Retiring “The AGING Volunteer”

Tackling a Difficult Situation with Professionalism

Organizations know and value the importance of volunteers in accomplishing the goals and mission of the organization. Without volunteers, many services, programs and increased quality of life would just not exist for Canadians. We live in great communities where caring is a daily occurrence.  

However, Managers of Volunteers face some difficult situations with engaging volunteers. It is more straight forward (not any easier) to release a volunteer when commitment is lacking; fraud occurs; safety is violated; rules are not adhered to or downright negligence occurs than it is to deal with an aging, long-term, dedicated volunteer whose performance is failing. If the job was a highly skilled one, perhaps we might reassign that volunteer to something new. Or we might give them the tasks they can still do but reassign the other parts. Managers still find it an awkward position to be in.  

In the fall of 2013, I conducted workshops around the province called “Dealing with Difficult Volunteers.” What transpired was not dealing with difficult volunteers but dealing with difficult situations. And in most cases those difficult situations were also ripe for conflict. For many who work with long-term, dedicated volunteers who are also ‘aging in place,’ the challenges to release them become highly personal. I thought I would be ‘brave’ and tackle this issue and share what I and others have learned from experience.

Herein lies our dilemma.

We are the ‘nice people.’ We build relationships with volunteers. We are told that good volunteer engagement is relationship building. We know that the better relationship and support and engagement we have with volunteers the more likely they are to stay with us. We are the happy ones who know how to nurture and motivate and keep our volunteers happy so that the work that needs to be done gets done. Linda Graff told me years ago “we are good at mobilizing people to do work for us…but we are not good at resolving and dealing with conflict.” How right she was. Not a lot appears to have changed in 30 years. Given our aging population, this challenging situation will only cause us increased grief unless we can learn to deal with these situations in a timely and professional manner.

We also know and value the importance of ‘volunteering’ for the sake of volunteering. The social, physical, emotional and health benefits of volunteering are well known. We promote all of these benefits in our recruitment strategies. We use this information to encourage others to volunteer. There are many situations where not only does the manager work with older volunteers but with the families of those volunteers as well (home care; community care; hospitals). The families often thank them for supporting their parent(s) by allowing them to volunteer. Families reinforce these benefits of volunteering.

So how can we be the ‘bad guy’ and release a volunteer who has given faithfully of time and talent, who has aged and just cannot do the work required? We know these people value the social connections they made by volunteering, which in turn has kept them engaged and healthier longer. To be denied ‘volunteering’ just does not seem to fit with our encouraging image.

For many staff who engage volunteers, long-term volunteers have become ‘friends’ of the organization. Here’s where heart and head collide. It is time to remember that volunteers are not our clients. Volunteers are the means to accomplishing an end. They are the valuable conduit to getting the work of a non-profit accomplished.

I decided to ask others for ideas. I asked colleagues and friends; posted on discussion boards; shared ideas with the workshop participants; and, even asked seniors who are still volunteering, how to address this issue. Thank you to everyone who responded. Here are some of the ideas that were shared with me.

  • Volunteers want to feel productive as they age, but the liability involved with having frail, elderly volunteers puts the director in a precarious position. A frank but gentle discussion with the volunteer is the only solution. Thank the volunteer for their years of service. Express your genuine concern for their well-being. Explain why it is no longer possible to keep them on as an active volunteer. Assure them that they will be invited to all volunteer celebrations. Follow up with a hand written thank you note and perhaps a pin or certificate honoring their service.
  • Partner them with another volunteer.
  • Move them to another volunteer area where they could succeed.
  • Use your competencies or training checklists as a tool when talking with them.
  • ·Since we are in the industry of providing care for others, it is imperative that we provide compassion and care to those closest to us – our volunteers.
  • When you have the conversation, many will admit that the ‘work’ has become increasingly difficult.
  • It is hard for the volunteer to let go when their health or faculties diminish and they cannot admit they can no longer fulfill the position as needed. It is a dilemma for them too as well as for staff. We have a very clear obligation to our organization to assure our commitment to support the services with our volunteers. Our organization depends on that support at the level we have committed to them. We have an obligation to all our volunteers to treat them equally with respect. And to that respect, we need to make decisions that are best for our organization, the volunteer(s) in question and all other volunteers who support us.
  • The process must be thoughtful and consistent. Center the discussion on the volunteer.
    • Acknowledge that the work is important and timely.
    • Acknowledge that they have had some challenges recently. That the work they have done is not to their typical standards and ask for their help.
    • Ask if things have changed in their lives recently, if they feel a leave of absence or less days or another change may be helpful to them.
    • And then, as hard as it is, I stop talking and listen. Your volunteers know there is an issue and in most cases they will tell you that they would like a change.
    • A leave of absence gives them an easier exit.
    • For others who will not admit, I give them options. I can offer: a different position; a referral to the local Volunteer Centre for a new opportunity at a new organization; or we can together plan a wonderful retirement party where they can join our Volunteer Emeritus status.
    • Let them have a day or two to decide their choice. 100% of my volunteers choose an option that we agreed was in their best interests and the best for the organization they loved and support.
  • The best decision is always to protect your organization and the volunteer who supported your organization. Your organization expects nothing less of you as a professional and all your volunteers expect, when and if their time comes, they will receive the same procedures and respect.
  • In the absence of having a policy, use the position description as a way to retire the volunteer. An elderly volunteer had been diagnosed with an illness and was having difficulty fulfilling their role. During a private conversation in the office, with honesty and a role review, the staff and volunteer identified together the challenges for the volunteer and for the organization. They came to agreement. The volunteer would stop volunteering but continue to enjoy a couple of the benefits of volunteering for a few additional months. The volunteer was extremely pleased about that (a balance of professionalism and compassion).

