Fall 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA12

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How To Avoid "Firing" Your Volunteers


Barbara M. O'Neill
Extension Home Economist and Associate Professor
Department of Home Economics
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey

Many Extension professionals feel obligated - even grateful - to accept the services of a volunteer. Some volunteers, however, are more trouble than they're worth. They take a large toll in time spent undoing their damage, in upsetting hassles, or in possible harm to your reputation as an unbiased adult educator and community leader. Thus, it's important to recruit volunteers selectively.

Here are four problem volunteer personalities to avoid:

  • The Know-It-All. These volunteers are poor listeners. While they're really amateurs when dealing with a particular topic, know-it-alls view themselves as perfectly competent. This is especially true with horticulture and home economics subject matter where they often feel as qualified as an Extension home economist or agricultural agent simply because they cook their family's meals or have a garden.
  • The Overly Helpful. These volunteers can't do enough for you. If you have a committee, they'll chair it. If you're organizing some public event, they'll be there. But beware! Overly helpful types are generally looking out for number one...themselves, their children, or their businesses. They're likely to disregard Extension policies and procedures if it's to their advantage.
  • The Name-Dropper. This type of volunteer, too, is motivated entirely by self-interest. Name-droppers like to "collect" affiliations they can use in self-promoting press releases and brochures. It's unlikely you'll see them at many meetings or that they'll take an active role in your volunteer organization.
  • The Complainer. People who constantly complain about their job, home, family, or community aren't the positive, upbeat volunteers Extension's looking for. Sooner or later, they'll start complaining about you.

A few other tips that can head off volunteer-related problems before they occur are:

  • Recruit volunteers with forethought. Decide on the tasks that they need to do and write a job description for each position. When recruiting volunteers by mail, send them a job description with your letter of invitation.
  • Promote volunteerism for brief periods of time. Start with a short assignment that can be ended or extended by mutual agreement.
  • Orient all volunteers - no matter how short or limited their assignment - to the philosophy and policies of Cooperative Extension.
  • Never feel so "desperate" for volunteers that you neglect to fully brief them on their assignment.
  • Ask "cold-callers" who volunteer to teach a class to send a proposal describing their ideas in writing. This will quickly separate the name-droppers from the serious volunteers.
  • If you must "fire" a volunteer, be sure that your complaints are validated and not just hearsay gleaned from others. Be frank and honest as you describe your reservations about the volunteer's performance. If need be, call on a higher authority (example: "administration frowns on this") when disciplining a volunteer. This will enhance your credibility.

Careful recruitment and selection of volunteers prevents problems before they occur. The first time you turn away a prospective volunteer, you may feel a little uneasy. Relax. In the long run, you'll be much better off. As with most areas of life, it's quality - not quantity - that counts.