The Runaway Train

What can you do?
Your volunteer system is working very well on the whole. The majority of people are motivated and engaged and seem to know what needs to be done. Most individuals turn up regularly, perform their duties, even give a little extra, and objectives are achieved. In time, routines are established and those trying to organise and manage the system are able to see the positive results of their efforts. On the whole, everything is healthy and ticking over.
There is one part of the volunteer system which isn’t performing. One element that, for some reason or other, has bucked the trend and is not ticking the boxes. This is where the skills of a good management team are needed in order to ensure that the issue is intentionally contained and the threat to the larger volunteers system is limited. It is not easy.
With employees, bound as they are to fulfil certain roles and to follow certain behaviour protocols in exchange for money, it is more clear cut. The hierarchical system of power and control allows in most cases for management of behaviour to take place. So, if an employee is stepping out of line, behaving in the wrong way, or doing the wrong thing, then there are natural mechanisms that can be instigated to bring them back into line. All management, since they are also supposedly following policies and protocols can ensure they are singing from the same hymn sheet and those directly responsible can ensure things are progressed in a systematic and correct manner.
With volunteers, the situation can be different if certain parameters are not in place from the outset. The duty to perform is implicit, yet not necessarily mandatory, and behaviour protocols can be left more to chance because, at a basic level, everybody is giving their time up for free. Every organisation, whether paid or unpaid, will have challenges thrown at its authority eventually – especially after a period of time during which bodies can become settled and grow in their confidence. Someone rubbing someone else up the wrong way is not unusual.
If someone amongst a volunteer body decides to act independently, perhaps in such a way that it adversely affects other people or starts to have a negative impact on the organisation, then skills of diplomacy, tact and confidence in organisational structures come into play. Here are some possibilities:

  • Gradually divert an individual to other tasks in such a way that they do not feel the relative autonomy they have built up is being challenged.
  • Split any role a person has with someone else who is experienced enough to be able to carefully work together with any troublesome individual to develop an alternative working relationship. This takes extreme patience and care.
  • Swap more than one role round amongst the volunteers so more than one person are slightly destabilised. Done regularly, this can keep things interesting.
  • Bring in a fresh responsibility for an individual that will call upon their creative talents so they focus on a new set of tasks and can, in time, relinquish older ones.
  • Try to establish, in a subtle manner, new roles for those affected directly by the challenging element, Help them to feel valued as part of the team, but remove their dependence on the problem individual.
  • Of course, there is always the option of one brave soul actually confronting the beast – but this can often be destructive and can influence the future confidence of other volunteers.

The reasoning behind these choices are varied, but possibly quite clear. Psychologically, an organisation of volunteers needs to maintain confidence of its volunteers and not to destroy with any risky vigilante approach. It also needs to serve the needs of the organisation, not individuals within it. Those affected need to also feel valued, because it can be a shame when someone quits a voluntary role because of another person.

I have experienced such many times throughout my own career, and seen it happen frequently. Voluntary situations are harder to control than paid positions, because volunteers are doing things supposedly because they want to, therefore, there is a personal input, which, if hurt or threatened, can leave a bad taste and personal hurt. This is why we must tread carefully and skilfully, using professionalism to ensure we are prepared to maintain control as the snowball rolls down the hill, not just when it starts moving. And, to continue the metaphor, a snowball rolling down a hill not only gets bigger, it also both leaves bits behind and gathers more than just snow.