Published: 8 months ago

What To Do When A Volunteer Lets You Down

If you work with people, it’s only a matter of time before you’re going to find yourself disappointed, frustrated, and angry. People fail. They mess up. And when that person is a volunteer, it can be uniquely frustrating. After all, a volunteer doesn’t have to be there, and there’s not a lot you can do to make them behave. You can’t dock their pay or delay a raise.

Volunteers sometimes show up late. Or they don’t show up at all. Or they fail to meet expectations. Or they zig when you’ve asked them to zag. You name the situation, and given enough time and people, you’ll find a volunteer who manages to meet the situation.

So what do you do when a volunteer lets you down?

1. Remember your own fallibility.

Do you want to know why volunteers disappoint, frustrate, and anger you? Because they’re people. You know who else is a people? (I’ll wait right here while you check the mirror.) I always find it depressingly humorous that when someone does something to frustrate me, God usually points out that same tendency in my own life within 24 hours. Once we realize that we don’t have all of our stuff together, it frees us to…

2. Show grace.

In the way you lead. In the way you correct. In the way you confront. You can say tough things with a tender heart. You can choose to overlook non-essential things and show mercy. This isn’t about choosing your battles, it’s about viewing people with the eyes of Jesus, and recognizing that they – like the person in our mirrors – are in a continual process of sanctification.

3. Ask, “Was this a one-time thing or a pattern?”

Everybody has an off day. If a volunteer didn’t go above and beyond in a particular situation, maybe you don’t need to confront and correct as much as you need to comfort and show compassion. If something seems out of character for a volunteer, then be charitable and assume it’s just that: out of character. Don’t blow up a $5,000 volunteer over a fifty cent issue.

4. Don’t let it fester (but don’t react too soon). 

Over the years I’ve learned the importance of not fixing it on Sunday. When we react in the moment, we usually react without all of the facts or while we’re too laden with emotion. Give your reaction some time, but not so much time that you get mad all over again or that the volunteer forgets the incident in question.

5. Revisit expectations. 

I find that many of our volunteer problems aren’t people problems as much as they are systems problems. Did they have everything they needed to do the job? Did they understand the requirements of the job? And if they can no longer meet the requirements of the job, are you willing to adjust their role or move them to a place where they can thrive?

6. Point to the far-reaching consequences (without piling it on). 

Help your teammate feel the effect of their action, but in a grace-filled way that is dripping with vision and forward momentum. By the way, the word consequences doesn’t have to carry the negative baggage we’ve given it. There are positive outcomes to positive changes as well…help your vol see their role in the bigger picture.

7. Commit to let it go.

(I apologize right now that you now have the song from Frozen stuck in your head for the rest of the day.) It’s far too easy to view a volunteer through their failure. Don’t. Don’t view them through a negative lens. Correct and move on. Go back to point #1, remember your own fallibility, and remember the grace through which Jesus views you.


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  1. […] unfortunately, it’s all too easy to let this bleed over into leadership. If a volunteer lets us down once, we’re more likely to doubt them in the future. We let our negative bias towards a […]

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