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Understanding Volunteers (the remix)

Conflicts of Interest Blog by Vivian Scott

With the kiddos headed back to school and the adults jumping back into volunteer work, fundraising responsibilities, and committee dynamics I thought it might be a good idea to repost a bit I wrote last year about volunteers…

A few months ago I had lunch with a good friend who discussed some of the challenges she faces working with volunteers. After much discussion we came to the conclusion that all workers–paid or volunteer–are motivated by such things as recognition, reputation, and teamwork, but volunteers often place more importance on their unique motivating factors than paid employees do. If a paid employee isn’t getting the recognition he believes he deserves, he may say, “Well, at least I’m laughing all the way to the bank.” That fallback position isn’t true for a volunteer and thus his need for getting his values met amplifies, which can cause unwanted conflicts in the group.

Take a look at how to spot and work with common volunteer personalities:

The Fine Upstanding Citizen: Interested in building or keeping a solid reputation he may volunteer for too much because he wants to be seen as someone who can be counted on or he may want to focus on just a few things because he would rather do one thing well than a lot of tasks half-way. If you need him to do more, or less, appeal to his desire to keep his name in good-standing when making your request. And, recognizing his contributions with a simple plaque or mention in the newsletter will almost always motivate him to keep up the good work.

Mr. Fix-It: New volunteers who want to swoop in and fix everything they perceive is wrong with the current program make the old guard uneasy and run the risk of alienating the very people they need to help them make changes. There’s nothing wrong with ideas that have the potential to yield higher returns, but there’s a method to helping others hear what one has to say. If you have an over-enthusiastic recruit spewing ideas left and right, suggest that his ideas be shared by first addressing the group and stating what is working, sharing what the proposed change would yield for both the organization and the other volunteers, and stating how much of the work he’s willing to take on himself. His ideas will be received better if he speaks to specific changes rather than suggesting everything is wrong.

Keeper of the Flame: Often known as the traditionalist or old guard, a Keeper may say, “It doesn’t matter whywe do it that way; what matters is that we’ve alwaysdone it that way.” She may be resistant to change because she values tradition and the status quo (and probably boundaries, too). Perhaps she feels she and others have put in a lot of work to hone a well-oiled machine and consequently will take any suggestion for change as a personal affront. Let her know her service and opinions are still appreciated and speak to what her role would be with any changes. Often breaking down proposals into more palatable steps is easier for a Keeper to accept, so suggest a few changes and get her opinion about where you might start.

Social Butterfly: Most organizations have folks who are less concerned about program efficiency than they are making sure everyone has a fun experience. However, meeting timelines or financial goals and building friendships don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You may be better served by utilizing her skills on activities that don’t require timely reports or consistent attendance. Give her permission to bow out of a task and, of course, be okay with having the occasional good time Charlie in the group because, let’s face it, they’re often the ones we appreciate most when it’s time to host the party and build enthusiasm for an event. Whoopee!

The Dues Payer: Often the most pragmatic of volunteers what you see is what you get. Many organizations require parents or members to make a volunteer commitment as part of the membership or tuition, so it should come as no surprise when you’re working with volunteers who are there because they have to be. For these folks you may be better served to find out what it is they would like to do and let them do it rather than assigning a task they have no interest in. Let go of the expectation that everyone shares the same level of enthusiasm for the organization that you do. Have these volunteers do what they do best, thank them for their efforts, and wish them well when they move on.

Resume Builder: Similar to the Dues Payer, the Resume Builder volunteers for no-nonsense reasons. Charitable organizations are a great way for the stay-at-home parent or displaced worker to build or expand his resume. A great way to motivate a Resume Builder is to help him create experiences that meet his goals while benefiting the organization. For example, if the volunteer is interested in leadership opportunities, help him develop his skills with group tasks or specific fundraising assignments.

My friend and I also came to the conclusion that it’s rare to find a volunteer with just one volunteer personality or motivating factor. You may encounter a Fine Upstanding Citizen who is fulfilling her child’s tuition requirement while simultaneously building her resume or a Mr. Fix-It hoping to be the next Keeper of the Flame. This may require more investigating on your part, but working to discover what makes a volunteer tick and then managing her accordingly will keep her motivated and minimize conflicts.


Vivian Scott

Vivian Scott is a Professional Certified Mediator and the author of Conflict Resolution at Work For Dummies.  She spent many years in the competitive and often stress-filled world of high tech marketing where she realized resolving conflict within the confines of office politics was paramount to success.  Through creative solutions… MORE >

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