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8. Dealing with Problems

  • Introduction
  • Common problems
  • A 'not serious' complaints procedure
  • A serious complaint
  • When a volunteer doesn't suit the role or organisation
  • Volunteers who have been with you a long time


Undoubtedly, the hardest part of volunteer management is dealing with problems that arise between people. It is human nature to want to put off dealing with the problem in the hope that it'll sort itself out, but unfortunately that rarely happens. You need to deal with problems as soon as possible so as to avoid things escalating. This section will hopefully give you some suggestions on how to approach this sensitive part of the work.

Let's start by distinguishing between problems that can be dealt with informally and those which require a formal procedure. Problems that can be dealt with informally are those which have a limited consequence or can be resolved satisfactorily without affecting the service and/or reoccurring. Formal procedures on the other hand are required for more serious problems, or problems which are not resolved informally and reoccur.

A good rule of thumb is to try to resolve problems informally by having a discussion with the volunteer concerned. Formal proceedings start if the problem isn't resolved to the satisfaction of the volunteer manager or volunteer.

Regardless of how smoothly your volunteer programme works, it's good management to predict what problems might occur and be prepared to deal with them. Although it's not possible to predict everything, it's likely that most problems fall into one of these three categories:

  • A complaint by a volunteer
  • A complaint about a volunteer
  • Where the volunteer doesn't suit the role/organisation.

Having a procedure in place that gives clear guidance on what to do can make this unenviable management task that bit easier.

Common Problems

It's often the niggling things that bother people most but, for whatever reason, they're let drift on because it's easier all round. Some managers might choose not to act because the volunteer is only in for a few hours a week or because "managing" it goes against the spirit of volunteering. That's OK if the "niggling" doesn't affect the service or the team but often it does and as a manager you need to deal with things as soon as they arise because:

  • It shows that volunteers contributions are taken seriously
  • The team expect you to
  • It sets standards.

Here are some common niggles and how to deal with them. It' s better to approach it from a solution rather than a problem perspective. In all these situations, use your common sense to distinguish between the occasional and an on-going problem. The intended outcome in dealing with any issue is that the volunteer will take your comments on board and that will be the end of it. The more complex issues that can arise are dealt with in the next section.

The Niggle Possible response
Being late Discuss whether the commitment the volunteer made is still manageable. The solution might be a change in hours
Not attending Ring the person to see if there is a problem. Explain the procedure around notifying you if they can’t make it in.
Offer the option to take a break until the person can make the required commitment
The constant questioner Start positive and then explain about the importance of getting on with the work and when the best time is for questions.
The unofficial spokesperson Remind the volunteer what the organisation’s procedure is.
Appearance It’s always advisable to tell volunteers at the beginning if there is a dress code.  Otherwise you have to deal with it on a personal basis
Personal hygiene Say it for everyone’s sake!
Personality clashes Listen to both sides and consider the context and experience others have with that person(s).  Consider the practical options of reassigning one person.

A "not serious" complaints procedure

A complaints procedure sets out a clear, fair and appropriate way to address the problem, regardless of whether it's made by the volunteer or about them.

Keep it simple and don't get caught up in multiple stages, which go on and on. Depending on your organisation, your procedure should address the following issues at a minimum1:

Issues Your Procedure
Who is the first point of contact?
What if that person isn't available?
Who is the next point of contact?
What happens if the problem is not resolved at the first stage?
Where does the final decision lie?
Is there an option to appeal?
How long should each stage take?
Who is involved at each stage?
Can the person/s continue working while the complaint is being looked into?
How will the process be recorded?

Download the Word version of the above table Word document icon

When dealing with a complaint you should

  • be very clear you understand what the complaint is
  • assess whether it could be dealt with informally or requires recourse to the procedure
  • consider whether the issues affects other people
  • establish if it happened before
  • decide what remedial action has to be taken
  • decide what is expected from the people involved
  • decide what will happen if the situation doesn't improve and recurs.

A serious complaint

Let's start by distinguishing a serious complaint from a not so serious one: a serious complaint is anything that threatens or puts at risk your team, your customers, your service or the organisation.

Each organisation needs a list of issues it would consider as 'a serious incident'. A serious complaint is one that requires a volunteer being suspended or being asked to leave immediately. The incidents are likely to be the same as those for paid staff though there may be a need for some changes to suit the volunteer relationship.

The procedure or code of practice could include some or all of the following:

Issues Your procedure
List of incidents which require a volunteer to stop work immediately
Do the Garda need to be contacted?
Recording the incident
Follow up with the volunteer/s involved
Any options for appeal?
Formally ending the volunteer's relationship with the organisation

Download the Word version of the above table Word document icon

When the volunteer doesn't suit the role/organisation

Thankfully the issues above are rare. It is more likely that the problem you will have to deal with is volunteers who are either not suitable for the role or are not keeping to their volunteer agreement.

It's not possible to draft a procedure outlining how you should deal with problems around suitability because the actual problem, the context and most importantly, the individual volunteer will require different actions or approaches from you. So instead of drafting a procedure, this section will look at actions and approaches you could take depending on the problem and the volunteer.