The ideas above certainly show both professionalism and compassion and highlight the need to deal with not ignore this issue. Here are some additional ideas that I have learned from my experience. My hope is these suggestions will help you address this issue.

  • The role of Manager of Volunteers means that you deal with the great rewards of working with volunteers but you also have to deal with the issues/challenges as well. Resolving conflict is a skill that you have to learn and practice. In a great article, “Doing the Hard Stuff Because I’m Clearly It” posted on Volunteerplaintalk, it is clear that this is part of our work. If we are to be a profession, then we better get professional at dealing with conflict and difficult situations. In the new National Occupational Standards for Managers of Volunteer Resources, Category G: Manage Volunteer Performance under Task G 5, raising concerns with volunteers and taking action is clearly identified.
  • Volunteers are NOT our clients. The sooner we understand and accept this, I think the more likely you will be to face and resolve conflict.
  • Everyone, staff and volunteer alike deserves to be treated fairly and with respect. It is out of respect that we have to deal with our aging volunteers. Respect for their safety is certainly a liability issue as well.
  • Make sure that the foundation pieces for good volunteer engagement are in place. These include:
    • Position descriptions that provide clear expectations, standards and performance review criteria. No surprises for the volunteer. A simple thing: give volunteers a copy of the position description after you have reviewed it with them and make sure they understand performance and the options if the job cannot be done to the satisfaction of the organization. Many managers indicated that they do not give volunteers a copy of the position. They do not include performance criteria in the position description let alone regularly meet with the volunteer to assess performance. Performance issues are not likely to just suddenly appear. Feedback sessions give both you and the volunteer the opportunity to identify concerns and address them together. Identifying performance in the position description may trigger a pre-warning (there will come a time when you cannot volunteer) and regular feedback provides the setting.
    • Volunteers are accountable to the organization through the staff who recruited them; staff are accountable to the organization for both paid and unpaid human resources they engage to accomplish work.
    • Policies and procedures need to be clear on process for review, performance and the steps for action.
    • Training. Involve volunteers in addressing some of these issues. Focus groups or surveys can ask volunteers…”here is a situation what might we do? What ideas do you have to solve this situation?” You will be surprised at the ideas. Often older volunteers recognize when they can no longer do the work required and are waiting for someone to provide the opportunity to exit with dignity!!
  • Build an organization where difficult situations are not avoided but rather worked out and addressed with professionalism. When tackled as part of training as in the suggestion above, it becomes part of the overall culture of the organization to address difficult situations. When this becomes the norm it is not dreaded. Deal with the facts and provide solid information connected to the impact on outcomes.
  • Prepare for meeting with the volunteer by writing out a script and practice how you will approach the volunteer and exactly what you will say. I found this an extremely useful tool to help me honor the volunteer while focusing on the facts of the situation. I listened thoughtfully and could build on the quiet ideas/suggestions that the volunteer posed. In the majority of cases, we came to the solution together. I have learned from every situation I faced and applied that learning to the next one. 

A sensitive issue? Yes. Absolutely. An impossible situation? No.

Given the profile and characteristics of the baby boomer population, I predict conflict and difficult situations will only increase. When you work with people, conflict is a natural occurrence that can be both positive and negative. With the right training, practice and focus we can turn difficult situations and conflict into a more positive experience. You have to be prepared.

As Managers of Volunteers, we need to improve our skill level in conflict management and learn to balance compassion with professionalism.   


Copyright/Written by Donna Lockhart, December 2013 – please use with my permission but acknowledge the source.




© The Rethink Group
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software