Conflict in Volunteerism: Part 2

If you read the post from earlier this week and thought, “Wait, that doesn’t fit my experience. What about….?” then this post is for you. On the last post, we explored two types of volunteering, the Helper for a Day and Sustaining Supporter types. Today let’s dig into one more, the Would be Staff.  Since this is a BIG topic, I’m going to save some ideas on the Organizational Oversight type volunteer for later and add in some final thoughts then. For now, let’s look at at how Would be Staff volunteers’ work and needs differ from the previous two and what it might look like to manage conflict with them.

Type Three: Would Be Staff

Sometimes volunteers become so committed to an organization and spend so much time supporting it that they look like paid staff.  In many cases, newer nonprofits’ founding members work in this way to get the organization off the ground.  Similarly, when a nonprofit is growing, volunteers may fill the gaps of doing critical work which would be assigned to staff if budgets would allow. To me, this is one of the most common but also trickiest types of volunteers to manage.  The challenges of unfettered autonomy found with Sustaining Supporters can be even greater with Would Be Staff and role confusion abounds. In many groups, sustained and sophisticated work happens without any paid staff at all.

Conflict Challenge: Roles and Authority

With Would Be Staff, highly committed volunteers are likely to experience conflict among themselves and with staff (if they exist). This is particularly complicated when board members volunteer on the operations side of a nonprofit that DOES have paid staff.  In these cases, the staff should be supervising the volunteer but given the board’s responsibility to supervise the executive director (sometimes the only staff), disagreements can be complicated. When differences arise with these volunteers, they are likely to think, “Who are you to tell me what to do?” or “This organization is just lucky to have me.  I’m going to do this my way!”

Because the Would be Staff feel such a sense of ownership for their contributions, it makes sense that they would be frustrated if  they feel bossed around by a non-boss. Similarly, if the organization really is highly dependent on the person to do its work, and if that person would be difficult to replace, the volunteer does indeed hold a great deal of power. The challenge in these cases is how to acknowledge the volunteer’s contributions without letting the rest of the organization be taken hostage to their whims.

To prevent and manage conflicts with Would be Staff volunteers, role clarity, decision making rules, acknowledgement, and a focus on the organization’s mission are paramount.

  • Role Clarity– In the hubbub of just trying to get work done, it can be easy to overlook basic things like clarifying whose job it is to do what and with what authority.  Confusion in these areas, however, causes a huge amount of unnecessary conflict.  To prevent confusion:mark-995567_640
    1. Think through all the tasks that need to happen for the organization to function and to thrive (think bare-bones and then growth) and list them out.
    2. Look for themes and match them with people’s strengths.  Past experience with a particular task can be a strength but just because someone has always done something doesn’t mean that they should be the person to do the job forever.
    3. Map out a simple flow of how ideas move through the organization, where things get passed off and who carries the work at each phase. Make this this document with the team and/or share it with them.  Help people to see how they fit into the broader system.
    4. Schedule time (every 6 months at least) to revisit your roles.  Look for areas of confusion or friction and make adjustments accordingly.

NOTE- Professional facilitation to help you work through this conversation can be incredibly valuable.  Often, those inside an organization can’t see what they can’t see. A skilled facilitator, like Carrie Bennett, can help ask questions to illuminate areas that might otherwise be missed.  Facilitation can also help keep the conversation focused and maximize the time you have with the team.

  • Decision Making Rules– Having clarity on roles is one great step but knowing who can decide what and with what authority is equally important.  What situations are best handled with one person deciding for the team?  When does that person need to gather input?  What situations need the full team’s agreement before a decision can be made?  How does the group define consensus?  Having answers to these questions can further prevent confusion and frustration when volunteers are functioning as staff.  To establish clarity in this area:
    1. As with the roles, make a list of all the decisions that have to get made in the organization.  Look for themes and sort the decisions in a way that makes sense.
    2. With your group, read up on potential decision making rules.  I’m particularly fond of Sam Kaner’s ideas in his book the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making.  You can preview portions of the book with Google Books.  Jump to page 323 for some information on decision making rules.  It’s a fantastic book so I definitely recommend buying it, reading it, sleeping with it under your pillow, etc.  Follow the link to get to Kaner’s Community at Work page.
    3. For each decision you identified, label what kind of decision rule you want to apply.  Groups often think they want to make decisions by consensus but in reality, having decisions where the group can and will cede authority can really boost efficiency without sacrificing quality.
    4. As with the roles, make a plan to revisit these roles periodically and revise.  Check to see if you’re following your guide and how that’s working.

