Volunteer Management: Grievance and Complaints

Michael Hart

Visitors: 227

Dear committee,

I do not wish to continue the proscribed process as outlined in the action points of the last committee meeting regarding my grievance with Meg. It seems obvious that with Meg’s abject refusal to even attempt to redress the problem that any process will fail to effect change without putting the museum directly into a potentially destructive process.

Please find the attached document ‘Complaints. rtf’, which outlines the processes that are notionally in use, I must stress that this is a draft, and should not be considered anything more than my personal notes on the problem. Please circulate as appropriate.

Because there has not been a coherent effort to document this, until now, what has not been noticed is that this is a system which requires command and control structures that don’t, and can’t, exist within a totally voluntary organisation. This power vacuum is a natural consequence of the fact that, increasingly, we are all volunteers, thus among other inconsistencies, the required level of perceived authority to execute this style of system where one volunteer has to exert speculative control over others does not exist. This can be seen in the question of ‘ which hat am I wairing’ and the confusion generated where direct reporting and operational lines are combined into one person with two ‘hats’.

To extend the argument, I think since a hierarchical system is failing to manage with grievance and complaints, the idea of a more communal arrangement is worth some consideration, ie there have been two complaints recently, incidentally both of which can be directly linked to Meg’s interference.

In this communal environment, if a complaint can not be resolved informally, it passes to a ‘committee of the whole house’ type meeting for all volunteers and management to ask the questions of all concerned and to vote on a consensual solution.

As a by product of this thinking, I would seriously recommend that management committee meetings be opened up to all volunteers, and the formal directors meetings reduced to the circulation of written reports, effectively reverting to a more passive entity, ie as things were before committee members were actively getting involved in operations.

I don’t want to teach people how to suck eggs, but my situation doesn’t give me much choice in the matter as I have a unique insight into the workings of the museum, and I would hate to think that this painful episode has not produced anything of benefit to anyone.

With kind regards,


Dear committee,

It has been 3 weeks since the last committee meeting at which, as I understand the situation, Meg was ‘asked’ to informally make some ‘attempt’ at ‘resolving’ the ‘personal’ ‘issues’ between her and I. Please excuse the excessive use of quotation marks above, my feelings as to the failures of the past should be obvious - that is not important as we look to the future, continuing in the same way. Nothing happened, or even looks like progress, I don't know what to do now, was hoping for some advice at the opening.

Well, I’ve gone out of my way to give Meg reasonable opportunities in which to start what ever process was indicated, including fixing her computer which had malfunctioned the day before the meeting, (heat retention damage to her most recent files) in fact while leaving, that same meeting, she asked my dad if he thought I would help her sort it out.

I sorted out the computer, said that if she had only being using MsWord, instead of Wordpad, she would not have lost her priory exhibition texts, I’ve even offered to help her learn how to use all the features of Word while helping to write her ‘reporting responsibilities’ document, that would have directly resolved’ the root of the original conflict.

The fact is that she only even talks to me when its convenient for her, ie when she needs something, before her computer issue I don’t think she has said more than 3 consecutive words to me since last October.

Even at the opening, there were times when Meg just came over and started talking to whom ever was there, as if I didn’t exist, once while talking she moved from where she was standing so as to literally exclude me too.

Anyway, I believe Meg is not ignoring or just not trying but is actively not accepting any problem even existed, I can only assume she is having difficulty as an ex school teacher, but that’s no reason to hide her head in the sand. What sort of behaviour is this for an adult women? What sort of an example is this for the younger generation?

I think Meg wants all this to be forgotten, putdown to bad luck and then all will be right again, either that or she ‘believes’ that she has resolved the problems, maybe since I fixed her computer, it her mind, that counts somehow. :-)

Well indeed the memory and the emotion fades – but the understanding gained will not so easily, enlightenment itself does not – not completely. What does this teach me? It teaches me that I am who I was, and will always be, and so will Meg, she didn’t even write her final dissertation (she gave notes to her friend who organised and typed it up). Still I wonder about how it is that this terrible and terrifying thing called human society allows the truly stupid, reckless and dangerous to flourish.

So then logically, if I am to survive in this world, in the midst of this society, then I too can just go around floundering helplessly interfering with things I don’t understand, aimlessly not knowing or caring for the reason to do so; barking orders & acting unilaterally, just as long as I say what ever is politically convenient at that time so people think I’m actually competent!

With kind regards,


Dear committee,

I see your version of the covering note section on your reasoning is ‘stronger’ than dads original.

I like it, as you imply that Meg/Sheila didn’t know there were other considerations, other than simply a matter of permission fromVestry Hall, and just because they didn’t think it would be a problem, that noone else would have anything important to say on the matter & it is not in anyone’s interest for this to continue.

