Volunteer management: resolving problem situations

Managing volunteers, just like managing employees, is not always easy. Sometimes situations can degenerate to the point that the coordinator must intervene. Taking an efficient, disciplined approach will make it easier to resolve these situations.

Managing volunteers, just like managing employees, is not always easy. Sometimes situations can degenerate to the point that the supervisor must intervene. Successfully defusing these types of situations takes a disciplined approach and above all managerial courage.

Defining problem situations

It's important to clearly understand the difference between a problem situation and an isolated case. Problem situations are those where the supervisor has to invest time and energy a number of times to resolve the same problem or where the situation affects the quality and quantity of services provided to the community.

Sources of problems in an organization:

  • Management or leadership style
  • Interpersonal relations
  • Communication
  • Terms of volunteer involvement
  • Equipment available to volunteers
  • Volunteer job descriptions
  • Organizational culture
  • Change(s) within the organization
  • Stress related to the type of work
  • People who are difficult to work with

Preventing problem situations

The set of strategies and tools you use to manage and supervise volunteers are your main allies in preventing problem situations.

Examples of prevention tools based on the 5 steps of volunteer management:

  • Recruitment: A clear job description that defines tasks, limits and responsibilities, as well as the followup, screening and supervision procedures
  • Screening: Checking of social references and criminal record during the interview
  • Selection: Volunteer commitment agreement
  • Integration: Job description, volunteer guide, orientation and training, trial period and twinning with a more experienced volunteer
  • Supervision: Followup meetings, supervision, policies, procedures and code of ethics

5 reactions to problem situations

Strategies used to manage problem situations and reactions to them are influenced by a variety of factors such as temperament, personality, environment and career path.

  • Imposing: Resolving problems by dominating, punishing, making threats or using physical force or the power of words
  • Calming: Seeking to accommodate and calm all parties, without getting to the root of the problem
  • Avoiding: Accepting, withdrawing from, refusing to handle or denying the situation
  • Cooperating: Perceiving the conflict as a problem to be solved and seeking solutions that satisfy both parties
  • Sharing: Making compromises

Strategies for managing conflicts

Strategy Approach Cases where this strategy can be used
Imposing You intervene without considering the other person's needs or when urgent action is required.
  • Emergency situation: Fast, decisive action is needed.
Calming You put aside your own concerns when you must satisfy the other person to maintain the working relationship.
  • The problem is less important for you than for the other person.
  • You are in a learning situation.
  • The risk of intervening is high.
Avoiding You refuse to handle the situation immediately and take time to think about it.
  • It's better to wait before intervening.
  • The problem is not your responsibility.
  • You see no possibility of changing things.
Cooperating You seek to resolve the problem to both parties' satisfaction if time permits.
  • Both parties are willing to work together to find a solution.
  • You have the time and energy to resolve the conflict.
Sharing You find a temporary compromise that more or less accommodates both parties.
  • The problem is only moderately important.
  • You have little time to find a solution.

Managing problem situations

Before taking action to resolve a problem situation, it's important to analyze it using the steps below:

  1. Define the situation.
  2. Determine the causes or source of the problem.
  3. Assess the consequences:
    • for the volunteer
    • for the team of volunteers
    • for the organization
  4. Determine possible solutions.
  5. Evaluate required action (deferred or immediate) and the steps needed to resolve the problem.
  6. Meet with the individual(s) involved: Establish the facts, identify the people involved, determine what could help solve the problem and decide together what steps should be taken.
  7. Follow up on the situation:
    • If the situation has improved, provide feedback to the people who caused the problem (recognition).
    • If the situation persists, assign them different duties or dismiss them.

Use the DESC statement to make sure you remember to cover all the important points at the meeting.

DESC statement

  • Describe the behaviour that is causing the problem situation (in specific terms and based on the facts).
  • Explain why the behaviour poses a problem (impact of the behaviour on you, the organization and the other volunteers).
  • Specify what needs to change and what the volunteer can do to improve the situation (show trust in the volunteer and ask for suggestions).
  • Describe the consequences of the change in behaviour (positive consequences that will motivate the volunteer).

Tools for managing problem situations

Analyze the situation
Your intervention Questions to ask yourself Possible solutions
What do you want to do?
  • What is the purpose of your involvement? To change the problem behaviour or dismiss the volunteer?
  • Should you give the volunteer a last chance?
  • Are you prepared to confront the problem individual?
  • Do the people above you in the organization support your approach?
What must you do?
  • What action should you take as volunteer coordinator?
  • What are your responsibilities to your organization, clientele and the other volunteers?
  • Educate
  • Motivate
  • Support
  • Guide
  • Correct
What can you do?
  • What other solutions are available if you don't want to dismiss the volunteer?
  • Supervise
  • Reassign tasks
  • Train
  • Revamp the relationship
  • Refer


Mediation is a collaborative method that involves all parties in the conflict resolution process. Its main purpose is to promote dialogue and it empowers the participants throughout the process. Before starting the mediation, the mediator meets with all parties separately so they can explain their point of view and ask questions about the process.

Characteristics of the mediation process:

  • Voluntary
  • Solution-oriented
  • Confidential
  • Involves all parties in seeking a solution
  • Requires the mediator to be neutral
  • Leads to a mutual agreement

Dismissing a volunteer

The volunteer should be dismissed immediately only if the seriousness of the situation requires it or as a last resort.

  • Invite a colleague to be present at the meeting.
  • Be frank. Tell the volunteer that he or she is dismissed and briefly explain why.
  • Remain calm, concise and empathetic.
  • Give the volunteer time to give his or her point of view and ask questions.
  • Offer recommendations and advice if appropriate.

Recognizing volunteers when managing problem situations

  • Point out volunteers' attitude toward resolving problem situations.
  • Point out the efforts volunteers made if they have resolved a problem situation.

Handling problem situations is a demanding and sometimes time-consuming business. As volunteer coordinator, you must develop your approach to resolving conflicts so you are prepared and ready to react to any situation that may arise. Taking an efficient, disciplined approach will make it easier to resolve these situations.