NOTE-Again, professional facilitation can help you make these conversations and focused, efficient, and thorough as possible. Carrie is particularly passionate about helping nonprofits achieve clarity in their decision making rules and would love to help your group!

  • Acknowledgement-With the Would be Staff, acknowledgement is key, especially when, but not only when corrective action is needed.  Whether you are paid staff or a fellow volunteer, it’s important to recognize the ways that these committed volunteers sustain the organization.  The following tips can help:thank-you-1428147_640
    1. Be sure to not just acknowledge when you are providing feedback.  Saying, “I really appreciate all that you do for us but…” can really undermine the acknowledgement.  Instead, make recognizing contributions a regular part of your work.
    2. Sincere acknowledgement can be hard if you are also going above and beyond yourself.  Nonetheless, don’t bring your own exhaustion (or resentment) into the conversation when you’re really trying to recognize someone’s contribution.  It’s not about you!  Find other fonts to refuel your own soul.
    3. Make habits to build acknowledgement into your work.  This can be simple verbal acknowledgement or more elaborate.  It can help to make a schedule and carve out specific time.  When I was teaching, I would try to set time aside each week to either write a positive email home to parents or write a thank you note for a colleague.  These pauses to focus on the positive did as much to uplift my spirits and give me perspective as they did encourage those around me.
    4. You may be amazed at how far sincere acknowledgement goes to calming tensions and loosening up possibilities in conflict. Take the time, it’s worth it!
  • Focus on the Mission– This should go without saying but it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when tensions flare.  Breathe…remind yourselves what you’re trying to accomplish.  destination-1285851_640.png
    1. Think about the conflict in terms of a step towards your vision and re-frame it that way.
    2. Assume that everyone involved is doing their best to support the mission (even when it doesn’t seem that way from some perspectives).  Start the conversation that way.  “I know that we’re all working really hard to do X.  Let’s take a step back and see if we can understand this problem through that lens.  If we’re trying to do X, what ideas might be helpful for us to keep in mind at this point?”
    3. Listen!  Don’t assume you have all the information.  Let people know what you see and then ask them about it.  NOTE- tone matters a ton here!  Be sincere in your curiosity and get rid of any words/tone that suggests critique.  Say, “Hey I’ve noticed ____ happening and it raised some questions for me.  I know you’re super committed to our mission.  Can you tell me more about _____,?” Listen for what the other person is trying to do.  What are their interests?  Are they needing autonomy?  Looking for efficiency?  Missing skills?  Feeling burned out?
    4. Be open to new possibilities.  Once you understand a different perspective, it’s OK to share yours.  Then frame the conversation around a solution that’s mission focused.  How might you satisfy multiple interests at once?  Ask, “So if it’s important for you to _______ and it’s important for me to _____, and we know we’re both working towards X, how might we work this out?”

As you wade through conflicts with the Would be Staff types, draw from your resourceful and creative self to avoid operating from fears and suspicion.  Our perspective of things often changes once we have the rest of the story which illuminates new possibilities.  The challenge, as always, is in initiating the conversation to you can get the rest of the story out.  Creating a culture that normalizes conflict AND having the skills to work through it can make a tremendous difference for your team!  Given how critical the Would be Staff are to many groups’ operations, take the time and invest in training and support.  Many organizations end up being a penny wise and a pound foolish by always trying to resolve these issues themselves.  Having a neutral outsider, a mediator or facilitator (ahem…like Carrie Bennett at Learning Through Difference, LLC) can save you time, money, and stress.

Long Term Goal:

As with the other types, maintaining the volunteer and his/her commitment to the organization are desirable and…the organization should try to decrease its dependency on any one individual.  Sharing the load, cross training volunteers and growing the organization’s overall capacity can help avoid feeling stuck with these types of volunteers. Provide honest and timely feedback (both positive and constructive) to make sure these volunteers feel supported and to ensure that their efforts are as aligned with the mission as possible.

Coming Soon…

Stay tuned next week to see the final segment of this series and the common challenges with Organizational Oversight type volunteers.  I’ll also try to post a sneak preview of my talk for DOVIA Colorado.

Carrie Bennett Facilitation Fort Collins Carrie Bennett Facilitator Fort Collins Colorado Carrie Bennett Facilitation Mediation Fort Collins Colorado Carrie Bennett Facilitator Fort Collins Colorado

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