The sad fact is that, there was debate at ‘ committee level ‘ (you may remember a ‘committee’ ad hoc meeting in our garden last year when I was present, let alone more formal ones where I was not) about the possibilities, including that of a permanent sign, however the point that once we have permission to mount such a sign, there MUST be committee consultation has been (conveniently) lost.

Indeed, at that initial (informal) stage, the details of implementation weren’t important enough to warrant any real consideration which, sadly, means that Meg/Sheila could argue that they ‘didn’t know they needed to know anything else’ thus due to their limited understanding, they feel no committee consultation was required.

I don’t think this works in practise, ignorance should not be a reasonable defence, assuming they generally didn’t believe there would be any problems, should volunters be able to act unilaterally?

I think Meg/Sheila could argue that, ‘You unilaterally put up the WVF signs without committee consultation, this is no different’.

In the first instance these are temporary signs, erected correctly, by a trained volunteer and not subject to the same requirements. But more to the point, they were erected as part of an overall strategy which was agreed at committee level, where as the question of a perment Museum sign was not.

The question now, which Meg/Sheila could argue is about where we draw the boundary between normal (day-to-day) operations which don’t require committee consultation and what things do?

I think anything that someone should reasonably suspect could effect the running/operation of the museum MUST be subject to committee consultation, except to the extent where preexisting general authority has been given - was this ever done for Meg and Sheila?

If so how can they support/justerfy someone who has responsibility for the internal displays therefore having unilateral authority for anything else. Whatever the case, everyone should be alert of such a policy

With kind regards,



This is an introduction to some relatively complex areas related to appraisals and evaluations which constitute two processes which can assist volunteer management.

It is only in situations which go drastically wrong that a complaints process needs to come into operation. Most complaints, either by or about volunteers, can usually be dealt with in supervisory sessions or through discussions with a manager. Volunteers need to know who they can approach should they wish to make a complaint and the action which will be taken is certain guidelines and policies are broken by them.

Making such processes as fair and straightforward as possible is important, in unpaid work it becomes all to easy for seemingly minor issues to heighten any pre existing sense of injustice or to crate it a feeling of there being an inner-circle of friends. Many volunteers leave an organisation of their own accord. Volunteers need to be valued and supported through their time of leaving. In this way, volunteers will leave with a positive experience of the organisation and possibly return in the future and of invite others, should the opportunity arise.


There may be occasions when a volunteer has cause to make a complaint about another volunteer, organisations run by volunteers where ‘there’s never been a problem’ and have never had need of measures for such procedures, sometimes import boilerplate grievance and disciplinary procedures from a business environment on the basis that ‘it works for them, so it’ll work for us’.

Grievance and complaints, like the burden of any bureaucracy, could quickly start to over-formalise volunteering thus dampening personal creativity. This administrative approch is clearly not appropriate for every organisation. However, it is important to treat volunteers fairly and without procedures all problems will tend to be tackled on an ad hoc basis which would inexorably result in unequal treatment and will only ever heighten any pre existing people's sense of injustice or could create it.

It is now generally accepted that guidelines are required specifically for volunteers, if for no other reason than to avoid an over-formalisation of ‘contracts’ or ‘agreements’ between the organisation and its volunteers, which can lead to ambiguities in the status of volunteers.

There are many examples of volunteers clamming protection under employment law, and there is a general perception within committee levels that volunteers are never personally at fault for any damage caused to the organisation, ie any problem is in some way seen as a result of the fault of management instead of the ‘guilty party’. This is true of paid employment, as a direct result of employment law but this can not be applied to the voluntary sector for reasons that should be obvious later.

In the event of a complaint by or concerning a volunteer, all involved should always know there is someone - usually a Manager - who is beyond the direct reporting lines of any issue, with whom they can discuss matters of concern. In most circumstances, this manager will be able to resolve problems, by listening to the volunteer(s) concerned. All parties must know who is responsible and that matters in this context will be treated confidentially.

Dealing with Complaints:

If complaints cannot be resolved by discussion, then some suitable framework has be put in place to deal with such situations; the overall affect should be to create a buffer between the personal and private area of involvement. This process should be seen as a last resort, to be implemented only if supervision and support have failed to resolve the situations.

As with other areas of volunteer management, present guidelines recommend that each organisation should formulate their own complaints process surrounding volunteer involvement. A framework for dealing with complaints should include methods whereby there is:

1) A named person for dealing with complaints;

2) A clear policy known to all everyone;

3) Separation and boundaries of confidentiality;

4) A method to withdraw complaints at any time;

5) A process for complaints included in the induction process;

6) Volunteers have the right to appeal.

Complaints by Volunteers:

As already stated, minor matters can be prevented from becoming major issues through good lines of communication, supervision and support. If a matter cannot be resolved through informal discussions, keeping guidelines as straightforward as possible can help ease frustration. Long, drawn out and complicated processes could be seen as a deliberate form of intimidation to prevent issues being reported in the first place and to prevent matters being dealt with swiftly / justly. Building on the framework described above, if volunteers wish to make a complaint, there needs to be:

1) An explanation of the options available in order to make a complaint;

2) A procedure for putting complaints in writing;

3) An acknowledgement that making a complaint against another volunteer will not prejudice their opportunity to continue to volunteer for the organisation.