Be very clear what the problem is and how it impacts on the team, service and/or the organisation.

Some management reminders include:

  • As a manager you have to deal with problems
  • Your team expect you to deal with problems
  • The integrity of your volunteer programme requires you to act
  • Your action validates the contribution of volunteers doing a good job
  • Discuss it with someone
  • Be very clear what the problem is
  • Keep focused and don't get sidetracked
  • Don't argue
  • Appear calm
  • Conclude quickly if it's obviously not going to be resolved
  • It's ok to ask a volunteer to leave.
Action Approaches
Meet with the volunteer as soon as it’s obvious that the problem isn’t going to go away Use the support and supervisor meeting to discuss the problem
Start by saying that the purpose is to try resolve the problem
Discuss how the behaviour is affecting the team/work
Be prepared to say what will happen if it is not resolved
Consider other roles If the issue is related to ability to do the job, and you think the volunteer would be better suites to another role, then suggest they transfer (maybe for a period of time)
An agreement You need to specify what needs to happen/change and by when, if the volunteer is to stay on
Review Agree a time frame for reviewing the situation, with the proviso that any re-occurance of the problem will result in ...

What about volunteers who have been with you for a long time?

It's relatively easy to deal with problems that happen with new volunteers or volunteers who are indifferent. However it's much more difficult if the volunteer is someone who has been with a long time, but for whatever reason, isn't suitable for the role. Once again the outcome really depends on the volunteer, the actual problem and how flexible you can be without having a negative effect on your team or service.

Approaching this sensitively is essential and the outcome needs to be balanced with the impact on your team and service.

  • Talking to the volunteer about how things are going
  • If they are unaware of any problems you will need to give an example (being sensitive means giving just enough examples to show what you are talking about)
  • Discuss how they would like to resolve it
  • Judge if this is realistic
  • Offer a change in role if appropriate
  • You could agree that a break might be the best option (this can be an ideal solution)
  • In the rare situation that the volunteer doesn't agree with your assessment, then you will need to start a formal complaints procedure.

Remember that a procedure once in place has to be applied to everyone, so a volunteer who has been with you a week can enact a procedure.

Most volunteers who aren't suitable recognise this themselves and an informal chat or a support and supervision meeting usually resolves things. It's human nature to want to slide out with minimal fuss.

If this doesn't happen and you have to as someone to leave, remember

  • Sometimes you will have no option
  • Your responsibility is to the team and the service, and anything that affects the delivery of your service has to be addressed
  • Once you've acted, you'll be relieved!


Management of Volunteers

Adironack, S.(1997) Just About Managing?; effective management for voluntary organisations and community groups London Voluntary Services Council

Campbell, K.N. and Ellis, S.J. (2004) The (Help) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management: Energize Inc.

Connor, T.D. (1999) The Volunteer Management Handbook: Wiley Nonprofit Series

Fisher, J.C. and Cole, K. (1993) Leadership and Management of Volunteer Programs: A Guide for Volunteer Administrators: Jossey-Bass Non-Profit Series

Charles Handy (1990) Understanding Voluntary Organizations: How to Make Them Function Effectively Penguin Business

McCurley, S. and Lynch, R. (1998), Essential Volunteer Management. Director of Social Change

Volunteer Development Agency (2001) As good as they give: planning volunteer involvement, Volunteer Development Agency: Belfast, Northern Ireland.


Clarke, J. (1996) Managing Better: The Staff recruitment Process. Combat Poverty Agency

Dyer, F. and Jost, J. (2002) Recruiting Volunteers ("How To" Manage)

Ellis, S.J. (1996) The Volunteer Recruitment (and Membership Development) Handbook. Energize Inc.

McCurley, S. and Lynch, R. (1998), Essential Volunteer Management. Director of Social Change


Clarke, J. (1997) Managing Better: Staff Support and Supervision. Combat Poverty Agency

McCurley, S. and Vineyard, S. (1998) Handling problem volunteers. Heritage Arts


Vineyard, S. (1995) The Great Trainer's Guide. Hertigae Arts

Volunteering Reports

Tipping the Balance. Report of the National Committee on Volunteering in Ireland : 2002

Report of the Task force on Active Citizenship. 2007. Available on

The Hidden Forays into Mapping Non-profit Organisations in Ireland: Donaghue, Prizeman, O'Regan and Virginie: 2006: Centre for Nonprofit Management, Trinity College Dublin

Volunteer Insurance

Citizens Information Board: Group Insurance Scheme for Voluntary Social Service Organisations

Legal Structures

Clarke, J. (1996) Managing Better: Becoming a Limited Company. Combat Poverty Agency

Cousins, M. (1994) A Guide to legal structures for voluntary and community organisations. Combat Poverty Agency

Useful Agencies

VCI (Volunteer Centres Ireland)
Volunteering Ireland
Resource Material: Citizens Information Board
Combat Poverty Agency


There is a huge amount of material available on the web. Google areas of interest and save as favourites the websites which you find most useful. : A complete integrated library for nonprofits and for- profits resources for volunteer programme managers

1. Managing and motivating Volunteers As Good As They Give, Volunteer Development Agency page 20

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