When Volunteers Fall Off the Radar

How do you manage volunteers who have dropped off the radar screen? TH turns to a pro for the answers.

Volunteer Supervision - Twenty HatsWhat do you do when a volunteer drops the ball – either fails to fulfill their responsibilities or just plain falls off the radar?

It’s a scenario that causes plenty of heartburn for supervisors who are then placed in the uncomfortable position of holding a difficult conversation. And for some volunteer supervisors, the dread around addressing this unfortunate issue makes it hard to even begin a potentially difficult conversation.

It IS possible to frame those conversations in a way that keeps your volunteers engaged. Just ask MaryAnn Wohlford.

Meet a Supervision Pro

MaryAnn is a supervisor at my former workplace, Fairfax CASA. Hands down, she is the most experienced volunteer supervisor I have ever known. That’s partly because MaryAnn worked in human resources for 20 years and child advocate programs volunteers for another 13 – and partly because she has an intuitive sense of what works to bring the best out of people.

MaryAnn’s volunteers rarely if ever fall off the radar screen. Instead, they fulfill their extensive commitment to advocating for an abused or neglected child, earning the respect of judges, attorneys, and social workers for their dedication to the children they serve.

The Bottom Line

I asked MaryAnn for her pointers when dealing with an absent volunteer. Her approach is based on the rapport she builds with each volunteer.

“The bottom line is that the relationship between the volunteer and the supervisor needs to be collaborative. When there is frequent communication, a volunteer feels supported and valued.”

That means regular check-ins – first to identify what the volunteer needs to do next and then to follow up.

“Some volunteers drop the ball because they think no one is looking — or they think what they are supposed to do is unimportant because no one is asking about it.”

The Accountability Factor

MaryAnn holds volunteers accountable even when their schedules get busy.  Knowing that her volunteers are clear about what is expected of them and have made a commitment, she might start the conversation by saying, “That’s a concern. How can we arrange things so that you can still fulfill your obligation?” or “Is there any way I can help?”

Sometimes volunteers find themselves in situations that cause discomfort or they don’t know how to handle. In those instances, she frames the conversation collaboratively, letting them know that difficult situations can be worked out. “Most important, I always follow up in these instances to make sure the problem is resolved – and I give them kudos for taking care of the issue.”

Recognizing Burnout

When burnout is the root of the problem, the approach is somewhat different. “I sense that you are feeling frustrated. Tell me what’s going on.” She listens, validates their concerns, and then reminds the volunteer of his role and his accomplishments.

Regardless of the situation, the key is not to let the volunteer off the hook, but instead problem-solve collaboratively to keep the work going.

As MaryAnn says, “Volunteers need to feel that they are not alone. They need to know that you have the same interest in the work that they have, and that you are working together to get the job done.”

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When a volunteer falls off the radar, problem-solve collaboratively & maintain accountability http://twentyhats.com/?p=1678 @THNonprofit


  • In the current organization I am with, our volunteer role is very unique and most volunteers come from professional backgrounds with many great skills. Many go thru a period where they need to realize it’s not them, it’s the role. At first they may get frustrated but letting them know up front there will be this transition helps make it easier. I totally agree it’s ok to hold people up to the standards they agreed to. We don’t sugar coat the role and try to have experienced volunteers mentor and/or shadow for that oh-so-valuable peer encouragement. Great post, Elisa, thanks!

    • Thanks, Gretchen! You make a good point about setting expectations for adjusting to a new volunteer role – especially a very specialized role. The support of the mentors sounds important, too.

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