4) Documentation of the complaint and subsequent meeting/s to resolve the problem and the outcome should be kept on record.

5) The right to withdraw from their involvement with the organisation or be given extra support to continue, whilst the complaint is being dealt with.

If the complaint is of a serious nature, it may require the involvement of a manager, or chair of the management committee.

In situations where a volunteer makes a complaint, he/she should be informed of the outcome.

Complaints against Volunteers:

In most circumstances, concerns about a volunteer's conduct should be dealt with in supervisory meetings, for example where someone starts interfering with other people’s work. The important point here is that dealing with a complaint at an early stage and in a more informal way is more likely to result in a satisfactory outcome by monitoring and intervention before possible problems are realised is preferable to sorting out problems after the event.

In situations where a volunteer has seriously breached his/her responsibilities, he/she can be asked to leave the organisation. However, these situations need to be specified at the time of induction. They may include, but not limited to, the following:

1) Theft of property;

2) Act of violence;

3) Falsifications of records;

4) Abuse/harassment;

5) Vandalism/damage to property;

6) Unauthorised disclosure of confidential information;

7) Action or inaction putting self or the public at risk

Further to this and depending on the nature of the complaint, the volunteer may be asked to withdraw his/her services on a temporary basis, while the matter is being investigated. Before any action is proposed to deal with a complaint, the complaint itself needs to be verified. The steps which may be taken to rectify a situation would include:

1) Nature of the complaint;

2) Why the behaviour has occurred;

3) Implementing change (additional support, training etc. ) within a given time frame.

4) Review of change.

If, no change or insufficient change in attitude or behaviour is observed, in spite of additional support, it may well be necessary to ask the volunteer to leave the organisation if for no other reason then to enable the other volunteers to continue to contribute without feeling duress and or to prevent a feeling of ‘unfairness’ .

Bearing in mind the concerns expressed above, questions have to be raised as to how far it is possible for an organisation to take action ‘against’ a volunteer, unlike in paid employment there is in fact very little action that can be taken other than removing the disruptive influence. Due to this fact that nothing can be done other than that quite extreme measure, avoiding problems and minimising risks is preferable to trying to resolve problems after the event.

Throughout any process and during the time a volunteer is with an organisation, it needs to be made clear that their services can be withdrawn, without redress, on either side, this is why the issue of volunteer protection under employment law must be avoided at all costs, as these two ideas are totally irreconcilable

Deciding on the best methods of dealing with complaints requires thought, preparation and review. The NAVB suggest that the involvement of volunteers (and other related members of staff) in the formulation in the methods to deal with complaints is often helpful. As the NAVB state, the positive consequences of this are two fold: Firstly, it raises awareness of the process and secondly helps to ensure that volunteers are happy with the decision about such issues that affect them directly, (NAVB, 1995, p.5). Due to the nature of unpaid work, it is important that those effected are consulted and their input is valued and recognised.

As a direct result of an open structure, if a volunteer is asked to leave as a result of a complaint being upheld and not being resolved, it needs to be done firmly but with fairness.

Leaving the Organisation:

Many organisations find volunteer retention difficult and volunteers sometimes seem to leave all too frequently. Nevertheless, this freedom to come and go, without redress, is at the heart of the volunteering experience and a odds with employment law. Some organisations may feel that they require a specified commitment from their volunteers, however, this can prove problematic if in so doing it creates a more formal, legally binding agreement.

At whatever stage a volunteer wishes to leave, it is essential that his/her input is valued and recognised. One way of doing this is to obtain and value their opinion on the work of the organisation and volunteer involvement. Current thinking that in leaving volunteers are given the opportunity to discuss their work and reasons for leaving. Useful questions which may be to ask volunteers who decide to leave the include:

1) What was your role? Did this change over time? If yes, how?

2) What did you best like about volunteering with this organisation?

3) What did you least like about volunteering with us?

4) What improvements would you make for changes or improvements in the organisation's involvement of volunteers?

5) Would you recommend other people to come and volunteer with this organisation?

From gathering such information as a volunteer leaves, it is possible to build up a picture of volunteering within the organisation and this information could prove invaluable to the organisation as it may be used to contribute to the future retention of other volunteers.

It may be found that several volunteers leave for the same reason; this information will allow the Volunteer Manager to implement any changes considered necessary to aid future retention of volunteers.

© Michael Hart.

I am the website administrator of the Wandle industrial museum (http://www.wandle.org ). Established in 1983 by local people to ensure that the history of the valley was no longer neglected but enhanced awareness its heritage for the use and benefits of the community.

volunteer management grievance and complaints

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