The Eagle Blog

Volunteer Abuse

I have touched on the subject of volunteerism on a number of occasions, generally encouraging readers to give something back to their communities by getting involved. 

Today, at the risk of turning people off volunteering, I want to address the issue of volunteer abuse … and I don’t use that word lightly.

There are many, many organizations that would not be able to operate were it not for the time and energy donated by volunteers.  As the word suggests they receive little or no payment for their endeavors and yet somehow become a target for abuse from those around them.

I have been a volunteer for many organizations and currently volunteer my time for two industry associations, and a couple of charities, on an ongoing basis.  In addition I often get involved with fund raising events like the Fight for the Cure earlier this year (5 months of dedicated training leading up to the boxing match), the Ride for Heart which I ride regularly and numerous other events.

Volunteering for the above boards requires a serious amount of time, which I might otherwise spend on personal activities or even on my business; they require financial commitments because I often need to travel to another city to attend meetings and meet with colleagues; they require “mind space”, which I won’t underestimate because being “constantly on” is tiring, and unlike running a company decisions are reached in a much more political type environment, requiring patience and fortitude.

So … when others attack volunteers it bothers me.

It is very easy for people to be critical when they don’t have all of the facts.  A volunteer board may meet monthly for several hours each time, conduct more informal meetings and activities in between, and deal with many,many different issues.  A critic might be very focused on what their issue is, and not knowing all of the details, can “bad mouth” the board members for their decisions because the decisions were not to the critic’s liking.

It is always easy to second guess in hindsight that a different decision might have been better … but the critic is not volunteering their time and is not there through the process, with all of the available facts of the moment when the decision is made.

Volunteers rarely if ever receive praise for their work … just the negative feedback.

So … if you are the type of person that likes to be the “Devil’s Advocate“, who likes to “tell it like it is“, who is free with doling out “honest and open feedback” maybe you should GET INVOLVED, put some “skin in the game”, “earn the right” to an opinion or just keep it to yourself. 

Here are some things to remember:

1.  Without volunteers most organizations would be nowhere;

2.  The volunteers get some pleasure from giving back … they don’t need grief.

3.  If you have something to say then be constructive.

4.  If you don’t like how it is being done then get involved and help.

5.  If you insist on being rude then recognise that the end result is likely going to be a need for new volunteers.

There is NEVER any excuse to abuse a volunteer.

PS.  For those who are wondering … this blog is NOT prompted by activities from any of my volunteer work, but rather some observation of other situations. 

Kevin Dee is CEO of Eagle (a Professional Staffing Company)
Want to know where Canada’s hot jobs are?   Visit the Eagle Job Centre!


7 thoughts on “Volunteer Abuse

  1. Mr. Dee
    Currently, I serve as the Board Secretary for a non-profit, Under 18, girls lacrosse club. We are currently under attack by a parent who disagrees with a decision made and has begun to stir up drama that is causing the members of the BOD and other parents great distress. There are things that we cannot disclose, for fear of legal recourse. We are parent volunteers, doing the best we can to preserve the integrity of this program and provide the best possible experience for all of the girls. I’m at a loss and would greatly appreciate any words of wisdom you may have.

  2. Jane,
    A tough situation for sure. You and the other volunteers put in time and effort freely, and someone outside that group causes some grief.
    Some thoughts/ideas in no particular order;
    1. There are usually two sides to every story so be sure to listen to the other person.
    2. There will be a charter/terms of reference etc for your organisation which typically will say the board has final say. If your decision is made, and you are not willing to revisit it then make that very clear and if the person is not willing to accept it then they should leave the organisation.
    3. You could consider bringing in an impartial 3rd party dispute resolution person if that could help the situation and reduce stress to the board.
    4. You could try to find a parent who is a lawyer to be an adviser to the board.

    Sometimes the decisions are tough and will not meet everyone’s needs … that is life, and the board has that right. Make sure you are on sound legal footing with your decision and then stick by it. Eventually the drama will go away!
    Sorry I don’t have better advice for you.
    Good luck.

  3. Hi. I was a volunteer with a non-profit agency for a number of months. I loved it and became very involved in the office. (I’m retired.) I became very committed to assisting with their events to the point where they began to rely on me a bit too much. But it was still a fun environment and I enjoyed the staff and other volunteers. A situation occurred where I was the victim of office bullying. When I complained I was told my services where no longer required. I was in shock. I talked to the area manager who assured me they would investigate but never heard back. Are there no agencies for volunteers to address issues like this. I looked into it and some people have directed me to the Human Rights Commission (while I am dismayed as to how I was treated I don’t think I want to do that.) Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks

  4. William, sorry I was a little slow responding to this one. Obviously without knowing all of the details it is hard to give definitive answers. As a volunteer you give your time to help others, and for that you get personal satisfaction. I assume that you would not want to cause harm to a charitable organization that is trying to help others less fortunate, even if they do have issues. You have raised the issue to the organisation, so they are aware there is a problem. I can speculate that perhaps as a volunteer it might well be that the word of the full timer was believed/given more credibility than yours. You were treated poorly by them and now you have options (a) take it on, and try to enforce a change (which could be harmful to the organisation … and be a negative situation in your life too); (b) find another charity that will be happy of your time (and there are lots of them); (c) Stop volunteering because you had a bad experience; (d) some combination of these. If it were me I think I would just move on … you have made them aware there is a problem; your motivation was to help and feel good about that; you don’t need the hassle of some organisation’s politics; so find a new cause that will treat you the way you deserve to be treated. Just an opinion.

  5. I have a friend who has worked in an Op shop for the past three years for a large organisation. She has been dismissed by the senior management for purchasing an item from the back of store. The problem is that everybody who works at the store has at some time also purchased items from the back of store, it is part of the culture. My friend is a dedicated volunteer who has reported incidents of theft which have not been acted upon. It appears as if she is being bullied. It appears as if Volunteers in Australia have less rights than slaves, or their predecessors in Australia the convicts who were at least given a meal, clothes and shelter. When they the slaves were disposed of they were at least sold to another owner. Unfortunately not the case in contemporary Australia for volunteers where they are thrown out into the cold with no food or shelter. They are not even given the right to challenge under unfair dismissal laws.. . .

  6. The trouble with commenting on specific situations like this is that there are typically lots of factors that only come out with a due diligence process. The bottom line for me is that volunteers need to be treated well, and recognised for their efforts. If that doesn’t happen then they will just go away, and they should. That is not a good result for any charitable organisation.

  7. Hi,
    I was a volunteer for a non-profit in the homelessness sector. I enjoyed it, found it rewarding. This was my first experience as a volunteer. I secured a full time nightshift job which my non profits managers knew about. I was working 12 hr shifts nights thursday through to monday
    morning, volunteering monday straight after finishing paid job tuesday Wednesday thursday. I did this for 2 years. Eventually i left warn out and exhausted. I have been told they used me and should never have allowed me to work such long hours.
    Today this organisation uses many volunteers with livec experience with being homeless. Many are still engaged with homeless culture of selling and using drugs.
    Also it is evident there is no support /training in empowering volunteers towards being in paid employment yet organisation constantly use these people as advertising for funding. They have volunteers whom have been there 12 years,,. with no change in there personal be it employment or personal development.
    Is this acceptable treatment of volunteers? I feel it’s exploiting the most vulnerable while growing the organisation. Homelessness has here in NZ become a thriving industry with huge money involved,. Volunteers of any kind need to be valued not used, empowered not exploited.

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