How to Let a Volunteer Go

"You’re Fired."

On the rare occasion I watch The Apprentice, I can’t help but fear Donald Trump, particularly when he points his finger and publicly fires employees.  In the nonprofit world where most of my staff consists of volunteers, I doubt such a display would be appreciated.  In fact, the dream scenario in the public sector is that volunteers will mesh with the organization and stick around until they move, retire, or just can’t participate any longer.  No volunteer manager wants to let a volunteer go, but it happens.  I wish I could say that I haven’t had to sit on the other side of the table and play the role of big bad Donald Trump, but I have, and here is what I’ve learned from it.

How to Prevent Volunteer Problems from Taking Place:

  • Job Descriptions – Always have job descriptions for volunteers, just like you would employees or interns.  Volunteers appreciate structure, and when they know what is expected of them and what the organization’s needs are, the best candidates can be selected to fill voids based on specialty and skillset. A common scenario of job descriptions benefitting an organization often occurs when elderly, retired individuals decide to volunteer their time.  Many are not acclimated to technological environments and have difficulty with technical data entry, email communication, etc. and many will leave if these tasks are all they are given.  Simply adding computer skills, word processing, etc. to the job description will allow them to explain that they would feel more comfortable answering the phone or providing more hands on services.  Job descriptions also help prospective volunteers wade through misconceptions about the organization.  While I was managing volunteers at the American Red Cross, many volunteer prospects thought they would be drawing blood or putting out house-fires, when the needs and mission were completely different.
  • Mentorships – Employees are usually eager for the help and support volunteers provide, and allowing hands on training will not only benefit the volunteer, but will improve the communication skills of the employee.  Volunteers don't learn the same way, and having supervision, someone to answer questions, and a reference source will allow for the volunteer to ask questions, have positive reinforcement, and resolve any issues they may have.  
  • Think like HR – Volunteer managers often double as human resource officers because they must provide confidentiality and unbiased opinions when working with volunteers.  Some volunteers want to contribute despite learning disabilities or physical barriers, and there may be a variety of items they want kept private.  Above all, volunteer managers need to create a sense of confidence in the volunteers, especially when they trust us with personal information.  If they know we respect their privacy, they will come to us if things aren’t going according to plan or conflicts arise.  Its naive to assume everyone is going to get along, and its in the best interests to detect a problem as soon as possible, and this will only happen if the volunteers trust their volunteer managers.  

Creating a System of Evaluation and Investigation if Problems Persist:

  • Be clear about expectations – it is easy to issue a "warning," and many volunteers want to improve their skills and resume by participating with a nonprofit, so they will be open to constructive criticism.  Gauge responses with the situation, and no two will be alike.
  •  Create as unbiased of a situation as possible – Don’t ever let a volunteer go on the word of a colleague, hearsay from other volunteers, and don’t make the decision alone, if for no other reason than to protect the organization’s liability in the matter.  If the situation is controversial, consider bringing in a panel of other volunteers to assess the situation, and if nothing else, maintain accurate, written records of events as they take place.  Print out email necessary support (emails, etc.) and log any issues in the volunteer’s file, just as Human Resources would for an employee.
  • Treat all volunteers the same – By creating a system of investigation and neutrality, volunteer managers are able to treat volunteers the same, regardless of time with the organization, or what the particular issue is at the time.  Sometimes, particularly if the volunteer manager is close with the volunteer in question, favoritism can come into play.  Keeping the decision out of a solitary set of hands will balance the decision, and ensure that you aren’t incurring legal issues for the organization.

If all else fails, let them go Respectfully:

  • Be clear about the justifications for their firing.  Don’t use vague terms or beat around the bush. I'm not suggesting that we be abrupt or harsh, but referring to the specific reasons 
  • Be ready with alternatives.  By now the volunteer manager should be aware of the skills and interests of the volunteer, and while they many not be a fit for your organization, we don’t want to discourage them from donating their time and contributing to the community.  Have a list of resources ready to go whereby the volunteer can apply or contribute. Leaving a volunteer high and dry is the worst feeling possible, particularly if the volunteer has provided services for an extended period of time.
  • Recognize their service. If the organization provides recognition for years of service, provide the volunteer with the recognition for the coming year, if appropriate for the situation.  By recognizing their contribution (assuming the situation isn’t reflective of their entire service history).  This small token will allow the volunteer to feel as if the organization appreciates them, and it will reflect well on your organization.
  • Be clear and put it in writing. Provide a letter to the volunteer indicating your appreciation of their service and your regret of termination.  Word it carefully, and try to keep it as standard of a letter as possible for all volunteers who end up in this situation.  Just doing a simple google search provides sample letters, and this will keep the termination meeting brief, moderately formal, and will avoid negotiations or argumentation.  Have it signed by multiple parties if possible, the more the decision seems unanimous and less of a personal attack, the better. 
  • Be ready for a bit of backlash.  Not everyone leaves happily or peacefully (if everything was hunky-dory, we wouldn't be letting a volunteer go).  From social media to recruiting friends to express their anger, some volunteers will take it personally.  If situations have escalated to the point where we're letting someone go, chances are they've seen the writing on the wall.  Many volunteers will simply resign, but others will put up a fight, and anticipating backlash can make the situation easier on the staff.

Unfortunately, not everyone finds their perfect fit in an organization, and when a volunteer detracts from a positive work environment, or hurts morale, the best alternative is to let them go and hope that they mesh with another organization.  Volunteers are free help, and nonprofit organizations would not exist without them, but if the high maintenance ways of one particular individual cost the organization time and money, sometimes letting them go is the only way out.  We may feel like a cruel version of Donald Trump, but in the end we are doing what is best for the volunteer and the organization, and that’s our job.


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