You might hope that a group of volunteers would automatically get along and function well. But, even with a group of well-intentioned volunteers, problems will arise, and as the volunteer coordinator, you will have to manage conflict at some point.
Perhaps two volunteers will consistently squabble, or one volunteer’s negative attitude will hamper the productivity of the rest. Maybe you’ll see a volunteer trying hard, but not performing well. Maybe another will assume the role of a self-proclaimed boss.
Whatever the case, it’s essential to manage the conflict as soon as possible. Although it might be tempting to ignore it, so that you don’t hurt the feelings of people who work for you for free, doing so can cause worse consequences. Resentment among staff could grow. Retention rates among good volunteers could plummet. The overall impact of your mission could suffer.
But, if you resolve the problem swiftly, you can avoid these consequences. Consider using these four simple strategies to manage conflict among volunteers.
Understand the Issue
When managing conflicts with volunteers, leadership expert Carey Nieuwhof advises volunteer coordinators to define the issue first. Nieuwhof points out that conflicts are usually a result of one of three factors: character, competency, or chemistry. Identifying the factor will help you determine how to fix it. If the volunteer has a character problem, meaning she “lacks moral judgment,” then you should consider whether she should be retained or retrained. If the conflict is a result of a competency problem, meaning the volunteer doesn’t have the skills to perform the required task, then you might need to retrain him or reassign him. Or, if the conflict is a chemistry problem, meaning the volunteer isn’t the right fit among other volunteers or beneficiaries, then you should consider shuffling volunteer personnel or reassigning the volunteer. Defining the issue allows volunteer coordinators to see the conflict clearly and resolve it more effectively.
Listen, and Then Be Direct
You might have the best volunteer screening procedures on the planet, and you might have complete confidence in all of your volunteers. Still, once in a while, you’re going to hear several bad reports about one volunteer. The reports might mystify you; your interactions with the person might be nothing but positive. But, when more than one person is consistently reporting the problem, your antennae need to go up, and you need to manage the conflict. Listen to others’ reports, and then speak privately to the volunteer in question. Give her a chance to respond or explain, and, so long as the problem isn’t jeopardizing the safety of your personnel or beneficiaries, discuss a plan to solve the problem. Then, agree on a time when you will meet again to follow up, and keep all agreements in writing.
Acknowledge Other Factors
Sometimes, although one volunteer seems to be causing the problem, other factors are at play. Other factors could be anything from personal issues in the volunteer’s life to the time of day that the individual usually volunteers. It’s important to acknowledge these issues. Speak privately with the volunteer, and present the problems you’ve been noticing. Ask the volunteer if he agrees with your assessment, and if he can explain what’s going on. This conversation might provide very useful information on the best way to proceed. You might find out that he is disgruntled because he has to commute through rush-hour traffic to your office, where he does IT work. The simple solution? Let him become a virtual volunteer! No traffic, no disgruntled volunteer, no conflict! Showing volunteers that you care about other factors in their lives, and accommodating them where you can, gives volunteers a boost of motivation and makes them more likely to continue volunteering.
Give Volunteers a Voice
Occasionally, experienced volunteers might cause conflict when the organization introduces changes, especially major changes. Transitioning can be tough, and the dedicated volunteers who have been with your organization longer than some staff might feel like they have some ownership and resist change. This doesn’t set a good example for the rest of your volunteers, and it can undermine your authority. One way to manage this conflict, JFFixler President Beth Steinhorn says, is to involve experienced volunteers in the process of policy change. If there is a working group, reserve one or two spots for volunteers, so that they can voice their opinions and discuss possible paths forward. That way, when changes are implemented, experienced volunteers will be less likely to cause conflict by resisting.
More often than not, problems with volunteers are the result of personality conflicts and unclear guidelines. Shuffling volunteer groups is usually an easy fix, but volunteer coordinators should ensure that all job descriptions, rules, procedures, and trainings are written with great clarity and detail. Plus, volunteer coordinators should implement regular refresher trainings, which remind volunteers of important rules and procedures and alert them to upcoming changes. Paying careful attention to this one area will help manage conflicts before they even arise.
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