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Family Feud: Relatives, Co-Workers and Friends as Volunteers

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We often think of well-functioning volunteer programs as happy little families, systems in which people get along so well that they resemble the idyllic picture of family relationships portrayed in U.S. television shows from the 1950s. And while this is often true, occasionally we run into situations where the family more resembles the Ozzy Osbournes.1

In this Points of View we’ll examine what happens when volunteer programs actually involve those with family-like relationships in volunteering together, offering some tips for what is likely to happen in these scenarios and what to do if you encounter problems.

“Families” Volunteering Together

The notion of families volunteering together is one that has a lot of intrinsic appeal and a lot of value. If you haven’t encountered this subject before, check out this issue’s “Along the Web” for some online resources.

Here, however, we’ll be examining things from a slightly different perspective: the potential conflicts that arise when individuals with close outside relationships – spouses, siblings, relatives, close friends, co-workers, fellow church members – are volunteering “inside” the same organization but those “outside” relationships, either positive or negative, begin to affect volunteering behavior.

As an example of this, consider the following question (posted, we may note, anonymously) to Steve during a recent online discussion following a seminar on “Handling Challenging Behavior by Volunteers”:

Hi Steve,

Got a good one for you. My organization is VERY small, and our volunteer base consists of only about 3 committed people. One of those people is my husband. He is the Vice Pres. of our board, I am Pres., and our Secretary is our Volunteer Coordinator. We are the only volunteers who commit much time and effort to the cause.

On two occasions recently, my husband has "said" some inappropriate things to people whom he does not agree with. He is passionate about our cause, and will get defensive about things. Our Volunteer Coordinator is also passionate, but very diplomatic in the way she faces challenges of opinion or confrontation. But because of the last circumstance where my husband "spoke up," the VC was basically "chewed out" by a manager of a store where we were conducting a fund raiser, because of some perceived rude comment that my husband made when approached about breaking their fundraising rules (of which we were unaware previously).

Now this is my problem: The VC refuses to work with my husband because she is afraid another nasty confrontation will happen. Also, now my husband has a grudge with the VC. I have talked to him about the way he handled the situation at the fundraiser, and he does know that we do not agree with the way he handled the situation. But he feels that we ladies are being "weak" and letting people walk all over us. He also feels that the VC coordinator doesn't understand him because there is a 30 year age difference (my husband is younger). Although I am also much younger than the VC, I do share most of her views about how to conduct business within our group. We just don't want the public to have a bad picture of our small volunteer group when one of us is behaving badly.

Do you have any suggestions for me? I would sincerely appreciate any input!

We could refer to this as the “Spouses Behaving Badly” syndrome….

You might also see examples of this in situations such as:

  • Two co-workers serving on an organization’s board of directors or (leaving out the legal issues) on an important planning committee. One tends to “defer” to the opinions of the other, who is senior back in the workplace.
  • Friends who volunteer together and then engage in squabbling with one another based on their personal relationship (or who discover differences in their approach to the volunteer work and find that their friendship outside the organization begins to suffer).
  • The family foundation whose leadership is composed of members of the extended family of the founding funder.
  • Family members of paid staff who volunteer within the same organization, whether they truly volunteer on their own initiative, are specifically recruited to do so, or are shanghaied into helping on a project, whether they want to or not. The other variable is whether this relative is someone the volunteer program manager has enrolled in the program with all the necessary screening and orientation, or if the new helper simply turns up one day as a “bootleg” volunteer because the employee gave individual permission.

We sometimes forget that volunteers have outside lives and relationships and we always need to remember that those outside relationships follow them inside the organization – sometimes in a very physical way. On those occasions we need to be aware that these volunteers are not just involved in the service relationship between themselves and the organization, but are also affected by how their outside personal relationships interact with the organization and its activities.

