How do you manage the poor performance... of a volunteer?

Traditionally the performance management of individuals has not been afforded the same focus within the Not for Profit (NFP) sector as within the business sector, particularly when it comes to volunteers. 

Understandably, many people responsible for leading and managing volunteers are reluctant to apply the same performance measures on their volunteer workforce as they do their paid workforce. However, accepting poor performance from volunteers will have a negative impact on the overall performance of the organisation, exactly as in a profit driven organisation.  

Case Study

Ann is a paid employee of a medium sized NFP organisation that provides essential supplies to those in need.  She is responsible for a team of volunteers who packages supplies and ensures those supplies are matched correctly with appropriate recipients.  She is aware that one of her volunteers, Bob, frequently makes minor mistakes when putting the packs together and can also be rude and abrasive. Recently, Ann has noticed that packages are sometimes missing key items or have been issued incorrectly, causing distress for the recipients.  In addition, others within her team are avoiding contact with Bob due to his attitude and this is impacting on communication channels.  Ann has not addressed these issues with Bob as she feels she is unable to do so given he is not a paid employee, and because he is a good person at heart who is giving up his time to provide a community service. 

What is the impact of avoiding performance management?

The main objective of the organisation, to provide services or supplies to those in need, has been negatively impacted by Ann avoiding addressing Bob’s poor performance.   Regardless of the sector or the individual’s status (paid employee or volunteer) the result of poor performance is the same – the ability of the organisation to effectively meet their stated mission, goal or objective is diminished.

What should Ann do?

Here are three actions that Ann could adopt to manage Bob effectively and to support the team and the overall vision of the organisation:

 1.     Clearly define Bob’s role and responsibilities

Having clearly defined roles and responsibilities for volunteers can minimise the opportunity for poor performance.  A volunteer who understands what is expected of them can maximise their contribution to the organisation and their important cause.

 2.     Outline to Bob the impact of his behaviour

Volunteers are engaged by an organisation to provide a service, just like an employee, and therefore should be held accountable for their actions and provided with feedback, both positive and negative, to ensure that they are meeting the requirements and expectations of the organisation.  As with paid employees, feedback should be:

  • Timely;
  • Objective; and
  • Delivered in a constructive and respectful manner.

3.     Gain Bob’s commitment to meet requirements

If a volunteer is a continual poor performer it may be time to thank them and part ways.  This can be harder for managers than terminating a paid employee, and volunteers may be given additional opportunities to improve if they are seen to be trying. However, just as with a paid employee, allowing continued poor performance will have a significant and negative impact on other team members, and potentially the very people the NFP organisation is seeking to support and assist.

Interaction with other laws

When engaging and dealing with volunteers, including any performance management activity, organisations should be aware that laws such as Work Health and Safety or Discrimination may still apply, and act accordingly.  

Volunteers are a significant part of the NFP sector.  Managing volunteers appropriately, constructively and respectfully can be a powerful tool in ensuring your organisation is well equipped to achieve its mission and is ‘Giving Well’.

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Willagee, WA
Thank you Melanie. Do you think it is worth being conscious that while the organisation's mission is probably about providing a defined set of services to a defined recipient group, they could also be functioning as a social connection for the volunteers? Do you think that in many community organisations the volunteers themselves also benefit from their engagement with the organisation? Hence, is there a wider aspect of defining the poor-performer's actions and outcomes to include the effects on that person themselves and on the workgroup?

Thank you for your comment Peter and apologies for the delay in the response. On behalf of Melanie I would like to respond to your comment. While limited content did not allow for coverage of all issues associated with volunteers, I do agree that the Not for Profit sector is a provider of valuable social connection for some volunteers and that, in addition to providing a service, the volunteers benefit from engagement with these organisations and their fellow volunteers. As with all individuals performing a service for an organisation, any discussion around performance should be handled with the utmost respect and consideration for the person(s) involved. When dealing with a poor performing volunteer there are additional factors to consider and performance management may include the provision of additional opportunities to improve performance and / or active transition to another role within the organisation more suited to their ability to contribute. When delivered in a constructive and positive manner, the provision of feedback can be mutually beneficial – allowing the individual to increase their contribution to the organisation along with their feeling of individual worth. Active performance management of a volunteer, up to and including a parting of the ways, is generally only necessary in a situation where there is repeated and sustained performance management that is impacting on other team members as well as the organisations ability to meet its goals. I hope that this addresses your query.

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