Without volunteers, nonprofits won’t be able to provide the valuable services they offer their communities. So, it goes without saying that volunteers are a critical component of civic work. Even so, there might come a time when parting ways with a nonprofit volunteer is unavoidable.

It’s better to have a plan and not need it than to need it and not have one. That’s why we compiled five tips any nonprofit can use to help mitigate sensitive situations like this.

1. Be Informed

If you’re thinking about firing a nonprofit volunteer, it’s likely regarding a very serious offense. To make sure you’re making the best decision, gather all the information you can about the problem. Here are some things to consider:

  • Gather your thoughts, notes, etc.: If the need to dismiss a volunteer arises, you've likely been thinking about them for some time. Document all of your thoughts and feelings so that you don't have to rely just on your memory when the time comes to explain your feelings to others in your organization. Make sure you have everything gathered in one place so that you can make an informed decision and lay out your case. If the offense is finance related, review all the associated receipts, invoices, and so on. Check the accounts at least twice and ask another person on your leadership team to review the same items.
  • Review emails, text messages, etc.: If there is a paper trail, follow it. Hearsay is often inaccurate as our brains tend to remember feelings more strongly than the scenario itself. If the offense is finance related, review all the associated receipts, invoices, and so on. Check the accounts at least twice and ask another person on your leadership team to review the same items.
  • Review the bylaws: Depending on your bylaws or internal policies and procedures, there might be a specific protocol for removing certain volunteers. When you decide to speak with the volunteer in question, you’ll have the text to back up everything you say in regards to the rules and regulations.

The best decisions are informed decisions. If time permits, thoroughly educate yourself on the problem and impact before deciding to withdraw the volunteer’s privileges.

2. Speak with the Volunteer

You may have heard that there are at least 3 sides to the story: “his” side, “her” side, and the truth which is somewhere in the middle. To have the best version of what happened, it would benefit all involved if you spoke with the alleged problematic volunteer before making a decision.

Try these techniques to prepare yourself for the sensitive conversation:

  • Write down your questions in advance
  • Bring your evidence (e.g. emails, receipts, bylaws, etc.)
  • Take notes on a physical notepad
  • Take the conversation somewhere private
  • Eat a small snack prior

That last one might seem random but people tend to be more patient when they aren’t hungry.

The purpose of this conversation is to gain understanding of what happened so you can decide if firing the volunteer makes the most sense. 

When you realize the discussion is no longer productive, bring it to a close and follow up with an email recounting what was said. Avoid trying to force participation or any specific answer because this could exacerbate the problem.

3. Meet with Other Leadership

Your bylaws might require you to have a committee meeting before making a decision like this. If it's not your official protocol, it may still benefit the situation to speak with an uninvolved member of the leadership team. Sometimes the perspective of someone further removed from the problem can highlight potential outcomes you hadn’t considered before.

Together, you all can come up with ideas to approach resolution.

  • Could the volunteer be demoted?
  • If they must be removed, will it be permanent?
  • If they have items that belong to the organization, how will they be retrieved?

Be sure to write down key points of this meeting.

4. Deliver with Empathy

It can be difficult sometimes to come up with the right words to say. One of the best ways to show up in sensitive situations like firing a volunteer is to imagine you’re in their position. Think about how you would want someone to let you go from a cause that’s close to your heart.

Follow this approach when delivering your decision:

  • State the problem
  • State the impact of the problem
  • Remind the volunteer of past mitigation attempts (if applicable)
  • Deliver the decision
  • Thank them for their past and continued support

If there are any security concerns, items that must returned, or delegation matters, address them all before closing the conversation. Remember to follow up with an email.

5. Document Everything

As mentioned in the previous 3 tips, take notes on the meetings you have about the problem at hand. Treat these meetings as committee meetings with minutes detailing the date, time, and place the meeting was held, all who were present, and the main talking points everyone made. Make sure these minutes are available to everyone who participated in the meeting.

For more serious matters, keep a contact log that describes who contacted whom, when contact was made, and what was the result of said contact. Attach supporting documentation with each log entry. Thorough record keeping could help protect you and the organization from legal action should the volunteer decide to take any.

Wrapping Up

Volunteer management is a skill and firing a volunteer should never be taken lightly. Debrief with your leadership to see how things got so far out of hand.

  • What was the root cause of the problem?
  • How can we identify warning signs?
  • How do we prevent this from happening again?

We all hope it never comes down to this but, as we said, it’s better to have a plan than no plan at all.

About the Author:
Geng Wang
As CEO of Civic Champs, I lead our team of passionate change leaders to create technology solutions to create a seamless and rewarding volunteering experience for both volunteers and service organizations.