Prevent Volunteer Whack-A-Mole by Making the Implicit, Explicit

Guest post by Marla Benson

Some volunteer conflicts aren’t really conflicts at all, but a volunteer’s misinterpretation of rules you may think are implied, but aren’t necessarily ‘hard coded’ anywhere. When you mix in what is provided to volunteers as a ‘guideline’, along with hard ‘rules’, and add their distant memories of what the rules used to be, you end up with a real mash-up.

That’s where Whack-A-Mole occurs — you know, that amusement park game where the little mole randomly pops it’s head through one of a half-dozen holes on a board, and your goal is to force the mole back into the hole by whacking it with a mallet? The tricky part of the game is that you never know where the mole will pop-up next. Volunteers sometimes play whack-a-mole, too, by randomly popping up with their own definitions of the rules of engagement with your organization.

When a volunteer’s intention goes awry due to their misinterpretation of a rule, you MUST have documentation in place to defend your organization’s position. If it isn’t written somewhere, you will have a tough time enforcing that rule.

Where does it lead when implied rules are not explicit? Right down the road of dispute over what is allowed and what is not. A dispute may arise between volunteers at different levels, between volunteers and those you serve, and of course, between volunteers and staff — especially when the staff attempt to enforce an undocumented rule.

So, what can you do RIGHT NOW to ensure you’re covered? Here is your mallet (in a nutshell):

  1. Review ALL of your current documentation.
    Tip: Ask a newer staff member (or someone from another department) to review and attempt to poke holes in the interpretations of your language. Because you’re already aware of the implied rule, it’s harder to notice language that might not be clear enough or may be misconstrued by your volunteers.
  2. Re-write your documentation, leaving no question about (or loopholes through) the rules.
  3. Train your staff on the nuances of the documentation. It’s easier for them to communicate and enforce rules if they fully understand their components.
  4. Distribute the documentation to volunteers in whatever format works best for your program and organization. Include your documented rules in volunteer training, post them on your website, format them into a digestible video, or all of the above.

Have your documentation at the ready for when that whack-a-mole pops it’s head up, because it will.

If you do, you’ll be ready to explicitly state the rules without hesitation and have the documentation to back it up. Disputes over policies can now be taken care of swiftly and cleanly. You’re welcome!

Have a tip to add or personal experience to contribute? Share it with us in the comments section below!