#865: “How Not To Volunteer”

Dear Captain Awkward:

This is (hopefully) behind me now, but I could use help understanding it, and strategies to prevent it happening again. I work at a small nonprofit, where I am a department of one. So I was excited when “Mark,” whom I’d met a few times at events related to my work, emailed saying he wanted to help out. He wanted to use us as a case study for his coursework, and while this was not an internship (his grade was dependent on his case study only) he was very clear that he wanted to help in other ways: “I have the time, and I’m happy to help with anything from IT work to giving rides.”

First sign of trouble was his frequently cancelling our weekly meetings, or showing up 15+ minutes late. Sometimes he’d text to cancel just minutes before our meeting time, after I’d already arrived. Sometimes his reasons sounded legit, other times it was “I don’t have much for us to talk about today so I’m gonna keep working on these overdue assignments instead.” I told him we could change the time or frequency of our meetings if he wanted but I didn’t appreciate having my time wasted. He promised to do better but nothing changed.

Sometimes Mark would take 5-6 days to respond to an email, then the response would be full of apologies, TMI excuses about his personal life, and EMPHATIC statements about how excited he was to be working with me and how great it was gonna be from now on!! As if he could dazzle me with so many exclamation points that I’d forget everything before. Then if I didn’t respond to his email immediately he’d start texting me, asking did I get his email?? It felt lopsided and annoying.

Then he no-call-no-showed for a big event where I’d assigned him an important role. After hearing nothing from him for two days I emailed saying I was disappointed and I needed to see more follow-through from him if we were going to keep working together. He apologized, then told me his marriage is falling apart, then said I also owed him an apology because sometimes I cancel our meetings and I don’t respond to his emails fast enough. I reminded him what I’d told him from the start: my work life is chaotic and there are lots of demands on my time, that for us to work together I needed him to be reliable, not another factor in that chaos. When we met next he again told me way, way too much about his marriage troubles. I tried to change the subject several times but probably not forcefully enough. The whole thing felt very weird.

Shortly after this I learned he’d also been flaking on commitments to our volunteer coordinator, leaving her scrambling to find a substitute. So the next time he was late for our meeting (texted 5 minutes before start time saying he’d be half an hour late, showed up 50 minutes late), I told him how frustrated I was with this pattern. He became indignant, said I’ve been patronizing toward him from the start, he’s a grown man (37!) and doesn’t need to be lectured, he’s in two grad programs and has a family and also I’m a hypocrite because I also cancel our meetings or am late sometimes. I told him he’d signed up to help me and my organization, and instead he’d been an ongoing source of stress for me. He began to complain about all the time I’d spent “venting” to him about my job. (Um, you mean, telling you about the ins and outs of my job, for you to write your case study? I thought that’s why you were here?) Then about how I picked this meeting place, which is far from where he lives. (Um…what?) There was no whining or beseeching in his voice. He was angry. I cut things off there, then later sent a restrained, professional email making it clear that our collaboration was over.

I’m left feeling very unsettled. I think it’s clear Mark has problems with boundaries and professionalism. (He also repeatedly demonstrated what I’d call a high degree of white fragility and entitlement, just shy of being outright racist. We are both white but in our context I still found it very weird that he would say such things to me.) But being called a hypocrite gnaws at me, no matter the source. We’re all lefty radicals and not big on hierarchy, but I still feel like he expected a degree of reciprocity that was not reasonable, and not how I said from the beginning things would need to be. But maybe I was treating him poorly by enforcing a power differential between us, just because I could? I need help getting my head around this so I can learn and move on, and also I’m wondering what I can do to nip this kind of thing in the bud if it happens again. Without being an authoritarian asshole about it. FWIW I am a woman and 5 years younger than Mark.

Sorry so long. Cut as needed.


Not your supervisor

Dear Not Your Supervisor:

Here is the takeaway, from what I can see:

The next time you meet a volunteer like “Mark” – someone whose unreliability makes work for you both in the form of emotional labor and actual labor – you’re gonna give him two chances and then you’re gonna say “This arrangement isn’t working for me” and end it without further discussion. And hopefully that’s what readers will do if they encounter a similar situation.

Applying Occam’s Razor:

This guy sucks – he is manipulative, patronizing, disrespectful, and sexist. He wasted a shitload of your time and then tried to make it your fault when you finally called him on it.


This guy has a lot of Life Stuff going on that makes him a bad fit for your organization and this project right now.


Both are true.

Good news: You don’t have to decide which applies. You gave him many chances, communicated your expectations clearly, and tried your best to make it work. Try less hard next time and save everyone a ton of time and energy.

If your organization doesn’t do this already, look into: volunteer contracts & codes of conduct, volunteer training, a structured way to give feedback to volunteers, and other best practices. This guy would probably have behaved like an ass whether or not he signed something, but it would have helped you extract him sooner if he had.

151 thoughts on “#865: “How Not To Volunteer”

  1. I thought from LW’s initial description that is guy was 19 or 20. But he’s thirty-seven years old and acting like a pouty fifteen year old?! LW, in my opinion you acted like a grownup with reasonable expectations, gave him the (many!) chances to do the same, and he totally effed up. It’s kind of astounding he’s gotten this far in life and no one has sat him down for a come-to-Jesus with him about this.

    And adding to what the Captain said; it really doesn’t matter WHY someone messes up repeatedly in the end — either you/the organization can handle the mess ups and overlook then, or you can’t. The product has to be sent out/the paper has to be turned in/the work has to be done. And you can have compassion and understanding for someone and still have to give them an F, or fire them, or whatever. It’s is really painful sometimes.

    1. Imagine what this dude’s wife has to put up with. He probably leaves her holding so many bags, she could start her own recycling center.

    2. Not astounding at all. It’s privilege that lets him fail upward, or at least not very far downward, with cushions all the way.

      1. This. And women will flock to blame themselves, no logic in their belief necessary. Such is the result of removing every mention of feminism from maoinstream culture

    3. I can imagine that he knows this kind of behavior isn’t acceptable in contexts where he feels it will negatively impact him, and so doesn’t do it, say, in his job.

  2. Long-time lefty radical and manager of volunteers here.

    You are allowed to fire volunteers. You don’t need to treat them with kid gloves or give them any other special treatment just because they’re being so generous with their time, skills, talent, etc. Absence of a paycheck does not constitute a responsibility on the organization’s part to put up with someone who damages the delivery of their program.

    It can be just as uncomfortable as firing an employee, but it’s something you can learn how to do. I don’t like doing it, but I can’t have someone wasting my organization’s resources or damaging its reputation just because they’re a volunteer who’s doing the work out of the goodness of their heart. Let them volunteer elsewhere.

    1. Chiming in as another volunteer manager (college students/AmeriCorps members of all ages).

      He approached you and your organization to offer his help. He’s chosen to be in 2 grad programs at the same time (what even???). You were up front about your schedule and what you needed from him, and gave him every chance to rework your meeting schedule. He made a commitment to you and failed REPEATEDLY to live up to that. You are allowed to fire volunteers, which seems to be something most paid staff who deal with volunteers are really reluctant to do– completely understandable, as you’re letting go free labor! However, just as with any paid staff person, if the cost of having them around outweighs the benefit of them being there because you’re constantly handholding or they’re disrupting your work, it’s time for them to leave. His complaints and calling you a hypocrite sound like he’s trying to distract you from calling him out further (and possibly capitalizing on you being a younger female).

      I echo the Captain’s suggestion of your organization looking back at its’ volunteer policies, and including a disciplinary/dismissal policy and a standard handbook if you don’t already have one. My organization recently had a Master’s student do an evaluation for one of our programs, and as per her program we had to sign a contract that detailed her responsibilities to our org and our responsibilities to her as an outside evaluator were. We didn’t encounter any problems with her or her work, but it was great to have that on file for both of us. If you need more resources, you probably have a state nonprofit association that can assist you, or you can Google around for a volunteer managers association in your area or other well-regarded nonprofits who can probably give you some best practices and language for your organization to adopt.

      If you’re really worried about him personally, have you thought about contacting his grad program? This might also point you to another student who can do some work for you if you need some intensive stuff done and you haven’t been burned by this dude.

