Volunteer Crises

Very occasionally, things can go seriously wrong for groups involving volunteers. 

Having good policies and procedures in place to deal with complaints or accidents will help resolve most issues and limit their impact, but some incidents may be outside the scope of these and have the potential to cause legal or reputational damage to your organisation. 

For example:

  • a volunteer turning up drunk and abusive

  • a volunteer who acts inappropriately with a client

  • an assault

  • disclosure checks reveal a criminal history of a volunteer that causes alarm

Remember that serious cases are very rare, but in the unfortunate event of you having to fire-fight a problem, it is far better to have a plan in place rather than reacting when chaos is descending. This type of more serious incident should be part of your risk management strategy, making sure that you are prepared.

Firstly, make sure that everyone within your group or organsiation knows their role. Committee or board members, the chair, managers etc all need to know what to do if serious problems arise. It is vital that you have a person who is responsible for coordinating your group’s response.  Your board members are the ones who carry responsibility and liability for your group, so their involvement is crucial. 

If your community group or organisation has a manager in place, they need to know that the chair or another appointed board member can act as a second point of call.

Dealing with a serious incident

Gather the facts

It is not easy to handle a crisis if you are not aware of all the facts.  If your role is as a leader, you have to be detached from the emotional side of the crisis and rationally take stock of things in order to move on.

Get people together

Meet up with the relevant people within your group or organisation to discuss the situation. This should include committee or board members.  

This meeting will enable you to start analysing the facts and preparing your united stand on handling the crisis. Agree a timeline and ensure that internal policies and procedures are followed.

External Assistance

You might need to appoint external experts to access the situation if the crisis is totally unanticipated or you do not feel that you have the skills to handle it effectively internally.

Handling the Press

Prepare a statement or press release on behalf of the organisation. If you are comfortable (and authorised) to conduct a press interview, make sure that you have the full details - and that you feel confident that you can deliver it in an unemotional and fair way.  

You want your organisation to look professional, in control and demonstrate that it is handling the situation well. Remember to be forthcoming with reliable information (without giving away confidential information) and try not to speculate. In extreme cases, it may be necessary to manage the press who may be calling for information and comment following a situation.

Remember to:

  • identify a spokesperson and make sure that that person is available to the press

  • make sure that the spokesperson is well briefed with the facts and the key message that your organisation needs to give

  • ensure that all other staff, volunteers and board understand that they must not and cannot talk to anyone about the situation to anyone external (including family and friends) and that they should be vigilant for press trying to target them

  • the press won’t just go away if you ignore them - consider issuing a statement. A powerful well- crafted statement can help mitigate negative press.  Consider engaging a professional if need be.

  • never say 'no comment

  • always be courteous and helpful, but stick to the agreed line, no matter how demanding the press are

  • if you do not know the answer try and find out – always check with/agree with someone senior on what the responses to questions should be

After the dust settles

It is very important that you recognise the impact that a serious incident can have on the rest of your team. 

Although the details of an incident might be too sensitive to share, it is important that you have a debrief session with your staff and volunteer team:

  • meet with the team informally

  • cover the issue of confidentiality outwith the organisation

  • give information about the situation

  • reassure the team and offer additional support

It is also advisable that you record the events, in the way you would record any other confidential matter. Make sure you have the details of what has happened, the action taken and the outcome.