunteers will likely go to a supervisor (nonprofit staff person) to help them resolve the issue.  In this, building rapport so the volunteers see the staff as a resource can help.

Long-Term Goal:

Beyond just getting the day’s task done, consider ways to retain the volunteers so they come back and give of their time and talents again.  Build enthusiasm for the work in a way that inspires them to spread the word, donate funds in support, and advocate for the cause.

Managing conflict well for these volunteers (with clear expectations and well-communicated instructions) will ensure that they have a positive experience.

Type 2: Sustaining Supporter

Unlike the Helper for the Day, Sustaining Supporters are people who dedicate time over the long haul.  Helpers for the Day may turn into Sustaining Supporters if they enjoy the work and if the organization has ongoing needs.  Parents or community members who consistently contribute in school settings, Court Appointed Special Advocates, delivery drivers for Meals on Wheels, docents or greeters at zoos and museums, and more are likely to be sustaining supporters.  In these cases, volunteers may have (or receive) specialized training and are worth this investment of time and resources.  Because of their longevity, Sustaining Supporters are likely to develop a greater sense of autonomy.  They might need less guidance from staff and may be able to help support new or less frequent volunteers.

Conflict Challenge: Autonomy gone wrong

While the autonomy of these volunteers is a blessing to overworked volunteer coordinators, it can also present multiple challenges.  Emboldened by their skills and long-term dedication, these Sustaining Supporters are likely to have a greater sense of control than the Helpers for a Day and may be more likely to deviate from what they were originally asked to do. In many cases, these adaptations can be advantageous for the organization but in others, they can lead to disaster.  In these cases, conflict exists between the volunteer’s actual behavior and the volunteer coordinator/organization itself. Protocols for safety or communication with the public are critically important for most organization’s risk management.  When volunteers don’t follow these, they may unnecessarily jeopardize the organization in ways that might be difficult to identify before it’s too late.

In these cases, it can be difficult for volunteer coordinators to hold Super Supporters accountable.  Many fear that if they “call someone out” for actions that concern them, they may damage their relationship and lose the volunteer entirely.  In this way, volunteer coordinators have a task similar to managers in a business.  They must find constructive ways to provide corrective feedback in a way that nurtures the relationship instead of damaging it.

In addition, when multiple Sustaining Supporters work together, they may have differing ideas about their tasks and the best ways of going about them.  These volunteers may not have designated time, skills, or familiar processes to sort out disagreements like this which can produce festering problems and frustration among volunteers.  These experienced volunteers may call of staff to help them resolve disagreements but they may be reluctant to ask for help.

To prevent and manage these types of conflicts, volunteer managers should schedule and have regular check-ins with their Sustaining Supporter volunteers.  These can be friendly but unplanned “drop-in” observations of their work or more formally scheduled meetings.  Volunteer coordinators should use these times to make sure that the volunteer is indeed still “on track” and to listen carefully for conflicts.   Because these volunteers may be reluctant to raise issues, think of questions that might help flush out of there are hidden problems.  If you do find issues, provide support to help the volunteer work it out.  Volunteer coordinators can help by reaffirming expectations (taking a directive approach) or by bringing the parties together and helping them come to resolution together.  Obviously, some mediation skills will be helpful to better equip volunteer coordinators to address these types of conflicts.

Long-Term Goal:

As with the Helpers for a Day, it should be the goal to retain these Sustaining Supporters.  For this group, however, helping them connect their volunteer work to the overall functioning of the organization will be key.  Helping these volunteers identify and appreciate how their actions contribute to the overall vision may help curb the over-zealous rogue efforts discussed above.  Even better, it’s likely to deepen the volunteers’ understanding of and commitment to the organization in ways that will help them advocate for it across spheres.

Managing conflict well with this group (by checking in and providing support where needed) ensures that the volunteers stay on track and that they aren’t unnecessarily burdened by peer conflict.  While it might be uncomfortable, the cost to doing nothing may be losing volunteers who are otherwise wildly committed to the organization.

Stay Tuned!

I’d love to hear your comments here!  Also, keep an eye the blog later this week for the last two types of volunteers and concluding thoughts.  I might even have a sneak preview of the DOVIA keynote ready to share!

2 thoughts on “Conflict in Volunteerism: Part 1

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