      1. State Agency VC here. Another thing to consider is not only having a clear set of expectations for all parties involved, but a contingency plan for continuing to meet goals if those expectations fail. It’s one thing to have consequences (and these are very necessary) for a volunteer meeting their commitments (from re-evaluating if now is the right time to volunteer to ending it, period), but organizational goals still have to be met, missions and visions must still be realized, and not every thing is for every one. It is as simple (and painful) as that. One’s duty is to one’s commitments, to one’s leader/employer/conscience, not to the sucking void attempting to tear one down.

        And definitely contact the University, especially the Service Learning or Volunteering Program Coordinator it it has one. It’s one of the best ways to keep a positive and growing community partnership going. Most universities these days are pretty on board with their students volunteering.

        LW, you didn’t do anything wrong, and you learned to cut ties sooner. Maybe a student working on a case study should not volunteer at the same time. Maybe he/she should volunteer first to better understand how the organization functions (great background info) and see if volunteering is a good possible fit. Our duties as VCs are not to the volunteers’ personal emotional satisfaction, but to the ethics and guidelines of our organizations. It can be hard sometimes, especially when we are so vested in our roles that we begin to see our volunteers’ satisfaction as part of it, but that belongs to them. That’s why they volunteer. To contribute something meaningful. And that requires actual participation, action, not just talking about it and begging off.

    2. Yes to all of this. Even in a very left-radical, low-hierarchy organization, at the end of the day your duty is to the mission the organization is serving, not to the comfort of the volunteers. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be as accommodating as possible while still prioritizing the mission, but it sounds like you’re well, well past that point, and thus it’s not only okay to cease working with Mark, it’s the ethical thing to do.

      1. I have never wished more devoutly for a “like” button than I am right now, Turtle Candle. You nailed it.

      2. Yeah. The essence of the left is that we’re all in this together. If someone doesn’t act that way, to the detriment of the common interest, then letting him go do whatever he was putting ahead of his commitment to you is hardly a swing to the right!

  3. yikes double post, sorry, didn’t realize moderation was happening. please delete either comment. Thanks and sorry again.

  4. You weren’t enforcing a power differential because you *could*. You were enforcing the differential because you SHOULD. This person was a volunteer and/or student trying to use your organization for his grade i.e. benefit. You were, in essence, his manager even though he was unpaid. And just as if he were a paid employee, if his actions are costing the organization time or money or a black mark on its reputation, you had a duty to speak up.

    If anything, it sounds like you gave him too many chances. I agree with the Captain – it’s two clarifications of what is expected and then you let him go if there’s no change in behavior. You were absolutely in the right, here LW. Don’t let his word twisting get to you.

  5. It’s really useful to clarify what a volunteer role involves in terms of time per week, duties, training and level of responsibility. I volunteer and interact with new volunteers and over promising is a standard amongst the sort of person who is drawn to volunteer. The good intentions often lead us astray. So the more structure up front you can put in; the quicker such a volunteer will realise they are taking on too much and speak up. It is tempting to be hands off and let the volunteer set the tone of what they contribute but often it is better to give structure and then relax it. For those who are volunteering to get something out of it (a grade) then it needs to be clear what you need as a minimum and that their contribution benefits them and your organisation.

    Secondly, if someone is trustworthy in the little things, they can be trusted to do big things. So a good way to build trust is to give a volunteer an initial task/goal e.g ‘let’s have two meetings and you can shadow volunteer A’ and review how that goes. If someone cannot turn in volunteer application forms (with references) and show time keeping, you need to be clear about whether this is someone who fits.

    I have known volunteers who turn up four hours late due to their own mental ill health, so they are given tasks that aren’t contingent on them being there at the beginning of a session – doing end of session feedback, writing up ideas etc. I have volunteers who are skilled and eager but have a lot going on at home, so I make a point to check that they are not taking on too much and encourage them to feel that if they need to shift things about, they can say; other volunteers can and will help. Every volunteer is different. The induction process helps me assess what works for me and them.

    You couldn’t anticipate Marks needs if he didn’t voice them. His inability to follow through is his deal and he is responsible for his difficult feelings about it. Your role was to be clear about where Mark fits and what you needed from him. Your other role was to have a channel of communication for him to tell you that he had bitten off more than he could chew and was backing off. You did that to a great degree. The more you can have volunteer induction to back that up, the more you reduce the chances of this happening.

    1. It’s definitely good news to give your volunteers some structure. When I started my volunteer work, working with rape victims while the forensic exam is being done, I was GUNG HO. I wanted ALL THE HOURS. I put me on the schedule five days a week, I can do it! And my coordinator was like, nah, you get two shifts a month. Turns out she was SUPER CORRECT. I had radically underestimated how exhausting and draining it was. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is in fact very difficult work and my coordinator did me a huge favor by not letting me overextend myself.

      (After I’d been doing it for six months, she would sometimes give me three or four shifts a month during high-volume months or when there weren’t enough volunteers, but at that point she knew I could do it.)

      It also helps that there’s a whole bunch of things that people can volunteer for at my non-profit. We can work in the TPO office, the sexual assault team, on the hotline and about eight million other things. I also do public speaking. When I did my training, they were very clear that it was totally okay if it turned out we couldn’t hack it at one thing, why not try a different thing? So if it turns out what I was doing wasn’t a good fit, why not bring my homework and sit at the hotline desk?

      I think what’s happening here is that Mark is 1) super bad at followthrough, for some reason (that you do not have to discover) and 2) wants to be more useful than he’s actually capable of being. And it’s totally okay to fire him if he can’t or won’t behave professionally.

  6. Another radical lefty here. When he asked you for access because he needed a case study, he was asking you for a *favor.* He offered something in return, which was sensible. Then he not only didn’t provide something in return, he caused a boatload of problems. Of course you did not need to continue to do him a favor, at the expense of your organization (and yourself). Lefty politics do not come into play in that calculus that I can see.

    I’m also a sociologist, which means I have colleagues who often need access to organizations to do their research. (I do a different kind of research.) I can’t imagine any of them ever treating a field site like this, not even close. I am trying to picture it and it is so far out of the realm of possibility that my mind just rebels.

    I can’t believe that you didn’t cut things off after he no-showed to the big event. I think it is worth asking yourself why you did not and why you allowed yourself to be so manipulated by him. Not to make you feel bad now, but to learn something for the future.

  7. “Mark” sounds like a complete jerk and you have nothing to feel bad about. No matter what he said about being excited to work with your organization, his actions showed that he couldn’t follow through on what he offered/promised. Don’t worry one more second about your actions! If anything, you were too nice to him and gave him too many chances.

  8. I agree with everyone saying that you should give volunteers who are unreliable a small number of chances, then fire them as volunteers. I also think it can be helpful to provide some clear structure around volunteering. People often “want to help!” when what they mean is “unreliably work on random volunteer tasks that sound like fun.” The problem is that those tasks often need to be done on a regular basis by someone who’s committed to show up, have a learning curve that means that your org is investing time in the volunteer that will be wasted if they then immediately wander off, aren’t actually things you need done, or are a lower priority than boring but necessary tasks.

    It can help to be very clear about what your org needs volunteers to do: “we need someone to commit to doing data entry three hours a week,” or “we stuff envelopes every Thursday night from seven to nine, feel free to drop in when you can,” or “we need someone to work the registration table at our event June 1 who can commit to arriving at 6 PM and staying to help with takedown.” I would especially be leery of handing over IT tasks to volunteers unless you can break them down into small pieces or the volunteer has a proven track record of following through on commitments, because “I started building your website, but now I have exams so I can’t finish it” or “I made a bunch of changes to your computer system, and now that you’re getting mysterious error messages, I’m nowhere to be found for support” really suck.

  9. I cringed when I saw “told him how frustrated I was with this pattern.” That’s telling him your feelings so he told you his– as though straightening out feelings is all that’s needed to solve your joint problem. Think about this differently: You’re his BOSS! He may be volunteering which gives him the idea that he’s helping you. (Though it’s obvious that he’s not really helping.) On his own, he promoted himself to your partner, someone who has some say in how you’re treating him. If he were an employee, from the first minute he demonstrated his flakiness, you’d have fired him. Do some catch-up, and fire him now. Or at least go back and do what you’d do with any annoying employee:

    “That’s too much information. We’re not here to talk about your personal problems when there’s this workety work work thing.”
    When he’s late, continue without him. When he cancels at the last minute, say nothing. Wait for him to suggest a reschedule. If he suggests a reschedule, be straightforward and honest about whether or not he can catch-up on the information he missed.