Why Problems Surface

Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re in a system that involves volunteers with strong outside “family” relationships:

  • Volunteer systems are “affinity groups” that get created, in part, because people reach out through their existing networks and relationships to bring in new members to the group. Groups that rely entirely on “word of mouth” recruitment through existing relationships are likely, in the short run, to end up with instances of outside relationships that don’t always work well within the group. In the long run, they are guaranteed to end up with a very in-bred group of people who may be dominated by the outside relationships. This is why targeted outreach recruitment is valuable – it tends to broaden the worker pool beyond the small clique.
  • When new volunteers join an organization because they are linked through pre-existing outside relationships – at home, work, faith community, or whatever – this can be a source of great strength. Unfortunately, like all strengths, it can also turn into a major weakness if those outside relationships overwhelm the new volunteering relationship with the organization or group. In a sense, these pre-existing relationships can be the equivalent of “conflicts of interest” which may result in decisions and actions which are based more on the outside relationship than the inside one. Equally, conflicts of a different sort in the outside relationship may follow the volunteers inside the organization, which simply provides a new battleground for the feud.
  • Conversely, when new volunteers are brought into the organization by friends and relatives, their strong outside relationships may create a united front or “voting bloc,” through which – even assuming the best of reasons – the organization is dominated by this strong faction and other opinions struggle to be heard.
  • Gender and age roles are deeply ingrained. No matter how conscious we may be of stereotypes, it is easy to lapse into possibly unnoticed deference to the male or the adult member of a family team. Note that this may be done by paid staff in your organization, other volunteers, and even by the family members themselves. If the relatives are working together on the same project, it may make sense to designate one of them to be the “point person” for contact, but is it self-evident which one? Even more important, if they all happen to be volunteers but on different assignments, there’s no rationale for treating them as a “unit” and not speaking with each as an individual volunteer.
  • Orientation and training of new volunteers should include coverage of these potential conflicts and how the organization would like them to be dealt with. The best way to provide this is through case study scenarios where volunteers are encouraged to talk through how they would deal with different hypothetical situations. The easiest way to get the material for the scenarios is through examining past problem situations that have arisen.
  • One reason why good orientation and training designed to prevent these outside conflicts and feuds is necessary is that dealing with them is far more complicated than just dealing with a misbehaving individual volunteer. The situation almost always involves more than one person and anything that you attempt to do as a supervisor must take into account this multiplicity of actors. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself dealing with a revolt involving a group of volunteers – not just a supervisory interaction with an individual.
  • You can use the existing relationships to your advantage in supervision. If some members of the peer groups are remaining “true” to organizational rules and behaviors, you can involve these individuals in exerting pressure on those who transgress. These peers will bring to bear not only their stature within the organization as fellow volunteers but can also exert pressure based on the outside relationships.

Some Practical Approaches

Openly discuss your concerns – way before anything happens to make this a problem-solving talk. There is enough evidence of the potential of family feuds that most of the volunteers involved will hardly be surprised. They may even welcome the chance to discuss their own apprehensions with a neutral third party. But the bigger issue may be possible discomfort of other people who will work with these relatives/friends:

  • Will having a relative or friend of a co-worker on site as a volunteer be a problem in any way? Will the co-worker spend work time socializing? Meddle in the way others supervise his or her relative/friend? Side with the volunteer in any dispute, simply out of loyalty and not because of the facts?
  • If it’s a family unit volunteering together but unrelated to the organization staff, will they be objective about each other’s abilities and work? What will happen if one of the group is not doing something right or begins to dislike the work? Is the relationship with the organization therefore more fragile, with the danger that one family member could sour the entire group on volunteering here?

There are some good reasons why many employers forbid relatives from working together. It’s very hard to truly separate emotional ties from professional ones. So the message here is that you also have to prepare staff – paid and unpaid – to work with closely-tied volunteers.

Having raised all these bug-a-boos, let’s get back to the classic optimism of volunteer program leaders! What can you do to engage relatives and friends in successful volunteering? Some ideas:

