Managing Difficult Volunteers

The success of any sport competition depends upon the dedication, knowledge and generosity of its volunteers. But what about those who break the rules, overstep boundaries or fail to meet expectations? Volunteer Toronto’s VANESSA WALLACE, youth program coordinator, and SAMMY FEILCHENFELD, director, non profits, offer valuable advice on how to stickhandle issues from the very start.


There’s a big difference between a performance concern and a conduct issue. When a volunteer isn’t performing to expectations, the situation is usually solved by providing more information about tasks or other requirements of the job. Conduct issues, on the other hand, are about behaviour (e.g., poor attendance or work attitude) and require a conversation to discuss why the behaviour is a problem, how to improve and the expected positive outcomes.

Sometimes, volunteers simply aren’t aware of or understand a rule, didn’t read the handouts, or they may have broken rules or cut corners before with no consequences. More often than not, it’s a combination of factors, says Feilchenfeld. The volunteer may disagree with a rule, or their behaviour may reflect personal feelings towards the organization or the program.


Take the time to review performance guidelines, expectations and consequences with volunteers. Orientation sessions, training, supervision and performance reviews can help keep issues from escalating. “The more work that groups do upfront with volunteer management, the less work it will be later when there’s a problem,” Feilchenfeld advises.


There’s no way around it: giving negative feedback is seldom easy but a constructive approach is critical to improving upon and learning from a situation.

When giving negative feedback, it’s important to focus on the behaviour, not the person, and to express confidence in the volunteer’s ability to improve, Wallace says. Plan what you’re going to say in advance, identify the problematic behaviour, explain how it impacts the organization or other volunteers and offer specific suggestions for improvement.


Have a conversation with the volunteer away from the usual environment. “Step outside the gym, walk away from the field,” Wallace says. “This can also be done outside your volunteer’s regular shift hours to help diffuse some of the emotion that can be associated with the negative feedback.”


For minor performance issues, organizations can offer to adjust tasks or move a volunteer into a new role, change the job location or shift, provide time-off or even refer the volunteer to another organization or program, Wallace suggests. More serious issues require a formal intervention, such as an in-person meeting or written warning.


It’s important to keep track of performance coaching from the very beginning, says Feilchenfeld. “Everything needs to be documented and kept updated so that other managers can see what’s happening, including senior managers who may need to step in during the coaching or dismissal process.” The volunteer should be aware that the process is being recorded so that they aren’t blindsided if the situation progresses to dismissal.


When faced with insurmountable performance issues, there may be no other option than dismissal. A common challenge is that volunteers sometimes don’t take dismissal seriously or don’t think they can be fired if they were never paid in the first place. That’s why it’s important to have a face-to-face meeting so that the volunteer understands the relationship is over, backed up by an official letter signed by the head of the organization, Feilchenfeld says.


Every organization should have formal dismissal policy that clearly identifies the procedures leading up to a dismissal (i.e., meetings, written warnings, three strikes, etc.). It’s important that volunteers understand the policy. “It’s rarely a point of emphasis during orientation. We know that volunteer information packages get signed, but they’re not always read thoroughly,” Wallace says.

Volunteer Toronto supports organizations in adopting best practices in volunteer engagement through specialized training, resources and advice. Many Volunteer Toronto resources and services are available to organizations across Canada. For more information, click the “Organizations” tab at

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