    It doesn’t matter if his excuses are legit. He’s still not doing the job. That’s reason to find someone else who can do it. It doesn’t matter if he’s full of apologies. He’s still not doing the job.

    It’s not up to you to change the subject “forcefully enough.” It’s up to him not to bring up his personal troubles. Changing the subject is for gentle social situations. With work, you say clearly “I don’t want to talk about that. It’s not work related.” Then let it hang there and let him change the subject. If that’s too hard, you might say “What a shame. I’m sorry you’re going through that, now workety work work.” It’s not up to you to speculate about his boundaries, professionalism or racism. That’s for him to deal with. For you, there’s just whether he can do the job or not.

    You seem to have talked yourself into believing you owe him a lot more than you do. I’m not suggesting that I’m giving you license to treat him or any other volunteer or employee like shit, but you sound like you’re equating being in a position of authority over someone with being evil. It’s not wrong to hold Mark to a high professional standard, to tell him what’s needed, and to give warranted criticism– though, if we’re oversensitive, it may have felt like that at times when the positions were reversed.

    1. I’d add that I volunteer to be in a work situation and have a break from my life problems so it is a relief to have volunteer managers who are friendly but not playing counsellor. It is true that drawing a boundary between ‘you in your role here volunteering’and ‘you in your social settings’ is really liberating and not oppressive/mean/dominant.

  10. LW – Sorry if I’m reading into this, but there seems to be some general discomfort with the concept of authority over others. If you are the authority figure, you aren’t doing anyone any favours by being unclear on messaging and expectations. It’s your job to do that. You’re supposed to do that. It’s ok.

    Setting clear, reasonable expectations and consequences for not meeting those expectations at the beginning of a project or relationship (eg: if you flake on x commitments we have to end the collaboration – as the Captain said) is fair, just and ethical.

    1. I was noticing that too — or perhaps projecting it, given that I’ve had similar feelings in the past when I first became a manager in my day job.

      One of the things that helped me with the discomfort was recognizing that “manager” is a service role — yes, there is the obvious power differential of hierarchy, but there’s also the less-obvious fact that everyone I manage is relying on me to give them the direction and support they need to be most effective with the work that they’re doing.

      But, yeah, it can take a bit of getting used to.

      1. It really can. And sometimes people around you are weird about it, too. I’m now co-managing a garden, and one of the volunteers is SUPER STROPPY about how much I talk to people because it’s favoritism and blah blah blah.

        Look, volunteer, I’m sorry you feel that way and all, but as it turns out I’m managing this garden? And so I need to talk to my co-manager a lot, and to the people who are running sub-projects, and if you’d like a sub-project to run here are the ones I’m currently wrangling because they don’t have a dedicated person, and then! guess what! i’ll give you 15 minutes out of the 2-hour worknight to talk, too. but I have a job and your feeeeeeeeeeelings about me doing it are not my problem.

    2. Well, this situation takes place in a non-hierarchical organization which really makes asserting authority a Bad Thing. The problem is that lefty workers are also human beings and disputes will still happen. Anyone who steps in to try to fix the situation is vilified, so now there is the original problem plus added tension about someone taking control. There are unique challenges in trying to sustain such a organizational structure.

      1. I find it strange that using authority in a flatter org chart is a Bad Thing. I think (and not to derail) that it becomes even more needed in this situation. The point to the flatter structure is that these organizations have members wearing multiple hats and covering overlapping areas of expertise. They need to be available to each other easily (harder to do with a chain of command structure) and to stretch those dollars. This is also why volunteers are so vital. There is also no buffer with a smaller or nonexistent chain of command to help limit the upheaval a disruptive volunteer can cause. This is why for the LW, firing Mark became absolutely necessary. He left the organization in the lurch in a big, egg-on-face way, but takes no responsibility to the point of attacking LW. LW is the manager, the VC. LW gets to do all the things Mark complained about as that is the role and responsibility/nature of her work, and why LW needs volunteers who can be as steadfast as possible. In employment, this sort of failure triggers an instance of ‘authority’ in even the flattest and most left leaning of organizations. Perceptions be darned, better out with the shame than in with the pain (and in he was still causing shame).

  11. The more time you spent dealing with Mark, the less time you spent doing your actual job, LW, which means the less time you had to further your organization’s mission. You don’t describe the exact type of work you do so I’m going to give you a bunch of example to illustrate this point: If your mission is to feed the hungry, well, the more time you spent with Mark, the more people went hungry. Trying to provide housing for the homeless? Because of Mark, more people were stuck on the street. Maybe you’re helping people get educated or a job – well, thanks to Mark, someone who should be in school isn’t and someone who could’ve been employed isn’t and maybe that’s more than one someone in both cases. Someone who needed a helping hand or listening ear or a shoulder to cry on didn’t get it because of Mark. You don’t provide direct services? Nothing has changed about this scenario: all that energy that went to Mark means a candidate who could make a difference didn’t get elected, the transit authority didn’t add more routes through poor neighborhoods (because the time you would’ve spent organizing an educational campaign on the need was inhibited by the time you spent dealing with Mark) or maybe that business who could’ve brought much needed jobs to your community chose another city instead or that nice immigrant family found a more welcoming neighborhood or…well, I could do this all day but the point remains unchanged. Mark was a threat to your organization’s mission by being such a drain on your resources. Letting him go was the right thing to do.

  12. Sounds like Mark is the sort of “lefty radical” who is left and radical and anti-hierarchical in the “What’s in it for me?” sense, falling back on those principles to the full extent that it’s beneficial to him and then gets all pissed off when something happens which is remotely inconveniencing to him. You don’t need that sort of volunteer.

      1. Wow. Reading that, realizing that my college could have been called Manarchist College. (I think of them as RUGs: Radical Until Graduation).

      2. Oh god, this fucking thing is so good, but it has my shoulders up around my ears. (Or perhaps I should rephrase: this fucking thing is so good that is has my shoulders up around my ears.)

      3. … It’s like they interviewed at least 3 guys I know before writing that. Wow.

        1. I remember them manarcho-brocialists well from my radical youth. I wonder if they ever realize their hypocrisy? I wouldn’t know, because I tended to cut them out of my life as soon as I recognized what they were up to. Shame I didn’t have an awesome name for them back in the day.

          1. My husband’s late father, who identified himself as a socialist atheist, expected his frail, weak wife to prepare all their meals and do all their laundry. When she was in the hospital, he, after more than 50 years of marriage, did not know where to put his wife’s clean clothes (that my husband had washed) and couldn’t be bothered to figure it out because there were sooooo many options.

            And this socialist atheist is also the one who told my husband he better “get [me] in line or else.”

            The revolution is really cool, especially if someone else is doing the dishes and cleaning the bathroom.

      4. I’m really embarrassed that teen, 20’s, early 30’s me spent so much time and energy debating and negotiating around men like this. How much of my life was wasted on shitty, abusive, gaslighting, cliches.

        It’s all so obviously BS when it’s written out like that. And almost all of it could be direct quotes from a rapist at the center of a group of longtime friends I backed away from.

      5. Terrible memories of my first boyfriend here. I was 16, he was 27, so it was pretty much always going to be a crapshow, but he was a manarchist through and through. Full on PETA no-it’s-a-really-radical-idea-to-compare-women’s-naked-bodies-to-meat, and an activist vegan too (except when drunk (on non-vegan beer) when he’d eat awful unnamed meat kebabs and leave bits all over the house to be discovered later). Didn’t need to work because his band would obviously make it big.

        The beautiful thing about the passage of time is that it’s always taking me away from when I last had to deal with him.

        1. What I find so strange about that PETA thing is that in 91 or 92 I bought a book from them called “The Sexual Politics of Meat” which talks about how the oppression of women and oppression of animals are closely linked in a patriarchal society. Like, did they not even read the book they both touted & sold?

