Thursday, September 20, 2012

How about a complaints democracy for volunteer organizations?

I am involved in various ways with a few different organizations that are staffed almost exclusively by volunteers.  Most of these volunteers also have day jobs and family responsibilities.  They have taken on the extra, unpaid work because they are passionate about the organization's mission or mandate and because it has an impact on their professional or personal lives.

Not everyone is suited to chair a committee or mobilize a team.  As with paid work, some people are the organizers, some are the planners and others show up to collect the tickets, serve the food or knock on the doors.  Some people don't have the time or inclination to volunteer and that's fine as well.  It's all optional.

Common across all volunteer organizations, are the complainers, questioners and advice-givers.  These are the people who didn't like the hot dogs at the charity BBQ, ask why you send out weekly emails on Thursdays instead of Fridays and helpfully suggest that you use an inordinate amount of your budget to "go green".

Some of these people have voices that are so loud and mannerisms that are so intimidating that even if they're the only person in a group of 20 who holds a particular opinion, no one challenges them.

When you pay an individual or a corporation for a service and that service is not delivered according to your standards, feel free to complain to anyone who will listen and to escalate your complaint until you receive a satisfactory resolution.   When dealing with volunteers, however, I'd like to see people adopt a more democratic process where the squeaky wheel finds no purchase and good enough is actually considered good enough.

The next time you want to offer a suggestion about how a volunteer can "do things better", ask these questions:

Is the volunteer doing something illegal, unethical or otherwise jeopardizing the reputation of the organization? - If the answer is yes, then this is a legitimate complaint that needs to be dealt with at a high level.  If the answer is no, ponder the following questions:

Is my suggestion actually feasible and can it realistically be executed using the current resources and within the existing time frame and regulatory constraints of the organization?  If not, shelf it or suggest a brainstorming session where people can share out-of-the-box ideas for future consideration.

Will my suggestion benefit other members of the organization or am I just airing my personal grievances? Before lodging a complaint, chat with others to see if it's a common problem. If it is, the association will probably appreciate the feedback.  If it's more personal in nature, let it go.  It's not useful.

Is my suggestion an easy fix or am I just adding to the workload of a volunteer who is already stretched too thin?  Most volunteers are open to questions and even complaints but few appreciate suggestions that pile even more work onto their plates.

Am I willing to participate in the solution or do I simply want to complain and let others do the heavy lifting? If you feel really strongly that something needs to be changed, offer to do some of the legwork to make it happen.  It will go a long way.

What do you think?  Should people be allowed to complain about anything they want?  Am I being too harsh? Are there any other questions complainers should ask themselves?


  1. These are great questions! Volunteers don't get paid to put up with complaints like this and they shouldn't either. If someone has a suggestion that would help a volunteer organization, there is a polite way to go about it. They just need to stop and think, and then act in a positive way. And if they don't like the way something is done and can't "complain" in a positive way, they can always volunteer the next time around and do it themselves, and if they aren't willing to do that, they shouldn't say anything at all!

  2. Hi Sara,

    Thanks for the comment. When people complain about work that is done exclusively by volunteers, I usually invite them to join our committee. They usually don't. :)

  3. what about volunteers who complain about the Non profit organizations staff, on the other side of the coin staff are underpaid and overworked as well and are trying their best to support the 1000+ volunteers of their organization. Staff truly appreciate everything a volunteers does, but when we are complained at by volunteers who think we sit at our desk and do nothing all day is extremely frustrating. Please keep in mind that most times "paid staff" are also covering multiple positions within the organization as well as taking on a 2nd job in order to work for the organization that supports its volunteers....

  4. I'm not familiar with this situation. In the cases where I deal with volunteers, I am also a volunteer. I guess the whole volunteer/volunteer coordinator/volunteer manager/paid staff relationship is a delicate one for everyone.