Chances are, as a nonprofit manager, firing volunteers ranks very low on your list of job duties. However, as with any relationship, sometimes you have no choice but to cut ties. Letting a volunteer go is uncomfortable, difficult and downright awkward, but hopefully we can alleviate some of that weirdness with these tips.

Preventative measures

Most volunteers are competent and cooperative, so if you do a solid job throughout your screening process, firing them should be a very rare occurrence.

Before you hire anyone, though, you should write up a list of terms you’d like your volunteers to abide by. Along with providing structure and responsibility, a contract gives you physical proof if someone has clearly violated one of your conditions. When you let the person go, it’ll come off less as “I want to fire you” and more as “I have to fire you because you broke our agreement.”

You also need to make sure your volunteers have a supervisor to act as a mentor during their time at your nonprofit. This person, paid or not, should have volunteers report to them after tasks, manage conflicts and adjust individual responsibilities to accommodate each worker.

Finally, firing should always be the absolute last resort—the volunteer should have had ample opportunities to correct their behavior before termination.

Reasons you may fire volunteers

But how do you know whether they should just be reprimanded or if you should cut ties for good?

Here are some very obvious tell-tale signs you should get rid of a volunteer ASAP:

  • Theft
  • Doesn’t show up frequently
  • Strongly contradicts your organization’s values
  • Starts conflict among other volunteers
  • Refuses to perform tasks given by the supervisor

Other, less severe situations are better left up to your discretion on a case-by-case basis. Ask yourself, does the good outweigh the bad? Is this person’s incompetence creating additional work for you? For example:

  • Shows up late
  • Has a hard time accepting authority
  • Lacks motivation
  • Physical or mental disability—do absolutely everything you can to accommodate someone in this situation, but depending on the severity, it could prevent volunteers from doing work effectively and may not be time-efficient for either party.

When the time comes…

Step 1: Find a private place to meet in person. You’ll want to have a third party present to document the interaction in case something goes wrong.

Step 2: Be specific and get straight to the point. You don’t want the volunteer to leave the meeting wondering where they went wrong. This is the most painful part of the process, but being honest and direct will benefit both parties in the long run. This would be a great time to bust out that written contract and point to the exact bullet point they violated.

Step 3: Okay, they’re upset now. They’re going through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression right before your eyes. They’re asking if there’s anything they can do to change your mind. No matter how hard they pull on your heart strings, remember to stay firm in your decision—there’s a reason why you chose to let them go.

Step 4: Lighten the blow a little. Tell them you’re sorry things didn’t work out and you wish them the best in the future. Never attack their character or personality, as this reflects poorly on your organization (and it’s just plain mean).

Step 5: Escort the ex-volunteer from the premises—you never know how they’ll respond. When you return, it’s always smart to fill your staff in on the decision you made.

And that’s that. Firing a volunteer is never a pleasant task, but when you have an orderly process to follow, it gets a lot easier.