      6. One of my favorite depictions of the Manarchist (and by favorite I mean most infuriatingly accurate) and the destruction they do in people’s lives is Doris Lessing’s novel The Sweetest Dream.

      7. I recently had a clash with a friend who suggested that I dislike a mutual acquaintance of ours because I disapprove of men having a lot of sex. I pointed out that even if this guy is as successful with women as he claims – unlikely – what *really* bugs me about him is how he behaves as though fucking lots of women makes him liberated and feminist and down with the struggle. I believe I summed up my position with, “A man openly pursuing heterosexual sex is as revolutionary as eating a hamburger.”

        1. Cringelaughing here. Yeah, that is not really striking a blow for the revolution.

      1. We called the independently wealthy version “Trustafarians.”

      1. Radical Glass-Leaver describes so many people. It earns immediate adoption into my everyday vocabulary.

  13. My volunteer job says to this kind of thing (literally), “If you have too many missed hours to make up, you are too busy to volunteer. Boo hoo.”

  14. Hey! So I used to coordinate volunteers and interns for a few different organizations I worked for. It’s difficult! It’s especially difficult because yes, people are giving you their time and skills for free/for this awesome cause, and yet it’s a lot of *work* for you to put those time and skills to use.

    I agree with everything the Captain said, but wanted to ask and add- how in the loop was your volunteer coordinator on these things? When I’ve been coordinating volunteers, it always ran smoothest when I had the power to *not* schedule people for things after they’d flaked more than once. Yeah, we might be losing out, but my time is valuable and making more work for me (by scrambling for replacements) is not creating a net gain for our organization, so the time that person would be donating is now not a gain. It sounds like Mark crossed from ‘not a gain’ to ‘active loss’ in terms of your organization’s time and resources, which is shitty of him. But yes, as the Cap said, don’t give people that many chances to dick you over.

    Next, I know that some folks and organizations think that hierarchies are bad, but I’ve found that really clear structures and hierarchies make it easier for people to both be accountable, and to access help when they need it. The more up-front and clear you are about how things work, the fewer problems that get left to fester and turn into giant hellish problems. When there’s a clear boss to complain to about a problem, problems get reported sooner. When there’s a system for dealing with interpersonal issues, they get dealt with before people explode and hate each other forever. If you’re an organization that actively engages volunteers for projects, maybe spend some time with your project coordinators and volunteer coordinator and discuss how you can prevent problem volunteers from wasting your time in the future.

    The other thing this creates is accountability- if there is one person who’s job it is to do X and X isn’t done, you can address that. If something happened at event Y and event Y was coordinated and overseen by one person, awesome, you can talk with them and figure out what the heck is going on. If everyone is responsible for making sure that X gets done and nobody does X, well, it’s a failure of your whole team and it’s harder to address. And- while it may seem counter-intuitive- having clear roles makes it safer for everybody, because, well, if it’s everyone’s job to make sure that X gets done and someone is being treated poorly and *always* winds up doing X on top of their other tasks, well, they don’t actually have a clear complaint to make because, theoretically, it *could* be their job but there’s an unequal balance of tasks but because nobody has defined tasks or roles, there’s nothing to point at to say ‘this is unfair/inequitable’.

    Okay this was very long but honestly, it’s a difficult thing to navigate and I’ve had lots of shitty experiences with this process (especially when I did not have the authority to address problems fully). I hope you find a way to address these issues in the future that works better for your organization.

    1. Actually, clear lines of authority and responsibility make it a lot easier for the volunteers, too.

      If I’m volunteering, I’d like to know that I’m going to be put to work on something useful right away. Having staff around who can tell you what needs doing at the times when you can volunteer means you get to feel like you’re contributing right away. (And who you can check with if you have questions.)

      There was an organization that shall remain nameless that my son and I tried to volunteer for for quite a while. The director said he needed volunteers, but he never could figure out how to use us, and half the time when he did give us a place to go to help, there wasn’t anyone we could report to to get tasks. We gave up after a while.

  15. Yikes, I totally would’ve dropped him by the no-call, no-show to your event – if not before.

    Agreed with the Captain’s advice for managing future volunteers like Mark (though heaven forbid you get another one like him); I’d also check out Ask A Manager’s volunteer-related articles at http://www.askamanager.org/category/volunteering for more tips on working with them.

  16. All lefty radicals who are not big on hierarchy should read the classic second-wave-feminist essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”.

    (tl;dr — Humans working together create social structures. If your group doesn’t set up a formal structure, than such a structure will emerge informally, and the effect of that informal structure may run counter to the goals of the group.)

    LW, notice that before you let him go, your relationship with Mark deteriorated to the point where he acted like your boss. He exercised discretion over what responsibilities he would fulfill, and when he didn’t come through, it was still your job to get them done. When you met with him, he controlled the timing (by showing up arbitrarily late) and the agenda (by using the meeting as an opportunity to vent to you about his personal life). Whether that was a deliberate power move on his part or just a sign of his flibbertigibbetness, you don’t deserve to be treated that way, and if something like that happens again with another volunteer, I hope you don’t feel guilty about cutting them out sooner.

    1. I give a second wave (nyuk nyuk) to The Tyranny of Structurelessness, and also recommend Alexander Abdennur’s book Camouflaged Aggression: The Hidden Threat to Individuals and Organizations. There’s a section on why certain disordered personalities tend to be drawn specifically to non-profit and voluntary organizations, the negative impact they can have, and the challenges they present to the organization.

    2. (tl;dr — Humans working together create social structures. If your group doesn’t set up a formal structure, than such a structure will emerge informally, and the effect of that informal structure may run counter to the goals of the group.)

      Additionally, the informal structures will tend to follow the patterns of existing social norms, as people will tend to have internalized these, so it’s *likely* that these will wind up being cis-hetero-sexist, racist, classist, etc. in our present cultural-historical moment. Think about establishing formal, explicit expectations as social accountability instead of authoritarian mandates (especially if your initial determination of the expectations is collaborative and mutually agreeable), and maybe that will help people uncomfortable with hierarchy become more comfortable with functional organizational practices.

      1. This is a great way of looking at it. Explicit rules and fair authority structures can be a tool to combat unspoken rules and unfair authority structures.

        They also make it easier for newcomers to your workplace culture, as they make you less dependent on everyone ‘just knowing’ how to navigate unspoken expectations and undefined relationships – which, again, tends to favour people with similar cultural or educational backgrounds.

        Tl;dr – organizational structures can be used for good and not evil.

      2. This is a great way of looking at it. Explicit rules and fair authority structures can be a tool to combat unspoken rules and unfair authority structures.

        They also make it easier for newcomers to your workplace culture, as they make you less dependent on everyone ‘just knowing’ how to navigate unspoken expectations and undefined relationships – which, again, tends to favour people with similar cultural or educational backgrounds.

        Tl;dr – organizational structures can be used for good and not evil.

      3. This is a great way of looking at it. Explicit rules and fair authority structures can be a tool to combat unspoken rules and unfair authority structures.

        They also make it easier for newcomers to your workplace culture, as they make you less dependent on everyone ‘just knowing’ how to navigate unspoken expectations and undefined relationships – which, again, tends to favour people with similar cultural or educational backgrounds.

        Tl;dr – organizational structures can be used for good and not evil.

        1. Arg. Sorry, so annoying. 75% of the time when something doesn’t appear right away, it really is a problem with my internet connection, it never appears at all and I lose the post. And the other 50% it gets through fine but just takes a bit because of moderation or whatever but just looks like it didn’t work. But they look exactly the same. 😦

      4. This explains in such better words for me the phenomenon a friend of mine and I were looking over — the same -ist barriers to entry in her field 30 years ago were IDENTICAL to mine now, and my industry is barely 30 years old.

    3. Conversely, organizations that are formally structureless can actually be worse when it comes to authority figures abusing their authority. My old boss made a lot of creepy sexual jokes and comments that didn’t seem like attempts to flirt with me so much as an attempt to treat me like “one of the guys.” Because we’re all friends here, right?!? (To his credit, he did stop and apologize when I called him out. This is another reason I don’t believe his intent was malicious, although of course that doesn’t change the impact it had on me.)

