Listening to my gut

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It started slowly. So slowly, I ignored it until it became a big deal. But my gut was telling me – this just isn’t working.

But they were so nice. They had everything I was looking for and seemed really interested at the start. No, I’m not talking about a great date that just never called again. I’m talking about working with a volunteer that isn’t able to deliver.

We had such a great start together. They were really keen about the role and had a lot of relevant experience. We spent lots of time talking about our mutual interests, what we expected, what the ultimate goal was. They seemed to have it all under control.

And then they started down the communication drain hole - not returning my calls as quickly, days passing by without an update. They started pushing back deadlines. Others noticed it wasn’t working, but I kept saying – they’ve told me they can deliver and I’m going to wait and see. I was determined to make it work. After all, it was so promising at the start.

Firing a volunteer is never an item on your to-do list you are motivated to tackle immediately. Plus, you’re left with the question – who will do the work now? Because we all know it still has to be done.

What I’ve learned is dragging it out when it isn’t working doesn’t get you closer to getting the work done. It just gets you further and further into a hole that’s harder and harder to get out of. You have to address it and move on.  

The other thing I’ve learned – thanks to my bright friend Trish LaNauze from Charlford House Society for Women – is usually it’s not just your gut talking. The other person is likely feeling the same way, but they don’t know how to walk away. They’re probably feeling guilty, stressed and embarrassed.

Give them an out (the wise words of Trish).  You don’t have to jump right to the break-up conversation (I don’t think this is working out….). Start by stating what you see happening - it seems like you’re not interested in, or don’t have time to commit to this project anymore. Then throw it to them – how are you feeling about it? You’ve just handed them an out. And chances are they’ll take it. This is their opportunity to walk away gracefully - and still remain friends.    

And what if they end of up being one of those I-can-change- give-me-one-more-chance-types? Well, I’m pretty sure your gut will know what to do.

About the Author

Annastasia Forst contributed her creative and analytic work ethic (not an oxymoron) to Vantage Point as a past Director of Learning. She is passionate about working with many talented knowledge philanthropists to develop, deliver and evaluate Vantage Point’s board and executive leadership...


Trina Isakson's picture
Trina Isakson (not verified) on
When I posted on my blog a year or two ago about firing volunteers, I also focused on giving people an out. One of my commenters fired back, stating that she thought firing volunteers wasn't fair and that everyone should be able to volunteer if they want to, no matter the commitment or outcome. But if one of the motivations for volunteering is supporting and furthering a cause, being an ineffective or uncommitted volunteer can detract from the cause by wasting follow-up energy and more on the part of the staff or board.
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified) on

I hired someone - knowing better. Really, I didn't like anyone we interviewed, she was the best of the lot. I asked her to come in and see me again so I could just talk to her and maybe feel a little better. She came in shorts and a too tight t-shirt. Stop with the judging on clothing I said to myself. Just listen. She said the right things. The rest of the people on the panel said what is your problem? I didn't know what my problem was until after the probation period. It cost us money but also the respect of some of my staff who thought I knew what I was doing. I knew better and did it anyway. Never again.

P.S. The issue really had nothing to do with tight t-shirts.   The dress code was never a problem, but rather an early indicator of rule flaunting.

Virginia Brown's picture
Virginia Brown (not verified) on

As a Vantage Point convert and former employee, of course I've drunk this Kool-Aid. But I can vouch that when a volunteer fit isn't right - either during the hiring process or less pleasantly later - your gut is probably the first one to have raised that red flag. And every time I've had to deal with a difficult situation, if I'd listened to my gut and made a tough decision sooner, it would have been easier in the long run. I now work with a five-site organization engaging more than 1,700 volunteers each year. And those people are hugely productive and passionate about our work. Nonetheless, we come across those who are not a good fit. More often than not it's because they're too passionate. Too blinded by passion to make rational decisions or understand that we work with others who don't share their perspective. And we fire them. It's harsh, but we're here for our mission, not for volunteer engagement as an end in itself. Every time that unpleasant task comes across my plate, I have to remember that this isn't about the volunteer or even about my discomfort firing them. It's about fulfilling our mission.

Annastasia Palubiski's picture
Annastasia Palubiski (not verified) on

Thanks Virginia. I like the way you said it. It is true that it comes back to aligning everyone to the mission. And if they're not aligned, or not contributing positively towards that mission, it's clear what has to be done.

Heather van der Hoop's picture
Heather van der Hoop (not verified) on
I absolutely agree that giving the out is such an important part of the conversation. Often, I think volunteers don't want to feel that they've 'failed' at their role, or admit that they are too busy to fully commit to it. By stating what you see happening and asking how they feel, the volunteer can withdraw from their role without feeling like they've been fired.

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