Where’s the beef?: Danger, out-of-control volunteer!

Hey, Nonprofiteer, here’s my beef:

What can you do if your nonprofit has, for historical reasons, allowed an unqualified volunteer to acquire influence over an element of the charity’s core provision, without any structure for feedback or accountability? And as everyone knows the vol in question, and it’s all nice and cosy – like an elephant in the fridge – what can be done with the least damage?

Signed, Plotting From Behind the Arras

Hey, Arras:

It may be nice and crowded in the fridge with the elephant, but I can’t imagine that it’s cosy–which is your opportunity.  Doubtless this volunteer has stepped on a lot of toes while interfering with your agency’s core functions, so your first task is to identify other concerned participants–staff, Board members, front-line volunteers–who have something specific and substantive to say about how MegaVol has misbehaved.  Document these specifics and then take them to the Executive Director and President of the Board and say, “Here are half a dozen serious errors for which MegaVol is responsible.  Until someone lets him/her know these are mistakes, s/he’ll never be able to correct them.   That’s really unfair to MegaVol, who’s given so much to this agency.”

If the ED and Board Prez don’t agree to meet immediately with MegaVol and talk through these problems, take your documentation to the full Board and say again what you said the first time, with one addition: “One of these days, MegaVol’s mistakes are going to put this agency in legal hot water.  Are all the members of the Board really happy to take on personal liability just to avoid hurting MegaVol’s feelings?”  Somehow, the word “liability” always gets a Board’s attention.

The word will also be useful in the eventual meeting with MegaVol, which should include him/her,  the ED and the Board president, and no one else.  The Board President should do most of the talking, as one volunteer to another.   Begin with gouts of praise for MegaVol’s work over the years, and then say something like, “But you know how regulated we are . . . ” or “But you know how people are so eager to file lawsuits . . . ” or “You know how worried we have to be about liability . . .” and segue into the need for MegaVol to do X or stop doing Y to protect the agency from those foolish regulators or litigious ex-clients.  Put the blame on outsiders but make sure s/he understands that his/her failure to do X or stop doing Y will be so damaging to the agency that you’ll have no choice but to ask him/her to leave–which is the last thing on earth you want to do.

Then let him/her rave about everything s/he’s done for the agency.  Just keep nodding and agreeing and reiterating that there’s this ONE THING s/he needs to correct (even if it’s actually 4 things, and you mention them in rotation).  Make clear that the Executive Director is charged with assuring these anti-liability steps are taken, and then end the meeting.

No further discussion is necessary, or appropriate.  MegaVol will either toe the line  or you’ll fire him/her.  My money’s on the former: people go on doing whatever they can get away with, but usually stop once getting away with it is no longer an option.

You can be sure, by the way, that MegaVol will complain to his/her friends and that they in turn will flood the Board and staff with complaints and reproaches of their own.   Get everyone together in advance and say only this: “It’s essential that all our procedures are followed.  No one who works with us–no staff member, no Board member, no front-line volunteer–is exempt from the need to follow the rules.  And if anyone asks you about anyone else’s efforts on our behalf, that’s all you should say.”

And then say nothing but that.  You may face a month’s worth of howling, but just keep repeating, “We’re making sure all our procedures are followed so we keep the agency safe from liability,” and then change the subject.

Good luck!


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