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Pressing the Reset Button on Your Volunteer Culture


By Scott Lundell

When Turlough Myers fell into the role of volunteer manager at the Winspear Centre in late 2019, little did he realize the pivotal role he would play in creating a healthy volunteer culture in the organization. He found himself in a space where some changes needed to be madechanges that would defy the typical norms of volunteer engagement. 

The Value of Peer Support

What I inherited was really, really messy,” says Turlough. “There was a huge disconnection between the staff and the volunteers in the organization. The volunteers were not informed, they did not know what was going on, the jobs they were given were throw away jobs that were not impactful. It caused volunteers to feel disconnected and created chaos.

Underutilized volunteers created a culture where staff actively avoided interacting with volunteers because they were concerned that it was going to be a negative interaction or a confrontational situation. 

Knowing that relationships are key to changing the culture of an organization, Turlough was faced with some tough decisions.  

Culture comes first 

For the first week as the new volunteer manager, Turlough listened and took in all the feedback from volunteers and staff to gain a sense of what was going on from their perspective.  

He quickly recognized he had to recreate a culture where staff were not resistant to volunteers and volunteers were open to collaborating with staff and receptive to feedback. 

Next, he established a mission for volunteerism, a reason why the organization wanted to involve and utilize volunteers – one that everyone in the organization would get behind. 

“We needed to get things done at the Winspear Centre,” says Turlough. “So, we needed volunteers and (we needed) to rethink their role in the work we do.” 

But there was one piece still missing, the volunteer experience needed to have accountability and meaning. Volunteers needed something staff could reference to say this behaviour or choice was not appropriate, this is why, and this is what we expect moving forward.  

Decisive action

Turlough presented his vision for volunteer engagement to senior leadership to get buy-in – which they fully supported. 

Over the following months he implemented a new volunteer manual, created a code of conduct, established volunteer screening practices, educated himself in human resources and best practises, recruited quality volunteers – and let some long-time volunteers go… 60 volunteers to be exact! 

When it came to letting go long-term volunteers, Turlough explains,

As you know, it can only take one person to ruin everything for you. So, I was faced with the choice of letting the volunteer go and moving on from them or trying to turn around the relationship and build a relationship.”

What do you mean you were fired from your volunteer position? 

In the end, Turlough ended the organization’s relationship with 60 volunteers. Some through ghosting the volunteers that were on his volunteer list but never engaged, some because they were not compliant with volunteer policies, and others were walking the line of not doing anything “wrong,” but just inappropriate. Issuing a verbal warning and then an amical parting of ways conversation. 

“The volunteer situation immediately started to improve because the other volunteers felt more connected, respected and that their time was valued,” says Turlough.

With the newfound vacancies, it made space for new volunteers bringing in fresh ideas and enthusiasm – many of whom had been on a waiting list and are now some of his most active volunteers.

Although Turlough took an extremely bold risk, the Winspear Centre now has a team of energised and excited volunteers, creating a caring environment, both for the people in the organization and the community it serves.