  • Trust in the worthiness of your cause to attract people you haven’t met yet. If you’re in start-up mode when you can’t believe you’ve even convinced your family and friends to go out on a limb with you simply because you are fervent and care, the concept that total strangers may actually want to help is unbelievable. But they will. If your cause is just and you are ready to make newcomers feel comfortable, give wider recruitment a try. The worst question to ask is: “Whom do we know who might want to do this?” The answer will always be limited by whom you know! A much better question is: “Whom should we try to get to know who can help us?” Rather than settle gratefully for people who are helping you personally, bring in volunteers who are there because they believe in the goals of the work – they will become your friends later.
  • Use volunteer position descriptions. Here’s yet another good reason to add to the long list of the benefits of written job descriptions. Make sure that every volunteer, individually, discusses his or her assignment, understands it, and signs off on it – whether it’s the department head’s daughter or the board chair’s minister or anyone else. Never allow a staff member or key volunteer to bring in a relative or friend to “help them out.” Insist on the usual formalities, stressing that in the long run everyone is better off.
  • Treat all families volunteering together as both a unit and as individuals. By all means talk to them as a team, orient them together, etc. But before everything is settled, ask to talk to each member one-on-one. If a parent has made the commitment without the child(ren) or teen(s) present, explain that it’s important for each young volunteer to feel comfortable and insist on an interview. It’s possible that one member of a family may not want to participate and you should try to explore that issue. It’s also possible that one person wants to volunteer, but is really interested in a different assignment than the others. Help each relative to get the best experience. Later, as the work progresses, take a moment to check in with each family member about how things are going for him or her individually. And, at recognition time, give thanks both to the family and to each of its members, by name. (All this also holds true for working with groups that come from the same company or faith community.)
  • Don’t allow input from non-volunteers. Many years ago Susan worked with a client organization engaged in women’s health that had an all-woman board. The chairwoman’s husband was a CPA. At every meeting she would quote something he had said to her about a plan, policy, or project – and it was always cautionary. None of the other board members had training in a profession and they therefore generally changed their minds based on this advice. After observing this for a while, Susan commented: “If you are going to allow Mr. X to be so influential, you ought to put him on the board. Otherwise, why don’t you trust your own judgment?” Ten years later, at a chance meeting in a grocery store, one of the board members present that day told her: “You have no idea how you freed us from jumping at that awful husband’s wishes!”
  • Encourage staff and co-workers to focus on the individual. It is understandable that, if problem behavior occurs, co-workers would prefer enlisting the help of a close-by relative or friend rather than deal directly with the situation on their own. That’s partly the case in the inquiry Steve received that we shared at the beginning of this article. The husband in this case behaved badly whether or not he was related to anyone on site! The issue was made more, not less, complicated by the presence of the wife. Everyone seems to agree he’s a problem, but no one is taking action to stop the grudge match from continuing. If this were a man volunteering on his own, wouldn’t he have left by now – or been asked to leave? Carefully analyze any reluctance to stick by your rules and policies when a personal relationship is involved. When you find yourself doing something differently than you would for another volunteer, it’s time to bring everyone in for a serious talk.
  • Evaluate the risks of taking action and of doing nothing. The consequences of having to referee problem behavior of a relative or friend are indeed far-reaching. First you have the conventional concerns about how any volunteer may react to a reprimand or even to firing (Will they be cooperative or combative? Will they go “public” with their complaints?). Then, if this is your relative or friend, you may realistically fear that laying down the law professionally will cause a rift in your outside relationship. If this is a relative or friend of a co-worker, will you hurt their outside relationship and/or affect your daily working relationship with this person (who may resent what you did to his/her relative)? Pretty scary, huh? But now consider the effect of doing nothing and hoping the situation resolves itself:

    • All the other volunteers and paid staff are watching both the poor behavior and the lack of action. They will quickly get the message that there are double standards at work and that they are on the wrong side of the equation. Taken to the extreme, good volunteers may end up leaving you because they are tired of working side by side with a poor volunteer who is never called to account.
    • Eventually, the festering issue will affect the way everyone views the original staff member or volunteer who brought in his/her relative. A “don’t ask – don’t tell” policy of praying that the person will take care of the offending volunteer, without ever directly asking him or her to do so, will strain friendliness.
    • It may well be that the staffer is embarrassed by the volunteer and doesn’t know what to do to make things better or how to do it. Have some sympathy and offer to help. Rather than making a friend or relation the bad guy to do the criticizing, it may be easier for the staffer to support your corrective initiative than to act alone.
    • Finally, the offending volunteer is also left hanging in the wind. Perhaps, if s/he had not been treated as “special” from the beginning, s/he might have been given better instructions, training, and feedback early enough to prevent the problem. Never assume you are going to offend someone by addressing a problem. The volunteer may be 1) pleased that the assignment is considered important enough to do correctly, and 2) relieved that there are other ways to do the work more successfully.

Of course, there’s also what happens when volunteers and staff members meet at your organization and become outside friends and lovers…but let’s save that for another day.

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1 For far, far too much information, see www.mtv.com/onair/osbournes/ and www.ozzy.com.