    4. Thank you for the link! I work for a programmer-centric Silicon Valley company that has gotten large enough to desperately need good management [1] but still has a strong bias of “managers don’t do anything useful” in some pockets of the company. That sounds like quite a valuable thing to have as a pre-argued counterpoint when I need it.

      [1] In the “most people would agree to this” sense, not just the “we have more than one person” sense where it actually starts to become true.

      1. I am not in silicon valley but we have just convinced one of our managers to start actually managing. It actually took a lot of convincing for me to get the original start up people to do something as simple as “Write down all the steps and give them to new hires so they know what the fuck they are supposed to be doing.” Yes, everything is different, BUT IT IS ALSO THE SAME. ugh.

        Anyway, yes, structures, hierarchy, these things are actually more helpful than some vague guidelines that people can accidentally break until they’ve pissed you off too much.

        Unspoken rules are the actual worst.

        1. Ahahaha I was once hired at a hip dysfunctional late-stage startup precisely because I am good at creating documentation and they did not have any. I was then given to a different manager than the one who interviewed me, one who was very anti-documentation and also generally anti-doing his job.

          I was basically *deliberately blocked from getting proper goddamn training in what I was supposed to be doing* for *several months* until lazy manager boss decided that it was unacceptable that I didn’t know things after all this time and fired me. By the time I was let go I had been reduced to having secret lunch meetings away from the office with coworkers to get clandestine training, and writing up the office’s procedures and general tribal knowledge in an Evernote document so that it wouldn’t be hosted on my work computer and I’d still have access to it after I was let go and could send it to my coworkers and instruct them to secretly pass it to new hires.

          Took them another full year, the loss of at least a dozen subordinates, a formal complaint about his management style and a sexual harassment accusation for them to fire my old boss, though.

          1. Wait you mean you don’t just know how to do thing by virtue of having been in the office for a month? That information doesn’t just transfer into your brain? That explains so much?

            I’ve been here for 5 years, and one of our departments, of 6 or so people, JUST started having regular departmental meetings, and only because another manager started hosting them. But I guess when you’re a brilliant developer you don’t have to do things like manage the team you are supposed to be managing. Shockingly that team has our highest turnover.

          2. “I was basically *deliberately blocked from getting proper goddamn training in what I was supposed to be doing* for *several months* until lazy manager boss decided that it was unacceptable that I didn’t know things after all this time and fired me.”

            This is something I’ve seen in many organizations, as they tend to hire me because I learn things quickly and presume that I don’t need any training at all. Businesses do it to cut costs, but it’s one of the stupider, more counter-productive ways to do so.

        2. I was also gonna post that essay! My mid-sized lefty org draws a nice line between hierarchy and structure–you can have a mutually-agreed upon *structure* that all parties consent to, with clear rules about who’s responsible for what, how to change the structure, etc without anyone exerting undue control over each other.

          That’s especially true here, where Mark was a volunteer seeking a large professional favor, not a worker needing wages or a client needing services. He was in an unusually strong position to negotiate–he presumably had plenty of leeway to choose which organization to study, to make realistic offers of his time, etc.

          You asked what you could do to prevent this in the future and honestly it sounds like you more than held up your end of the bargain; my only advice would be to be even more explicit about what you expect, write down your agreement at the outset, and to try to schedule visiting students such that if they don’t show you can go on about your business.

        3. We had this problem where we’d be promoting programmers to managers, with no management training or experience, and then being surprised they struggled. Most of them wanted to be programming! Mentoring helps, but yeah, it takes a bit for some places to figure out.

          This is also why the Sid Meier “Don’t Let Sid Touch The Code” squad exists at Firaxis. He still wants to be programming!

  17. I could be way off the mark, but my impression is that “Mark” was attracted to you and using the volunteer position to get some of your time/attention, and potentially grooming you to have an affair with him “my wife doesn’t understaaaaand me!” It sounds like his getting the case study grade was important to him as well, but was more of an excuse to have the time with you.

    1. Meh, this is possible but doesn’t really change things as far as what LW should do. His statements about the wife are inappropriate either way.

    2. You too, huh? What with the over sharing, the ‘negging’, etc. I think I’m seeing it everywhere, because it seems like every woman I know has had this problem with men using false pretences to get close..

    3. Whether or not Mark was attracted to LW, it does sound as if he expected HER to be smitten with HIM and all his awesome exclamation marks!!!!!! I also thought: “Hm, I wonder why his marriage is breaking up. Does he behave the same way at home?”

  18. This is really a meta-comment not just about this letter, but about the column in general. So many of the letters seem to follow a pattern: Man behaves badly in relationship or professional setting. LW tries to fix things, but man continues/escalates behavior. Woman writes to CA and asks: is it me? what did I do wrong? I am being too demanding/emotional/unfair/etc? What should I do/have done differently?

    Is it just me, or has our entire gender been gaslighted to believe that we are always at fault?

    1. My 14 year old does this too even with her friends — of course she can act like a jerk sometimes, but if they act jerky to her, her response is “Is it me? What did I do wrong? Why doesn’t anyone like me?”

      1. Ugh, I have these arguments with myself so many times. It can be hard to reason with my brain that no, people are not always acting selfishly or jerkishly because I have done something to make them hate me, sometimes they are just…jerks. Oblivious. Et cetera. They act like that to…everyone.

        1. Or worse yet, they act like that … at random. There’s a perverse comfort in thinking that we did something to elicit a jerky response because then we can tell ourselves that we’re in control, that if we’d only done something differently, then the other person would have been nice, or at least fair. When that logic doesn’t work, we try for comfort in the idea that the person is just a jerk to everyone– in which case they would have no friends. It’s boggling to come to grips with the idea that some people, maybe even a lot of people, have good moods and bad moods, that they’re sometimes clear eyed and rational, sometimes pretty horrible, and that it has NOTHING TO DO WITH US!

    2. A friend of mine who is a therapist once said that most of her practice is getting women to take responsibility for only for their own actions and getting men to take any responsibility for their own actions.

  19. I would also contact his grad programme and make it clear that he is no longer associated with your organization. He may make up a bunch of stuff and pass it off as though he were still volunteering with your group.

    1. Based on his behavior here, I would be positively stunned if he *didn’t* try to do just that.

  20. My first thought was substance abuse. The behavior sounds a lot like an addicted loved one of mine. I worry every time he applies for a job or school situation, though I stay out of his business. Things often end badly.

  21. Having volunteered in several organizations and also wrangled volunteers, I totally second the Captain’s “volunteer contracts & codes of conduct, volunteer training, a structured way to give feedback to volunteers”!

    Enthusiasm from a volunteer does not replace actually doing the work that you’re counting on them to do nor does it make up for added stress when you have to pull teeth and herd cats.

    Having clearly stated expectations for a volunteer role (ie, specific work to be done, how often, minimum requirements for replying to email, etc.) means that people who want to help can gauge ahead of time if they are a good fit for the role AND if they mis-judge that, you can say “these stated needs are not being met, your enthusiasm is appreciated, but you are not a good fit for this role”.
    “Firing” volunteers is hard but having a system in place with expectations and feedback means that you have a process when the fit isn’t good and don’t have to redefine what is “fair” when your needs aren’t being met.

    1. You may even find it helps get and retain volunteers, since it can work both ways – people are often (in my experience) cautious about volunteering for stuff because they’re afraid it will be too much work or that their responsonsibilities will keep increasing.

    2. I was a volunteer in a situation where the organizer gave a different person a form of authority regularly, “to be fair” and to make the “volunteer authority of the week” feel appreciated. Mostly, it went fine, because the ‘weekly authority”was experienced in the work that needed to be accomplished. However, now and then, a weekly authority would be an inexperienced, clueless newb who made the week’s workload hellish and near-impossible for the other volunteers. The organizer didn’t want to be “mean” to the weekly newb, by perhaps suggesting a better work flow, or delegation of duties, or what have you. The organizer wanted to be “fair” and not “mean” to the newb, believing that this was the way to encourage new volunteers. Maybe, but the regular vounteers were so stressed by this chaotic way of juggling heirarchies that they started leaving.

      Just saying here that yes, some voouteers should be strongly guided — or fired — and that structure benefits everyone, including the beneficiaries of voluteers’ efforts.

