Guest writer Martin J Cowling muses on the problems with toxic volunteer behaviour and suggests some actions to prevent and resolve it.


Helen’s story

Upon retirement Helen (names have been changed) joined a hospital quilt making group to sew quilts for terminally ill children. Helen was looking forward to making some new friends in retirement and making a difference in the community. The group leader said “we are a small group but we work hard and we value loyalty”.

Those words echoed in Helen’s head as she struggled to cope when group members screamed at her for “poor stitching”. Where people sat at the quilting mornings was controlled and “loyal” volunteers got access to the better materials. Even what participants brought for the shared morning tea was scrutinised and belittled. One volunteer got banned for telling a joke that the leader did not approve of. Screeds of abuse between members filled the group’s Facebook wall. The hospital management could not be persuaded to see the issue, with one manager saying “What’s a couple of spats between friends in the ‘merry team of vollies’”.

Helen quit after six weeks, saying she saw turnover of fifteen people in that time. Fifteen people who may never volunteer again after such a horrific experience.

The toxicity problem

A few years ago, I audited several dozen volunteer committees across the country for a major charity, spending multiple hours learning how this organisation worked and where their strengths and weaknesses were. After my first week, I said to the client “I feel like I have been walking with saints. What I saw were volunteers generously giving their time, working together for the benefit of the community”. He grinned and said “Wait for next week.“

Sure enough, my next groups were dysfunctional horrors full of backbiting individuals.

The difference between the success of the positive groups and the failures of the toxic ones was stark. The groups with positive culture raised more funds, achieved more and found it easier to recruit and retain volunteers. The dysfunctional groups were barely holding it together, were far less successful and could not attract new members.

In our marketing and discussions, we focus on the positives of volunteering: How it changes lives, makes people happy and gives individuals and groups purpose. All of which can be true. What we talk less about, are the toxic volunteers, volunteer leaders or toxic groups which are not poster children for volunteering but which are more common than we realise. This toxicity can consume and burn out volunteers, destroy organisational reputations and drive donors, clients and community support away.

By toxic, we are seeing a simultaneous combination of three things: narcissism, bullying and incompetence. Alone each of these is worrisome but the situation is manageable. Combined and you have a horrible toxicity which saps an organisation and sadly, the introduction of such a toxic personality can have the effect of undermining that entire culture.

Barry’s story

Every Friday at 10am without fail, 82 year old Barry (names have been changed) would stride into the charity office ready for his shift helping to pack mailings. Barry had been involved in the charity from day one and had worked hard to advocate with the government and community to get funds, building and support. Inwardly, the staff would recoil when they saw him coming, guiltily hoping that he would not turn up that week.

Barry had an opinion on everything and everybody. He worked hard during his four hours as did his mouth with random tirades directed at everyone and anyone who passed by his desk (yes he had a reserved desk for his Friday shifts): clients, fellow volunteers, guests and employees. He belittled the women, mocked the men, muttered about foreigners, Asians and gays. His greatest vitriol was reserved for the CEO and management team who were never good enough.

The result was that the volunteers who had come in on a Friday, rarely returned and the ones that did were equally negative. The paid staff would do all they can to be scheduled out of the office or take their work to a local coffee shop. There were some Fridays when there would be no paid staff in the building! Barry was aware that no-one would go near him which made him even angrier about the “snobs in the organisation who didn’t value him”. The fear that Barry engendered made it impossible for anyone to successfully challenge his behaviour.

Tackling toxicity

As leaders of volunteers, here are six steps to tackle the Barry’s in our groups, teams or organisations. They rarely self-improve and despite their unhappiness and or anger, they often won’t leave of their accord.

1. Raise Up an Inspirational Culture
Too many NGOs pay lip service to their internal culture. Having and living out your mission and values must be core for your organisation. Leaders of volunteers need to ensure that the culture is safe, inspiring and rewarding. Volunteers who contribute positively to the culture need to be rewarded positively. Allowing poor behaviour sends a message that such behaviour is okay.

This can be tough. I was told one day by a senior volunteer that I was creating unrealistic expectations for the volunteers by setting standards. I was in a new role and this volunteer with three other colleagues ruled the roost. Those four ended up resigning simultaneously when I called out their bullying behaviour. The decision was cheered on by the remaining seventy but the process was not easy.

