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VT readers ask questions about volunteer management and administration. Ask Connie, an experienced volunteer manager, consultant and trainer, provides the answers for all to see.
Send questions to AskConnieP@cs.com

~2010 ~ What If All Drivers Were Luis?

Dear Connie:

I have two interns (thankfully!) for 6 weeks this summer.  Can you suggest some ways in which I can utilize them and provide a meaningful experience for them?


Dear TT:

Good for you!  Having interns in addition to your volunteer corps is a real blessing.  One way in which you can make good use of the interns’ time and help them learn about volunteer management is to involve them in updating your management systems.  Here’s my favorite checklist of things that need to be reviewed and updated annually.

Application: Does it gather as much relevant information as possible in one page to enable you to make an informed decision about each potential volunteer?

Confidentiality form and letter of agreement: Is the information contained understandable and free of human resources jargon?

Database and mailing lists: Are addresses current and have inactive volunteers been removed and new volunteers added?

Handbook: Is it easy to read and contains the most up-to-date information in a format that has eye-appeal?

Mission Statement: If changes have occurred within your organization or volunteer program, are they reflected here? Does reading this document make a volunteer proud to be part of the volunteer program? Does it make you proud to be the director who wrote the statement?

Newsletter: Has it become predictable, even boring, in its format and content? Maybe it’s time to redesign and give it "meatier" content or greater eye appeal.  Or maybe this is the year to “go green” and put your newsletter online!

Personnel Files: Look at each folder and check for an up-to-date application (with references) for each volunteer.

Position Descriptions: Duties change throughout the course of the year so review these for accuracy and completeness.

Recognition: Are your forms of recognizing volunteers meaningful and cost effective? Get new catalogs for items you order - prices often rise after the first of the year.

Training Materials: Do changes need to be made to reflect requirements of the position descriptions? Start developing training for new positions that will be added during the year.

Written Policies and Procedures: Review these to reflect the changing role of volunteers in your organization.


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Dear Connie:

I work with some very challenging volunteers in my program!  I’ve been researching how to manage difficult volunteers and welcome any advice you give me.

Harried in Houston

Dear Harried:

Working with difficult people, whether they’re volunteers or your staff colleagues, is a challenge we all face most every day.  But, with a little patience and some strategic thinking you can manage difficult behaviors.  Here are some behaviors and suggested tactics for dealing with them.  Good luck and don’t forget to breathe!




This can take the form of overtly abusive behavior, tantrums, rage, and bullying, or it can be disguised with non-playful teasing, innuendoes, and digs.

  • Listen without returning anger.
  • Take unpredictable actions – become nicer as they escalate, quieter as they become louder.
  • Do not try to argue; instead focus on any point you can agree with them on – most aggressive people will calm down if they feel someone is really listening to what they have to say.
  • Give them time to run down.
  • Maintain assertive (not aggressive) posture and body language.
  • State your own opinions assertively while not dismissing theirs.


Chronic complaining without a desire to find a solution

  • Don’t agree, but paraphrase what they say.
  • Avoid the accusation-defense-re-accusation pattern.
  • Try to move to a problem-solving mode by asking them to suggest alternatives with questions like “What results are you trying to achieve?” or “How would you like to see this resolved?” Complaining tends to stop when they are put in a position of responsibility for solving the problem.


Unresponsiveness can be the result of discomfort with revealing oneself, or it can be used passive-aggressively as a way to deny someone needed information, or to avoid reprimand.

  • Ask open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no response.
  • Wait calmly for a response and don’t fill the silence with conversation.
  • Be attentive when they do speak or participate.
  • Assign tasks rather than wait for them to volunteer.
  • Ask them for their feedback/opinions in writing instead of face-to-face – sometimes unresponsiveness is due to shyness, not avoidance.

Overly-agreeable but doesn’t deliver:

This tends to be the result of someone who wants to be liked and will make promises to gain approval, but can’t deliver on those promises.



  • Do not allow them to over-commit.
  • Give false deadlines.
  • Make sure they are clear on rewards for following through and the consequences for not.
  • Tie personal honor into the agreement – “Do I have your word…?”
  • Get it in writing – even an informal follow-up memo can prevent misunderstandings and make their verbal commitment binding.


Behavior that suggests that someone is always an expert (even if they aren’t) or knows best (even if they don’t)

  • Acknowledge their accomplishments; show them you respect what they know.
  • Bond with them on the premise that “great minds think alike.”
  • Rather than negate their idea, just add yours: “That’s good – here’s what I’m thinking.”
  • Be very prepared and have all your facts when meeting.
  • Question them with confidence – do not allow yourself to be intimidated.



Tendency toward disagreeing with group consensus or regularly criticizing decisions; finds reasons why something will fail; negative opinions usually go beyond constructive criticism

  • Be assertive about your optimism.
  • Don’t argue.
  • Invite them to suggest alternatives.
  • Beat them to the punch – anticipate and voice any possible problems before they do, and then problem solve involving them.
  • See their negativist perspective as a valuable resource for determining possible problems to be overcome.
  • Rather than being annoyed by their inevitable negativity, actually seek it out or make them responsible for ferreting out any potential problems. This will give them a sense of control while also putting some boundaries around their criticism.
  • Be ready with examples of past successes.

Hesitant to make a decision, won’t take initiative: 

Playing it safe to the point that they won’t “go out on a limb” and make decisions or take initiative to do things without being asked or told to

  • Give them a set of choices and offer your opinions on the pros and cons of each.
  • Empower them to make decisions by pointing out that mistakes are okay and can be used to their advantage.
  • When they make a successful decision, recognize their accomplishment.

Not trustworthy:

Sabotaging, talking negatively about others, saying one thing and doing another

  • Focus on making sure your relationships with others around you are healthy. This way, any attempts to sabotage you will be out of alignment with others’ perceptions of you and put the backstabber into question, not you.
  • Be direct with them. They have back-door motives – make sure you use the front door. Using a calm voice tone, describe the behavior that is unacceptable to you (stay away from judgmental terms – just state the facts) and ask that it stop. When the behavior is brought out into the open, you take away their ability to “sneak,” and therefore, their power.


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Do you have a question? Now you too can ask an expert!

Connie Pirtle, of Strategic NonProfit-Resources, has 15 years' experience in working with volunteers. She has consulted and/or trained for such organizations as the Washington National Cathedral, Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Music America, and the Association for Volunteer Administration.

Send your questions to Connie at AskConnieP@cs.com.
Connie Pirtle
Strategic Nonprofit Resources
10103 Edward Avenue * Bethesda, MD 20814 * VOICE: 301-530-8233 * FAX: 301-530-8299

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