Episode 146 | How to Gracefully Fire a Volunteer

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If you are new to the nonprofit space, I know this may sound crazy.  Just like some people don’t work out in for-profit businesses, the same happens in nonprofits too.  This is a topic that comes up fairly frequently and it’s a hard conversation to have, which is why I want to make sure you are equipped for when the occasion arises.

Here are some of the reasons you may need to fire a volunteer:

  • They don’t align with the values of your organization
  • They did something unethical
  • They don’t get along with other volunteers and staff
  • They aren’t doing anything
  • They are just too busy for the role
  • They are in the wrong volunteer role

What I want you to see is that there are a few ways to avoid getting into this situation.  First, you must set clear expectations.  Communication is so critical, and you cannot assume that people know what you’re thinking when you haven’t actually verbalized it.  If you don’t have clear expectations, it’s easy for issues and conflict to come up.  Second, know enough about the person before you invite them in to serve.  This takes time, and when we are desperate for help, we do desperate things.  However, when you have the wrong person in the wrong seat, it’s going to cause you more problems because they aren’t a good fit.  This will ultimately cost you more time and heartache than if you recruit the right person for the job in the first place.  However, should you need to fire a volunteer, let’s talk about how you can do it gracefully.

Even though you are firing someone, you should still do it in a way that is kind, courteous, and respects the person on the other side.  When someone feels very disrespected, they will feel fired up and that’s when alternative organizations start popping up.  So how do you avoid this?  First, if you must fire a volunteer, do it in person.  If you’re going to have a conversation about conflict, you’re going to want to see their face.  Do not send someone a “you’re fired” email or a text that says “we don’t want you back”.  Most of the time, you can diffuse the situation by finding another place for them to serve or inviting them to take a break. 

When I start this conversation, I always start by asking how they are doing.  Remove all the emotions and start thinking about what could be going on in their life that might be causing the rift.  During this conversation, I’m asking them to tell me what’s going on in their life such as, “I feel like you’ve been really busy.” Or, “I feel like you’ve been really disconnected, is everything ok?”  Maybe they’ve had a death in the family, or they have a relationship that’s falling apart.  Give them the opportunity to share and show them compassion.  And, by opening this line of communication, you are inviting them to take a step back on their own terms.  Maybe they just need a break, in which case you let them know that you will still be there if and when they are ready to come back. 

Now, they may tell you that everything is fine and going well.  If this is the case, you can steer the conversation in a different direction and offer them the chance to step up and serve in a place that gives them fulfillment.  Find out what brings them joy, what they like doing for your organization, etc.  You may come to find out that they are simply in the wrong role, so then you can find the right spot for them.  See how diffusing this is?  It’s not attacking or accusing. 

If you have a volunteer who has done something unethical, my best advice is to not have this conversation alone.  Bring someone with you – maybe a supervisor or another volunteer so it isn’t you against them.  And know that you may have to bring in the authorities or a lawyer if they’ve done something illegal. If this is the case, you are not responsible for leading this conversation.

The other recommendation I have for you is to have term limits on your board or committee as well as when you change out the chairman for an event.  Because if you rotate out the chairman of your fundraiser, you automatically have the opportunity to let volunteers go at the end of the year.  This is a lot of work, but I met individually with every single member of my core committee before we geared up for the next year’s fundraiser.  I gave them the opportunity to step down if they so desired.  This not only helps you maintain the integrity of the organization; it also ensures that your volunteers want to be there. 

Firing a volunteer with grace is to truly understand their side and to treat them with respect.  You need to hear them out, help them find the right place, or simply ask them to step down. 

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