IRON (resolve, not avoid conflicts) HUG (gain their trust) — let’s get into some conflict resolution

From an outsider’s eye, volunteer management may look easy: just be friendly when volunteers come in and thank them when they leave; be thankful you even have volunteers coming in to do the mission-oriented work. If only our work was that simple. Professionals in the field are aware that this viewpoint is too simplistic to truly encompass what it takes to build and lead a volunteer workforce.

I was with my organization long before I became the volunteer manager. When I moved into the role, the previous volunteer leadership had been disorganized, lackadaisical, and inattentive. Volunteers came and went as they pleased and did whatever they wanted (approved or not). And, despite this ‘freedom,’ retention was low.

As every experienced volunteer manager knows, volunteers want and need support, strong leadership, and clear policies and procedures. They seek plainly defined roles and rules; and they especially need the consistency of having those rules enforced. I discovered this shortly after beginning my position, as I tried to find my footing as a new Volunteer Manager in an existing program.

You absolutely must be friendly and supportive when working with volunteers:  saying ‘hi’, thanking them, remembering details and stories from their personal lives, acknowledging recent personal milestones, and more. These actions do not mean, though, that befriending a volunteer is more important than maintaining the standards of your organization. You cannot be scared or nervous that if you enforce policies and procedures, your volunteers will quit and leave your organization.

So how do you balance strong leadership and encouragement, so that volunteers will keep coming back? And how do you train co-workers who engage volunteers in this approach? Whenever I start working with a new colleague who will interact with volunteers, I always brief them on my ‘Iron Hug’ philosophy.

The Iron Hug is an acronym for the management practices that I have found most effective in fostering relationships with volunteers that lead to effective service and increase retention.  The Iron Hug allows you to manage your volunteers and enforce policies while also balancing friendly and warm relationships.

Like an iron, it’s important to use a firm, strong, hand:

  • Include clear expectations of policies and procedures in all areas of the volunteer life-cycle, from advertising and recruitment to exiting and beyond
  • Resolve, and do not avoid conflicts, making informed decisions based in policy while showing care for the individual’s viewpoint
  • Openly share your professional experiences, credentials, and decision-making process so that volunteers understand your expertise and see where your decisions are coming from
  • Never be afraid to say ‘no’ or be nervous to break news that a suggestion made by a volunteer was not selected to be implemented; always explain why the decision was made so that the volunteer has all of the pertinent information and feels part of the process even if their feedback did not result in a change

At the same time, nurture your volunteers with a figurative “hug”: be supportive, kind, and provide an inclusive environment:

  • Honor, thank, and recognize volunteers on a daily basis
  • Understand their needs by accepting feedback, having multiple modes of communication, being open to implementing suggestions, and sharing with volunteers the changes made thanks to them
  • Gain their trust by being a friendly person and providing a stable environment for volunteering

You don’t need to be rigid; the “Iron Hug” does not mean that you rule with an iron fist! Situations where policies are edited or an exception is made for one individual, are valid and should absolutely be permitted, such as a request for shorter shifts for accessibility reasons or for a leave of absence due to a medical condition.

On the other hand, allowing a volunteer to not wear the uniform because it has too many pockets for their liking, or overlooking a volunteer who alters official messaging because to meet their own personal agenda are examples of things we should not permit. We need to address these behaviors — they won’t go away if they are ignored.

We have a long-time volunteer that staff avoided because she disregarded policies and procedures. There  were some beat-around-the-bush conversations with her about the rule-breaking, but they never got results and seemed to make her more confident in her choices. Instead, avoiding the issue and being round-about gave her have more gusto. It was time to face the problem head on and explain the situation using direct words and examples.

Using the “Iron Hug,” we went back over the policies and procedures. I wanted her to know I believed in her passion for our organizational mission and vision and wanted her to stay on as a volunteer but shift her focus to a different role with its own set of policies and procedures that better suited her. The volunteer accepted this and is now flourishing. She even took it upon herself to coach a new volunteer in the same placement on our hours logging system!  I feel our relationship has grown and she respects me more for being direct about the situation, holding firm on our policies, and giving her options.

It takes time, practice, and experience to get the “Iron Hug” just right. It requires some trial and error. Remain confident in your skills, judgement, and expertise. If you are comfortable in your authority and your empathy, the volunteers will be comfortable in their roles, and they will remain with you for much longer.



Lisa Marie Porter, MA, CVA, has been working in Museums in the public sector since 2001. In 2007, Lisa Marie graduated the George Washington University with her MA in Anthropology and Museum Studies and joined the staff at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, DC. Currently, Lisa Marie is on the Board with the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration (CCVA) as the Outreach Director.

Lisa Marie is the Volunteer Manager for the NMNH Volunteer Program. The program hosts over 1,000 adult volunteers who work both behind-the-scenes to support 650 Museum staff and in public engagement to educate the over 7 million annual visitors to the Museum.