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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

~2012 ~

  • Volunteers Aging in Place


Dear Connie:

I am sure this has come up before, but I am new to your column and new-ish to volunteer management.  I’ve been in the field for 5+ years, but am just now working with senior citizens, some of them 80+.  We have a small and close knit community, a strong “family” atmosphere.  Part of the attraction for our volunteers is that they get to see people (other volunteers) who’ve become friends over the years.  I should say, about one-half of the folks who volunteer for us were there before I arrived.

Sometime soon one or more of these folks are going to reach the point where they can’t do their assignments any more.  I’ve never had to “fire” someone because of this particular reason, and I don’t exactly know how to handle it.  We don’t have a mandatory retirement age, and my personal feeling is that they should get to do it until they just can’t anymore.

Here are my specific concerns and questions.  What do I say to the actual volunteer; I have friendly but formal relationships w/ all of them?  What do I say to the other volunteers who will “see themselves” in this person?  Should I involve other members of the management team in the actual presentation of this “event”?

Thanks for considering this question.  I look forward to your comments.


Dear JC:

There are many good resources on volunteers aging in place. Here are some of my favorites:

Generally I would say that treating volunteers (of all ages) with dignity is very important.   And, letting it be known publicly that you will treat people with dignity is just as important.  So whenever you have a chance, tell people that it is one of your goals and then be sure to model the behavior.  Senior volunteers already know that they're aging so it isn't a secret.  Dealing with it candidly and caringly always works best.  If you're not already doing annual assessments of volunteer performance, it's best to institute it now for everyone so that you'll have the "built-in" opportunity to discuss privately with individual volunteers how they're doing, what's working, and what isn't, from your perspective and theirs.

As for releasing a volunteer from your program, my colleague, Steve , McCurley writes about "How to Fire a Volunteer and Live to Tell About It" and provides some very helpful tips for developing a sysMcCurleytem that will assist in confronting and managing the decisions to terminate a volunteer's relationship with your organization. He covers the philosophical issue of deciding that firing volunteers is, in general, a potentially appropriate action and counsels to look for alternatives, such as re-supervise, re-assign, re-train, re-vitalize, refer, and ultimately retire. Steve also provides a four-step process for developing a system when alternatives do not remedy "what ails your volunteer" and gives you the methods for communication to make the face-to-face meeting as effective as possible:

  1. Preserve the dignity of the volunteer by conducting the meeting in a private setting.
  2. Be quick, direct, and absolute. Practice the exact words you will use in telling the volunteer the course of action. Make sure they are unequivocal.
  3. Announce - don't argue. The purpose of the meeting is simply, and only, to communicate to the volunteer that he/she is being put on probation, suspended or separated from the institution. This meeting is not to discuss and argue the decision - if you followed the system, all arguments have already been made. You should also avoid confrontation, which may lead to you venting your feelings and risks putting your foot in your mouth. Expect the volunteer to vent, but keep yourself quiet.
  4. Don't attempt to counsel. If counseling were an option, you would not be having this meeting. You are not friends with this former volunteer and any attempt to appear so is misguided and insulting.
  5. Follow-up. Send a letter to the volunteer reiterating the decision and informing him/her of any departure details after your final meeting. Also follow- up with staff and other volunteers, who may be affected, but do not inform them of the reasons behind the change. In particular, make sure that any visitors, students or patrons with a long relationship with the volunteer are informed of the new volunteer to whom they are assigned.

Good luck and best wishes!

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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
314 E. Marie Dr. * Stillwater, OK 74075 * VOICE: 405.372.8142 or 202-306-1492

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