    3. “Enthusiasm from a volunteer does not replace actually doing the work that you’re counting on them to do nor does it make up for added stress when you have to pull teeth and herd cats.”

      wut wut wut????
      You mean intention is not magic??????

      how can this be????????????????

  22. Ugh. This dude reminds me of a student I had once, who got really angry at me for not agreeing to teach a special extra session of his Favorite Subject. This happened after him telling me that he was going to have to miss the class where Favorite Subject was going to be discussed because he was “too busy” with other “more important” things to attend class that day.

    As part of his rant, he also pulled the “I’m a married responsible adult in his 30s” card, which, um, what? My single 18-year-old students all grasped that if you were interested in a particular topic, you read the syllabus and showed up on the day the topic would be discussed, or made arrangements to meet with me in office hours; you didn’t try to get the entire class reconfigured for your individual convenience.

    In other words, this sort of behavior is a Thing, and you should not feel in any way guilty or ashamed of calling your dude on his crap.

    1. Yeah. I used to work with a supervisor like this. He was going through a divorce…his wife was sleeping with their friend…he would get stoned at work and leave roaches in the potted plant in the middle of his office…he would drift in and out of the office like the tide, only way less predictable. He was pals with one of our clients, he’d have all these calls with them on his personal time and forget to tell me about the updated developments on the projects I was assisting on. It was his way of always maintaining the upper hand, since I was the one doing every bit of the actual work on those jobs. He was a no-show at presentations. One time he showed up at a big presentation at the last minute in a dirty suit, stoned, without having washed his hair, and then took credit for all of my work in front of the client.

      One day he just stopped coming into work. Didn’t call, didn’t respond to emails. Weeks went by. I found out that our shared project was several thousands of dollars over budget, and had to go back to the client with all sorts of uncomfortable budget reconciliation negotiations to make sure our agency got paid because Dudebro didn’t want to push for a signed contract, and had purposely hidden that file from me. We did get paid, eventually.

      A year later, he calls the boss and wants his job back. When the boss reminded him of the giant mess he’d left behind, his response was, “Well, Guava isn’t blameless in this situation either.”

      I ran into some former colleagues one day and brought his name up over lunch. They all started laughing. “That guy? He was the biggest fucking flake we’d ever met!”

      It’s not you. It’s definitely Mark.

      1. These days the word “blameless” gets my hackles up. It’s such a typically abusive standard. You have to be blameless or else all their bad behaviour is your fault.

        Suggested mantra: “I don’t have to be blameless for you to get your shit together.”

        1. Okay, I really needed to hear that! (Or rather, I really needed that three years ago)

        2. The funny thing was, in this situation I saw myself as pretty much blameless, he was just trying to evade responsibility for his actions. But you’re right – it shouldn’t matter- there is no such thing as a perfect standard of behavior. This guy was also a big fan of using the phrasing, “you’re not lily white in this either” which I found totally repugnant for 1,000 reasons.

          1. Manuel J. Smith alludes to this in _When I Say No I Feel Guilty_, the 10 myths:

            10. Because of your human condition, you are base and have many flaws. You must try to make up for this humanness by striving to improve until you are perfect in all things. Being human, you will probably fail in this obligation, but you still must want to improve. If someone else points out how you can improve yourself, you are really obliged to follow his direction. If you do not, you are corrupt, lazy, degenerate, and worthless, and therefore unworthy of respect from anyone, including yourself.

            Whether this irrationality is leveled at us by someone else or whether it’s something we’ve internalized to the point where we level it at ourselves without help, it’s like we believe that unless we’re perfect, we have no right to an opinion, no right to criticize someone else’s obviously obnoxious behavior. It’s as though 1 mistake on one end is equivalent to 100 on the other. Oh, did I miss 51 meetings, screw up 13 responsibilities, tell 10 lies, let 8 people down, and drop the ball 52 times? Well you made a typo on page 30 of your report!

            Something that’s helped me a lot is the realization that it’s wonderful and freeing to be able to make a mistake and take responsibility for the consequences of that mistake. Looked at that way, I don’t have to be so scared all the time. Also looked at that way, I’m doing the Marks of this world and the fired supervisors in Guava’s world a favor when we say in a neutral voice, “that’s right, I have made some errors. I still want …” and then you fill in the blank with whatever needs to be done. It’s like you agree with the original premise no matter how much it rankles (you’re not lily white), and reject the unspoken conclusion (and therefore I should get my job back). Uh, no.

          2. Right, because one asshole is splashing around in a mud puddle and bystanders are getting hit with the spray, indeed they are not “lily white.” They’re the “collateral damage,” and the asshole is still responsible for the mess.

        3. Pretend I inserted a bunch of clapping emojis here. Growing up with a narcissistic mother has made me an expert in blaming myself for the behavior of others based on my own small mistakes. Unprogramming myself is…a work in progress.

    2. I had a student like that as well. Mid-term, he came to my office without an appointment demanding to know why his marks were so low. I was like “you literally never come to class, so not only are you getting no participation points, you are doing poorly on exams and essays”. His defense was “I own a business! I’m an adult with a life! I can’t be wasting my time being in class!”

      (He failed the course.)

  23. The captain has this right, he wasn’t a good fit and there issue a thing as being too accommodating.
    When I used to volunteer I viewed it almost exactly the same as a job. You’re there for a benefit whether ethical/moral or practical. In my case I had a woefully bare CV and needed to prove I could be a good employee and I wanted experience in the museum’s sector to see if it was a good fit for me. I volunteered and it was nice to get some gratitude for my time but it was a two way street. I was professional and brought my A game, as really should any volunteer. The only difference is a volunteer has more flexibility to leave wen and how they need to.
    As a result I think a good managerial presence from paid staff is essential, especially when it’s for something the volunteer is graded on (in my case it was work experience at uni in the council for organising an arts festival). In that context the volunteer should be super professional!
    You’d have fired an employee for such sustained infractions or at least had a serious word with him, so really that should inform how you approach volunteers too. You both need to be on the same page of doing your best to be professional I think.
    A contract or agreement would give a firm basis to make this clear, which leaves more leeway to relax in other ways. You both know where you stand then.

  24. A simple assessment from one of the organizations I’ve been involved in: Value = services rendered – chaos engendered. If that’s in the negative range then definitely do not continue with that volunteer.

  25. I am a flaky volunteer.

    More specifically, I do data-entry, callbacks, and general office work for an org helping refugees for four hours/week except when the chronic pain and fatigue that I disclosed when I started the gig prevents me from going in, and then I give them as much notice as I can and stay home.

    When I do go in, I work hard, and I’m very good at the things I’m doing for them, so thus far this is acceptable, if not ideal, to all parties.

    For another org, or another position, it might not be. If I didn’t make sure we were communicating about it regularly, it wouldn’t be okay here. If the coordinator ever decides this isn’t working for her, well, I’ll be sad but I’m there to HELP, not make things harder.

    Possibly I give myself too much credit here, but I think this is very different from how Mark behaved.

    1. Definitely different from Mark if you disclosed your possible limitations at the beginning and gave notice whenever the limitations kicked in. Mark made definite promises for specific schedules and failed to live up to them or to renegotiate to correct his over-promising. Big difference.

      1. I hear you.

        I read this letter with no small amount of guilt and sadness, because I am thinking about an organization I did a slow fade on, and need to send a “I’m so sorry I flaked on you, here’s my new situation and here are the circumstances under which I might be able to come back in the future if you still want me” closure letter, and haven’t yet.

        I’ve worked in libraries for years, and was going to grad school when my partner died suddenly after a short devastating illness. I quit my job, moved to another city of which his hometown is a suburb, and almost immediately picked up a volunteer gig at his hometown library, and disclosed at the start that I was there 1.) to stay working in libraries while I jobhunted, and 2.) to maintain a connection with an institution he loved.

        I worked there steadily and very enthusiastically, a half-day each week, for a couple of months, and then I got a paying job and moved across the city, and told them it might be a couple of weeks before I settled enough to figure out what kind of volunteer workload my new situation might accommodate. And… a couple of weeks has turned into ten weeks, and I’m still overwhelmed by the paying job and the grad-schooling and the solitary-adulting, and I just can’t see if or when I’ll have my shit together to go back.

