Creating the right environment for our volunteers to flourish is a bit of a recipe in itself. With several years of experience and surveying under our belt, our Community Manager Thea Soutar has collated some of the juiciest learnings about what makes up a great volunteer experience. Part 1 dipped into some top tips for creating an awesome experience, but part 2 will look at what you can do when stuff doesn’t quite go to plan. 

Ups and downs are part and parcel of volunteering. It’s totally normal that you’ll face challenges around volunteer engagement. There are some pretty classic things that happen in volunteer organisations which can cause tension. Typical behaviours include:

  • Volunteers not responding to emails or ignoring facebook comments
  • Volunteers not putting their hands up for responsibilities
  • Volunteers not showing up for meetings
  • Volunteers not doing things when they said that they would


These situations can be genuinely frustrating and often push our buttons. It can feel like members of the team are ignoring you, disrespecting you or wasting your time.

Remember this: as a general principle, people are not dickheads and are not deliberately behaving in a way to upset you. The truth is that people respond to different situations differently and it’s really hard to know what’s happening in someone’s life that means they’re behaving in that way. If you’re feeling frustrated but what’s going on, it’s your job is to diagnose the problem.

Acknowledge and recognise the problem

The problem might be with an individual or it might be a problem with a team. For example, maybe some has stopped responding to emails and you have a deadline next week, or maybe there’s a general tone of being low and unmotivated in the team.

As a person who has noticed the problem, and who is being affected by the problem, it’s your responsibility to acknowledge what’s going on and find out why that might be happening. The best way to approach these conversations (which many of us find hard) is to approach it with a sense of curiosity and generosity. If you accept that people are not dickheads and deliberately trying to frustrate you, then you can also acknowledge that there is a reason why people have stopped responding to emails or are feeling unmotivated. In your conversation you can say that you’ve noticed that x behaviour is happening and that you were wondering what might be going on and if everything is ok.

Again, the more curious and non-judgmental you can be about the response you might get, the more honest people are likely to be. At this stage, it’s not about fixing the problem or finding solutions. It’s simply about unpacking why that problem has developed.

People will often find it a great relief when someone ‘calls out’ a problem. While it can be hard, it’s likely you’re not the only one that’s aware of it. You can only really solve the problem when it’s been acknowledged in the team.

Note: These kinds of conversation are often better face to face where you have the benefit of body language and tone to help talk about something difficult. However if circumstances mean you can’t all meet, then a well worded email will hopefully help.

Find a solution

Once you and the person or your team have had an honest conversation about what’s going on, it’s up to you both/the group to find a solution which suits best of you all. The solution might be put on the table by one party, but it has to be something that speaks to the core reason why the problem exists and should ideally suit all parties. Each problem will need its own solution but in the past, some classic volunteer challenges have been solved in the following way:

  • Making meetings more accessible and flexible around people’s lifestyles eg. changing the location, the time, running some catchups on Skype
  • Working with team dynamics so that everyone is being respected and heard in the group and everyone has equal room to contribute.
  • Volunteers sharing their availability with the team and only taking on the amount of work they’re actually able to do (rather than over-committing and under-delivering)
  • Getting volunteers to swap roles if they’re not enjoying what they’re doing. If people are feeling nervous or unsupported, it might be about getting them to work in pairs.
  • In some scenarios, volunteers may be realising that they simply don’t have the time to be a YFM volunteer and they may need to amicably step away from their current responsibilities. This is ok too!


Try and approach these kinds of problems with a little detachment or ‘lightness’. When we care about something, it can be hard to be open to losing it or it changing, but you’ll be able to find better solutions if every option or course of action is on the table. The problem is rarely the fault of one person, but results from a number of dynamics which can be changed when working as a group.

Check out more advice on what it’s like to run a for-cause organisation? Or are you keen to become a YFM volunteer yourself now? 


Image by Alex Lee Jackson

Thea Soutar