2. Recruit to Keep Toxicity Out

More than half of the volunteer advertisements, I see something along the lines of “are you lonely?” or “Do you want to be happy or happier?” “Do you need to make friends?” and promote volunteering as a solution. Pause a second. While loneliness is a major issue in society, what sort of people will your volunteer program attract if you target lonely, friendless, unhappy individuals? If people are lonely and friendless, there may be a reason for that. Staff an entire organisation with them and…

When recruiting for volunteers, focus less on skills and more on values. Ask questions of volunteers in the recruitment process about their values and how they work with other people. I used to run group interviews to watch how people interacted with each other.

Ask questions of your volunteer’s references about the values, ability to work with others and reasons for leaving. Never over promise to a volunteer and don’t bait and switch, offering a more attractive role and then changing it for a less interesting one having recruited them!

3. Require Supervisor Training

Too often organisations place or “dump” volunteers with people who have never been trained to work with volunteers, whether they are paid staff or other volunteers. If the supervisor is great, no problems. If they are poor, this can have the effect of creating unhappy volunteers. It can also mean the supervisors do not understand what to do if faced with a “difficult” volunteer.

It’s amazing we train people in accounts systems, fire drills, but never tell them about how to work with volunteers.

Offer flexible proactive positive training to equip your staff to work effectively with volunteers. I was able to get the CEO to mandate such training on a couple of occasions.

4. Engage in proactive prevention

By nipping negativity in the bud, you can avoid an unhappy long-term volunteer. This is a step that few organisations engage in.

Check in with volunteers and their supervisors about the volunteer’s experiences, one month and three months after they have started, and then annually. I recruited a specialist team of volunteers with appropriate skills whose specific job was this follow up.

Find out if the experience is working for them and what issues may be emerging. This might be the time a volunteer may want to or need to move to another role or even leave the organisation. This is the time to tackle any difficult behavioural issues or get feedback from the volunteer about how things can be improved for them.

The team and I were able to implement changes to our marketing, recruitment, PDs and training as a result of this feedback which improved our culture and further raised volunteer satisfaction.

5. Reward appropriately.

I have lost count of the number of organisations that have rewarded their worst volunteers with a “volunteer of the month” or “a volunteer of the year” award! This is done with a hope that such a volunteer, having got a reward, may behave better!

Such rewards send a very poor message, fail to tackle the real issue and annoy the volunteers who do deserve such an award!

In one client organisation, they gave a toxic volunteer a very generous gift in a very public ceremony. They hoped that the volunteer would leave after being so well rewarded. Spoiler alert: she didn’t and in fact behaved worse now she felt vindicated by her awards. This was when I was called in to “fix the problem!”

Ensure your rewards have value by rewarding appropriately.

6. Remove the toxic person

Michael (names have been changed) was a highly qualified retiree who was volunteering in a telephone customer service. He handled the role with aplomb, charming clients calling in with enquiries and solving their issues quickly and well. He was well loved, well respected and highly trusted. Then one day he arrived drunk. The other volunteers watched appalled as he shouted of his achievements and why he was better than all of them. Then he abused clients and hung up on them. Not knowing what to do, the volunteers resolved to say nothing and hide the issue from the management. It was only on the third occasion of Michael drunkenly abusing others, that a supervisor found out.

If people consistently or regularly exhibit poor behaviour, then this means taking action. There must be documented paths for volunteers and employees to raise concerns about inappropriate behaviour and see it dealt with.

The manager of volunteers must be prepared to have the difficult conversation with the volunteer. I have spoken to so many coordinators who declare that they have taken what seems to be an “easier” route. Many have said “I simply stop rostering the difficult people and then ignore all of their calls and emails”. This avoidance does not help anybody.

A series of conversations must be initiated with the volunteer. In some cases, the volunteer will work out there is an issue and resign. For others, there will be opportunities to work with them for change or improvement. In the case of Michael, he revealed a deep loneliness that had turned to alcoholism. Volunteering for him, he saw as one means of being less lonely. Unfortunately, his addiction was still hard to control. In this situation, the organisation was able to support him with counselling whilst suspending him for a period.

Finally, some volunteers must be suspended or removed. Engage in the process safely, respectfully and legally because such a volunteer will make life hell for you if you relieve them. You will be amazed, however, how many other volunteers will cheer your decision!

Ensuring a safe positive workplace takes time, investment, and work. The results are worth it. The risk of a poor culture is never worth it.


Martin J Cowling is a knowledgeable and popular international author, trainer and consultant from Australia. He possesses over 30 years of management experience with NGOs, government and corporates.

Martin works with organisations globally on volunteering, leadership, governance and change and has worked in partnership with Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on projects in the UK and Australia.

Martin volunteers personally to tackle homelessness and poverty. He can be contacted via LinkedIn.

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