        Definitely not my finest hour or my most professional performance. But wow, I am not Mark. Mark is a whiny shit.

        1. I don’t know if this helps but you have been through an awful lot and the fact that you can be self aware and want to explain really does show character. I hope your life improves and is kinder to you. You deserve your kindness as you dig out of the isolation and overwhelm.

        2. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you faded or flaked here. You made it clear that you won’t be volunteering until you contact them again, and that’s all they really need to know. The fact that you haven’t contacted them yet tells them that you either lost interest or are too busy. Again, that’s what they need to know.

          I think they’ll still be happy to hear from you, even if it’s just to let them know that you’re ok and to confirm that you won’t be available anytime soon. The rest is brainweasels 🙂

          1. Seconded, it sounds like you communicated with the library you were volunteering at just fine. It’s super normal to take more than a week or two to adjust to a new job, let alone all the hard and painful stuff you’ve had to deal with. They probably would like hearing that you’re okay and that they shouldn’t worry about leaving space on the volunteer schedule for you.

        3. Speaking as someone who has been in a similar position, I can tell you that when you do a slow fade on people due to life going to utter shit (and they at least have some idea why), you will almost always get 1 of 2 reactions:

          The people/groups/etc. that are worth hanging around in the future will understand and/or at least not hold it against you. You’ll probably hear things like, “Yeah, we figured you needed more time” or “Dealing with [problem x] is always difficult”. Basically, some variation on the theme of “life sucks, but shit happens, and glad to hear you’re doing better.”

          The ones to drop are the ones who take your major issue and make it aaaaaallllllllll about them. “Well, obviously we’re not a priority with you.” “I can’t believe you didn’t call me,” and so on.

          Guess what? The phone/internet/homing pigeon works both ways. If they’re really feeling left in the lurch or are concerned whether you’ll be able to be spending time with them can call *you*, too.

          You are dealing with mondo major nasty grade-A shit here. Any person/group who knows this and wants you to be somewhere/do something will act like a sensible person and contact you, rather than expecting you to be psychic and constantly be at their beck & call.

          Also, given exactly what you’re dealing with? Ten weeks is really not that long. Really. You lost you S.O., did a major move, and then had to hunt for a new job. Personally, someone going through all that? I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it was 6-8 months before they got back in contact, if not longer.

          And you don’t necessarily need to write a long heartfelt letter–if you really would like to go back to volunteering there, a short email or FB message or similar saying, “Sorry, life is still evil, haven’t forgotten you, do actually want to come back at some point” is fine. One short paragraph, maybe 6-7 sentences. Actual reasonable adults will understand. Really.

        4. As a librarian who has worked with volunteers, I offer absolution. They knew you’d have to take time off, and they probably guessed that there was a possibility you couldn’t come back. I’m sure they’d like to have you if you can, but if not, well, life happens.

    2. One of the best hings my org (a political campaign) ever did was figuring out ways to harness the vast power of flaky volunteers. Keeping a list of useful but not time-sensitive tasks let us draw in folks with disabilities, with little kids, folks who were intrigued but not yet totally sold on our group, etc get involved. Some folks get more involved and some don’t, but either way it’s good.

      Stuff like phone banking, assembling pamphlets/goodie bags/signs/etc for the next event, compiling publicly available info (say, lists of local businesses in an area), doing informal social media outreach, etc can all sometimes be done by volunteers who’re not in a place to treat their volunteer time like a job. Planning ahead and reserving mission-critical stuff for people who are able to make a firm commitment makes it possible to get a lot of benefit from people who’re able to give less of their time.

      I get that everyone’s sympathies are with the LW right now (mine are too) but I think it’s OK to not expect all volunteers to treat their volunteer work like a job their livelihood depends on. When an org needs that kind of reliability, they should probably be paying someone a living wage to do it.

      1. “When an org needs that kind of reliability, they should probably be paying someone a living wage to do it.”

        Yes, this! This is one of the reasons that I left the non-profit sector even though there were many things I loved about it. I appreciate the idea that you can accomplish so much more if you have volunteers, and that a lot of worthy causes get more bang for their buck because of the eager helpers they get. On the other hand, at a certain point for the mission to go forward you need to have people who are getting paid, because unless they have another source of steady income (retired, college students living on scholarships/loans, stay-at-home parent volunteering during preschool hours, etc.) eventually they will have to put their paid employment first, because rent/mortgage and food wait for no one. I far prefer an organization that has at least a handful of employees that are paid fairly (and with reasonable benefits) to someplace that is all volunteer.

        (This is a side note, since this doesn’t sound like LW’s issue, but it’s something I’ve seen a lot with volunteering.)

      2. Thanks for this! I’ve been interested in volunteering, but I know that if I’m not careful my brain-weasels will rebel and I’ll end up flaking. (And then I’ll feel bad about flaking and I’ll ghost.) I’ll look for places that have options for people to do shorter term or drop-in things – it hadn’t occurred to me that some orgs would!

        1. Don’t underestimate how many orgs have paid staff who also suffer their own brain weasels, especially in the not for profit sector. There are places that are welcoming and can accommodate a degree of flexibility.

        2. I’m going to echo this sentiment. I’ve held back from volunteering by the fear of flaking out (reasons abound.) This is good news and gives me a small goal to aim for- something I think will be of great benefit to my mental health.

      3. Right. At our garden, there’s a ton of stuff that can be done by Rando Volunteerissian showing up when they show up, but there’s also stuff that needs to be done by people who can turn up to worknights at least 3 times a month. Not job-level commitment, but a higher reliability level than casual. There’s room for all sorts, if you can figure out which tasks go to which kind of commitment-level.

      4. “When an org needs that kind of reliability, they should probably be paying someone a living wage to do it.”

        Thirding this; reliability is part of that for which people doing paid labor are being paid. This also reminds me of the near-inviolable law of the project management triangle, which I learned working my first job as a theatrical set carpenter: there is always a trade-off between cost, speed, and quality (many versions extend this to a tetrahedron with scope as the fourth vertex, but if your project scope is predetermined, this factor is irrelevant). Volunteer labor represents a maximum optimization of cost – it’s free – but that entails deficits in terms of quality and/or speed for completion of tasks.

  26. Honestly, I don’t understand all of the white fragility/brosocialism. I’ve been that volunteer coordinator with flaky volunteers AND I’ve also been that volunteer! Bad/stressful time + overwhelmed sometimes = poor behavior, missing meetings, making excuses. People get defensive and are often a mix of good and bad. I’ve also been a great volunteer who has left organizations over passive managers allowing a few volunteers to create complete chaos and act appallingly.

    Not everything is part of some gamergate plot to oppress people. Coordinating volunteers is a skill! Managing people is a skill! The OP made a number of management mistakes that could have curbed the impact of a crappy volunteer. She should think about getting some training from her organization on that issue. http://www.askamanager.org is a great resource as Allison (the blogger) is an ex nonprofit manager who is very blunt about the specific difficulties that often appear in these industries.

      1. Did you read what I actually wrote or just jump ahead to make a snarky comment?


        The OP is a poor manager and will keep running into people willing to take advantage of that regardless or sex, age or political orientation.

        1. Speaking for myself: I read, I just don’t see why you need to minimize the LW’s concerns about the way dude was acting being both specifically annoying to her as a manager as well as generally counterproductive to the mission of her group.

          Shouting the same things over and over again isn’t going to make anyone agree with you, by the way.

    1. “Not everything is part of some gamergate plot to oppress people”

      Umm… who said it was? It’s just that all the burning straw is making my eyes sore, so maybe I missed anyone claiming oppression..

      1. The OP for a start – who claimed that Mark was exhibiting “white fragility” instead of just saying he was an asshole. And the other posters claiming that he’s a brosocialist instead of just calling him what he is A FLAKY VOLUNTEER.

