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Dealing With Toxic Volunteers

By March 22, 2024April 19th, 2024No Comments
Man and woman picking up trash as a volunteer in an article about how to handle toxic volunteers

No matter your nonprofit’s mission or goals, one key to success is finding and utilizing resources. Unlike most for-profit or public organizations, many nonprofits do not have predictable budgets or income, causing resourcing to be much more complex, and often causing nonprofits to rely on the work of volunteers. As a nonprofit organization, you know that recruiting and retaining volunteers can be as important as securing consistent funding. A recent study shows that one in three members of the nonprofit workforce is a volunteer.

This reliance on volunteers can lead to some unique challenges, as you are called upon to manage workplace dynamics among workers who are not paid. Paid employees typically are concerned with keeping their source of income, and as such are more likely to adhere to expectations of professionalism in the workplace.  Volunteers, while typically passionate about your mission, are freely giving their time and labor, which gives them a unique relationship with your organization.  In some cases this different mindset can result in volunteers exhibiting difficult or toxic workplace behavior, creating issues even as they feel they are “just trying to help”.  Here are some thoughts on how you can handle toxic or difficult volunteers:

Assess your volunteer situation

The first step is to assess how critical the difficult volunteer is to your organization.  Depending on your mission and organization, you may have many volunteers or just a few (most nonprofits fall into the latter category). Depending on your situation, you may not be in a position to easily replace the labor from a difficult volunteer. You should also look at the resources, time, and training you invest in volunteers, as this can make them even more valuable and guide your approach to any decisions regarding behavior.

Consider the behavior and impact

Coworkers yelling at each other in an article about toxic volunteersJust like interpersonal disputes or issues between employees, volunteers can have a range of behaviors that can cause problems, intentional or not. Some volunteers can be unfriendly or curt with others, creating conflict with people who work with your nonprofit. Some may lack the skills necessary to do a good job and meet expectations, limiting your organization’s capacity and adding pressure on staff or other volunteers. In some cased, long-term volunteers can sometimes be subject to burnout or become jaded and disillusioned, voicing their opinion when they believe things aren’t being done well enough or that the organization is headed in the wrong direction.  Each of these behaviors has an impact on the other people involved, and potentially the morale and effectiveness of the entire organization.  In each case it is important to assess both the behavior, and the impact it is having on your organization.

Start small and then escalate

In many cases, issues can be handled without resorting to discipline or any other negative repercussions. You can give unfriendly or gruff volunteers responsibilities that minimize opportunities for negative interactions, or you can speak with them and encourage a more positive approach. Volunteers who are struggling to complete their responsibilities can be given extra training or attention, allowing them to put their enthusiasm towards getting better. A long-term, jaded volunteer can be given some time off or schedule flexibility to help with burnout and disillusionment. Even a simple conversation with a difficult or struggling volunteer to show appreciation can make a huge difference. Also, finding ways to show rather than tell about the impact a volunteer’s work is having (for example, testimonials or positive words of feedback from clients or others who work with them) can have huge effects.

Create a process and stick to it

Even before issues arise, it is critical that you invest in a process that starts as soon as a volunteer joins your organization. This means creating a volunteer handbook, a code of conduct, and clear and measurable expectations. This process should also include some kind of conflict resolution framework, which allows any conflict or problem involving a volunteer to be addressed in a transparent, fair, and equitable way.

The value in creating this process is not just to have guidelines in place to handle problems when they happen, but to make it clear to everyone on the team that you have clear behavioral expectations, and that just because a volunteer is giving freely of their time, they are not excused from conducting themselves in a way that creates a harmonious organization. Additionally, a transparent and fair process allows you to handle conflicts in a way that does not result in collateral damage. Many leaders are unwilling to deal with a difficult volunteer because they don’t want to discourage or upset the other volunteers, so having a fair and well-documented process is a great way to head off these concerns. This process should also include any behaviors that qualify as fully against the rules or zero-tolerance, such as any forms of harassment, bullying, physical or emotional abuse, drug use, and so on.

Know when to draw the line

Giving a toxic volunteer the benefit of the doubt, opportunities to change their behavior, and a chance to be heard during your conflict resolution process is likely to be enough to resolve most interpersonal issues. However, escalating through these steps without a sufficient change in behavior should lead you to consider some more severe steps.

Asking a volunteer to walk away from the organization or outright firing them can be extremely awkward, and you should do as much as possible to recognize their hard work and contributions during this difficult conversation. You should also be prepared to explain this decision internally to your team and other volunteers, should anyone ask, as many may be concerned about what this means for them and the organization. Having transparency and welcoming questions is a great way to limit the impact of any discipline on morale or organizational cohesion.

These are major challenges. We’re here to help

501(c) Services is made up of professionals with decades of combined experience in the nonprofit space. We’ve dealt with this issue and many others, and we’re ready to help you navigate these difficulties while identifying and utilizing resources you may not be aware of. If you’d like to learn more about our team or how we can help you, please get in touch with us.


For more than 40 years, 501(c) Services has been a leader in offering solutions for unemployment costs, claims management, and HR support to nonprofit organizations. Two of our most popular programs are the 501(c) Agencies Trust and 501(c) HR Services. We understand the importance of compliance and accuracy and are committed to providing our clients with customized plans that fit their needs.

Contact us today to see if your organization could benefit from our services.

Are you already working with us and need assistance with an HR or unemployment issue? Contact us here.

The information contained in this article is not a substitute for legal advice or counsel and has been pulled from multiple sources.

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