How Mighty Volunteer Programs Fail

volunteer programs fail

Have you ever wondered why some volunteer programs fail, even though they seemed strong?

I read a book recently by “Good to Great” author, Jim Collins. It is called “How the Mighty Fall”. I recommend it. It talks about how some long-standing and seemingly invincible companies suddenly crash and fall into bankruptcy. Sometimes in a matter of a few years, after having been around for decades. The research Collins did suggests that companies go through five stages on their way down, and he provides insights into what they could have done at each stage to reverse the fall.

Volunteer programs can go through those same stages – and for the same reasons. Programs (indeed, organisations themselves) can go from being very successful to almost non-existent within a surprisingly short period of time. Depressing as this may sound, at all but the last stage a comeback is possible. As Collins writes: “Decline is largely self-inflicted, and recovery largely within our own control.”

So what are these stages, and how do they relate to volunteer programs?

1.  Hubris born of success.

When programs and organisations have been successful for a significant period of time, it’s easy to get complacent. Perhaps you’ve achieved significant milestones or recognition in the past, leading to a belief that if you just keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get the results you always have. However, “When the rhetoric of success (we’re successful because we do these specific things) replaces penetrating understanding and insight (we’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things, and under what conditions they would no longer work)”, the program is headed for decline. We need to stay humble, and remain flexible to deal with changing circumstances.

2.  Undisciplined pursuit of more.

When a program is thriving, it’s tempting to look at ways to expand the mission. Sometimes into areas that have nothing to do with the main reason for your existence. We all like chasing shiny things! Unfortunately, I’ve seen volunteer programs fail because of it . I knew an organisation that rescued and rehomed abandoned pet rabbits. Someone asked the volunteer leader if they were willing to bring a few of the rabbits to the local care home so the seniors could interact with them. What started as a one-time favour ended up being added to the regular duties of the volunteers. Even though it didn’t increase the number of adoptions, it did add – significantly – to the workload of the volunteers. As the visits took time away from the mission that they were passionate about, the volunteers became disengaged and started to leave. The ones that stayed began experiencing burnout from the extra workload. Within a short time, what had been a strong program suddenly didn’t have enough volunteers for even its core mission. While it’s fine to grow, ensure that you think carefully about how, and build capacity to support that growth.

3.  Denial of risk and peril.

When signs of decline begin to emerge, such as dropping volunteer numbers, there is a tendency to ignore or downplay them. Momentum can carry a failing program forward – for a while. We’d rather think of the issue as a temporary setback, or attribute it to things beyond our control. Covid, anyone?? But while Covid did deal a big blow to just about everyone’s volunteer numbers, it was simply an acceleration of a trend that had already started well before. Putting the blame on Covid, or complaining that “people just don’t want to volunteer anymore”, prevents you from taking proactive measures to address the real problems. Face facts. Accept that the world is changing and your program will have to change with it. Or fail.

4.  Grasping for salvation.

I’ve seen it happen. Once a leader accepts that the program is broken, they panic and look for “silver bullets”. A new volunteer management system will fix everything! We need better appreciation gifts! Let’s find corporate partners! In many cases, that kind of silver bullet is aimed at the symptoms, not the cause. Volunteer programs fail because of fundamental issues and if those issues aren’t dealt with, new volunteers coming in won’t stick around. These “solutions” may help in the short term, but without a comprehensive understanding of the root causes, they are unlikely to produce sustainable results. Do an in-depth review of your entire program on a regular basis to find out where the real issues are, and deal with them rather than apply Band-Aids.

5.  Capitulation to irrelevance or death.

Once the leaders, volunteers and stakeholders lose faith and interest, the program is done. Picture rats leaving a sinking ship. Despite all the silver bullets, it becomes clear that the program is broken beyond repair. At this point, if the organisation itself is still functioning, the program leader will need to completely scrap the program as it stands and rebuild from scratch. If the organisation reaches this stage, I’m sorry; everything is over. This final stage is irrevocable.

But don’t lose hope.

So long as you haven’t reached that final stage, you can turn things around. No matter how successful you are, stay humble and flexible. Grow your program slowly, and build capacity while you do so. Face reality when you start to see problems. And dig for root causes rather than jumping at quick fixes. You can reverse the decline. You’ve got this. If you need help, let me know.

Share the Post:

Related Articles

rural volunteer programs
Karen Knight

Rural Volunteer Programs

Running a rural volunteer program has its own unique challenges, especially when it comes to recruitment. Here are a few tips that might help.

Read More

Download Resources

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get notified about new articles