        1. Yes, because saying he was just an asshole would not have conveyed the specific conversations and behaviours she was describing in that particular sentence. I have also been a volunteer, volunteer coordinator, board member, nonprofit manager etc and you can be an asshole, a flaky volunteer AND a brosocialist, misogynist. “Flaky volunteer” comes in all flavours and a myriad of responses can be appropriate – some ‘flaky volunteers’ exhibit misogynist tendencies women who manage, are learning to manage, and just live in the world experience in all shapes and flavours during their lives and careers. I have literally no idea what could be helpful about failing to name the specific societal currents that contributed to LW’s challenges in managing here and the societal narratives that contribute to internalizing and doubting oneself rather than confronting. Why would it be preferable to be less thoughtful and specific about what this volunteer brought up or posed as a challenge for the LW when thinking about what could be learned from it, why it unfolded the way it did and why these doubts and feelings are swirling around in its aftermath?

        2. “White Fragility” is a specific term that refers to a specific set of behaviors and attitudes around race, whereas “asshole” is a pretty general, nonspecific term. I didn’t get the sense from the OP that that her issues with Mark’s comments specifically related to Mark’s job performance, rather than them being just another aspect of his personality that she found troubling to work around.

        3. Turning a blind eye to racism and sexism doesn’t mean they aren’t there. For the record, they are, and they affect events and experiences. If the LW says she perceived racist behaviours in this dude, I believe her. There’s enough people already questioning the existence/influence of privilege in society.

          1. I coordinate volunteers, they are 100% necessary to the function of my organization, and good god, are their lowgrade, internalized prejudices present in the work they do. They are nice people – mostly retired white men – and they are not plotting anything. They are truly there to help. Regardless, they have assumptions that result in subtly (and sometimes overtly) racist, sexist, or classist behaviors. Knowing that allows me to do my job, train strategically, and remain vigilant to possible harm they could do to our mission or public.

            I would love this to not be true, and the only problem be no-showing or jerkiness, but it’s a fact that their unprofessional behavior organizes itself around themes (of disrespecting my authority as a younger woman, of believing that some students are “bad” or “difficult,” of thinking that some communities don’t seek our services because they “don’t care”), and those themes are code.

            People who work with volunteers should be able to name, respond to, and vent about this kind of thing, on the theory that we are all there (volunteers and staff) to accomplish the same work, and that these behaviors are harmful to that work. If the LW is noticing the same, that’s worth examining and discussing and planning for in the future.

        4. May, you may not have read this very famous and important essay about White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. It’s a phrase that encompasses a lot, and deployed as it was by the LW, it paints quite a picture if you know the reference. If a person says someone is exhibiting white fragility, it’s more than saying they have run-of-the-mill asshole behaviors. It sounds like Mark is a FLAKY VOLUNTEER *and* displays some racist thinking/tendencies, which is entirely possible, don’t you think?

          Before you ask the the LW or the commentariat question what behaviors or words *exactly* did Mark display that were *exactly* racist that we can *prove* beyond a reasonable doubt, I also suggest you ask yourself the question “Why am I, May, so interested in defending Mark, whom I’ve never met, from the mere suggestion that he might say or do racist things?

    2. The problem here isn’t the industry, its the culture. Women are actively disabled from childhood by demands that they take on responsibilities without taking any authoritative stance that might dent male sensibilities, and then take on any blame going around — so yeah, this is the OP dealing with the fallout of a plot to oppress people.

  27. Dear LW,
    rest assured that you were not opressing him with your seniority. He offered to commit to a workload, and then didn’t follow through. That’s on him. Asking someone to keep a commitment is not opressing them. As for your alleged hypocrisy, 1) I’m totally sure that your cancelments happened less often and with more advanced warning than his, and 2) if that issue only came up when he was trying to deflect the blame, and not whenever it actually happened, he was just fishing for excuses.
    Because of sexism, it often happens that when it’s a woman who points out a problem concerning the behaviour of a man, suddenly it’s the woman who is in the wrong for daring to bring it up, not the man who actually messed up.
    So, I’d say you acted reasonably and the man calling you a hypocryte hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Better luck with future volunteers, and don’t be afraid to kick them out if they’re no help. As the saying goes, “mucho ayuda el que no estorba”, or “a great help is he who doesn’t get in the way”.
    Best of luck ❤

    Ps: I promise I'm not quoting so many proverbs on purpose, they just come up while I'm writing, and seem so appropriate I feel unable to leave them out :^(

    1. So Bad Volunteer fails to hold up his end of the commitment and responds to being called out on that by nebulously accusing the boss of the exact same things he himself has done … yeah, big ol’ red flag. In the grownup world, “I’m rubber, you’re glue” is not a strategy for getting things done. Seems to me that if this really were solely about his personal problems, he would have been honest about that BUT also politely accepted that he wasn’t up for committing to the gig. LW, you have nothing to apologize for. You seem to have made very clear up front the level of commitment and flexibility you would need from him. That’s what a good boss does. Don’t second-guess yourself now, because that will get in the way of those good-boss instincts!

      1. Whoops, this was meant as a separate comment … but it works as a reply to B. also, I suppose 🙂

        1. I’m sure the LW will be able to find it easily even thougt it’s not posted independently 🙂

  28. “But maybe I was treating him poorly by enforcing a power differential between us, just because I could?”

    I’m curious why you’re spending so much mental energy trying to pin this on some misbehavior on your part, when the much simpler answer is, “Mark is an asshole.” He certainly provided you with plenty of evidence to support that conclusion. You actually have to work harder to make this about anything you may have done, so what’s leading to that impulse?

  29. “Two grad programs at the same time”

    There are grad programs that give you two degrees when you’re done, like MD/PhD, MD/JD, JD/PhD… there’s also doing a grad degree supervised by cross-appointed faculty. He sounds like an asshole, so I bet he’s doing a JD/MBA. Any which way, you don’t get to say you’re in two grad programs at the same time.

    1. Pursuing two different programs simultaneously is, in fact, prohibited at my university, and I suspect that is also the case elsewhere (though maybe not everywhere?). I wasn’t sure, and I also don’t know that that bit specifically changes anything as far as advice for the LW, so I didn’t bring it up, but, yeah, Mark could well be lying about/disingenuously framing that bit.

  30. “I have the time, and I’m happy to help with anything from IT work to giving rides.”

    Dear LW, turns out he lied to you in his email. The most important lesson for you to learn from this, I think, is to recognize patterns of behavior sooner. This will not be the last time that people lie to you for whatever reasons to get something they think they want. I think that maybe you think that you own half the responsibility for this problem. You do not. This person joined your group under false pretenses therefore nothing was what it seemed. Learning the tells and to recognize the pattern of behavior so that you can end a dysfunctional relationship soonest is what I hope you can take from this thread.

  31. [We’re all lefty radicals and not big on hierarchy, but I still feel like he expected a degree of reciprocity that was not reasonable, and not how I said from the beginning things would need to be.]

    I don’t really understand this. Having structure, and having someone around to enforce the rules is a good thing. It’s often necessary when it comes to managing people. I mean you’re not totalitarian dictators because you have rules that need to be followed to make things work.

    1. I’ve done volunteer coordination and struggled with this kind of thing before. It can also intersect with various other things that make a person feel uncomfortable taking a position of authority (for me, being a woman in my early 20s with no experience in the technical skills I needed in my mostly male volunteers.) There’s some good discussion of hierarchy and nonprofits above so I won’t repeat all this, but I suspect this is a pretty common issue.

  32. Sometimes, volunteers are flaky and don’t realize their limits until they start doing the work.

    This is not the case. Mark is being defensive at best, and gaslighty and mean at worst.

    Also, if the organization is interested in dismantling hierarchy, that doesn’t mean eliminating all structure for accountability. You can look into non-hierarchical org charts and accountability systems. It might help you maintain an equitable relationship with volunteers, while at the same time making sure everybody is fulfilling their responsibilities.

    LW, it sounds like you were thoughtful and did your best to give the benefit of the doubt. I’m wishing you all the best as you move forward!

  33. You’ve already gotten a lot of good advice from others who work with volunteers, but I just wanted to throw in another “you’re allowed to fire volunteers”. I’ve coordinated volunteers in government and private cultural/arts nonprofits, and contracts are so, so important, along with orientations and policy manuals. It’s allowed orgs I’ve been at to fire volunteers who were really not good for us, and it helps to set expectations and boundaries before anyone has wasted their time.

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