Why won't my volunteers do what I need them to do?

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many not-for-profit organizations. Whether it’s supporting service delivery, providing support in the office or raising funds through bake sales, quiz nights or running, walking or skydiving, volunteers are a much- needed part of many teams and allow not for profits to amplify their impact. However just like paid staff, volunteers need to be effectively managed to make the most of their valuable gift of time.

I often hear the question,“Why won’t my volunteers do what I need them to do? I need x but my volunteer is giving me y. What do I do about it?” (And you can substitute ‘the organization’ for ‘I’ and ‘me’).

What is going on here? There are often gaps between what we need in our organizations and what our volunteers believe that they have signed up to do. It’s a pretty classic dichotomy in lots of relationships after all, not just between volunteers and charities. I’ve had arguments with my nearest and dearest based on what I thought had been agreed. I had to be right, surely?

If we can misunderstand what we need and want from each other in our most private relationships, then it should hardly come as a surprise that it will happen in relationships we hold with volunteers.

We need to go into any new volunteer relationship with total openness. We have to be able to discuss clearly what the charity needs and wants from this particular relationship. We then have to be clear about what the volunteer needs and wants. Do these align? If they do, congratulations, you are another step closer to delivering your mission.

Here is how it all hangs together. Effectively there is always a gap between both sides. It happens in all the best relationships, as I have just pointed out. The important thing to remember is to agree expectations. As both parties have needs from the relationship, it is vital that the conversation is about what is needed by both.

Let’s say that volunteer A wants to do something that isn’t suitable for you. Don’t just say yes. You need to say no because if you do not the volunteer’s actions will not help you to succeed in your charitable goals. Here is an example.

Max is a manager in an animal shelter. The charity is tiny and heavily reliant upon volunteers to support their work. Unfortunately, the majority of volunteers like to come at the weekend and have fun with the animals. That is lovely for them and they have a need as they are too busy working during the week to be able to have a pet. Max, however, needs people during the week to clear cages, feed animals, care for any that are sick and so forth. What Max doesn’t need are people who only want to come at weekends. Unless Max can rebalance his volunteer base then he doesn’t have the resources he needs to run the shelter. This is extremely bad news for the animals that are housed there.

Here is the thing: Max has never been clear enough about what he needs and wants his volunteers to do to help him deliver his charity’s goals. It’s actually not enough to have people who like animals; it is more important to have people who have time midweek, who can commit to some really hands on (and potentially rather yukky) tasks, who will come back when they say they will because they actually have time. These volunteers understand what the shelter is there to do and they want to keep it going. They understand their role in rescuing and caring for animals.

Max – and potentially you – has to be much more careful when choosing volunteers. It is always tempting to have someone rather than no-one, but Max needs to have the right someone in place.

So, think carefully before you next consider what you would like a volunteer to do for you. Think about what you actually need to deliver your mission and make sure that this volunteer understands and can demonstrate commitment. Agree mutual expectations and be very transparent about what you need and what you will give to your volunteer. Never, ever make assumptions and always have the conversation up front to that makes this clear.

That way it is far less likely that your volunteers will say no to you, because you are working in partnership to solve the same problem together.


Loretta Bresciani Murray is Head of Fundraising at Abertay University in Scotland and an expert in volunteer management . She regularly presents on the subject at conferences around the world. Click here to meet her.