International Volunteer Managers Day - Events with Dr Megan Paull

Dr. Megan Paull’s workshop: Dealing with the tough stuff – Managing the confrontational aspects of working with volunteers, explored the difficult questions on every volunteer manager’s mind. Booked out well in advance, their respect for volunteers was shown by this enthusiasm to understand how to approach challenging issues with due consideration.


Megan made the journey all the way from W.A. to hold the event on International Volunteer Managers Day. Her position back home at Murdoch University as Director for Postgraduate Research in the School of Business and Governance – among other roles and volunteer positions – and her master’s title: Managing Poor Performance of Volunteers Using Feedback, indicated a passion and expertise for the experiences of volunteers and volunteer managers.

She used worksheets to guide the event and even before she began the attendees quickly flicked through and found the scenarios in the back that would be discussed during the workshop. They quickly identified with a number of these tricky circumstances and were keen to discover the opinions and strategies of their colleagues. 

Megan started off by saying, “We all might have different views of what the tough stuff is, but we do have a commonality in thought when these scenarios come up, which is: ‘What will the repercussions be for the actions I’m about to take?’”

She went on to discuss her findings, such as the discovery that a positive organisational climate is powerful enough to override factors that hinder the acceptance of feedback from managers to volunteers. For example, one organisation had a sign on their coffee machine that read: Staff – 50 cents, Volunteers – Free. Acts such as this created a culture where the volunteers felt they were valued and important, so even when feedback was delivered poorly it was still accepted with understanding.

Another theory she discussed was the influence of pressure on an organisation. She first noted the difference between organisational culture (aspects such as the mission statement, vision) and the organisational climate (aspects such as trust levels, managerial styles). She suggested managers be aware that when the pressure is greater due to changes in the organisation, the climate starts to become more visible and influential. This tied into her discussion of founder’s syndrome: an aversion to change developed by those who have founded elements of the organisation. (Download a thought-provoking article on Founder's Syndrome)

Megan’s delivery of theory and her experience with different organisations provided a context and gave the attendees new tools and concepts to consider in relation to ‘the tough stuff’ scenarios. After separating into groups and a short discussion they each nominated a spokesperson to summarise the key points. Megan went through each situation to tally which experiences were the most universal. Everybody laughed as the "I DON'T LIKE THAT" volunteer was the clear winner. This scenario explained a person who was vocal about not liking some of the tasks included in their role.  

With the "I DON'T LIKE THAT" volunteer, some groups said that the volunteer’s reluctance to take on a different role could be an opportunity to provide training so they understand what a role entails and can build their skills. Another idea was to assess their reason for being a volunteer, as Megan had talked about three reasons that volunteers stay with an organisation: for the people, for the mission or for the particular role.

Regardless of the scenario, the managers all recognised the importance of a private and dignified conversation with the person. As Megan summarised in the end, ‘a key theme that has come out again and again is communication.’

Another popular scenario was the "QUEEN BEE BULLY" volunteer. One manager related her experience of a confrontation in a similar situation where a volunteer was trying to rouse disagreement with the manager. After the public confrontation they went somewhere else to have a private conversation. Here the unrelated, personal reason for the outburst became clear and they worked out a solution in an environment of understanding.

During lunch, managers had a chance to network and to engage with the theme of the day: Volunteer Management. One Job. Many Hats. There was time for reflection on the multi-dimensional skill base that they have to develop to be successful in their roles. After this was the opportunity to contribute to on-going volunteer management research. Questions included: What are the most challenging/rewarding aspects of your role? and How does your organisation recognise and value the role of volunteers/volunteer management? 

Overall the day of professional development gave people a renewed confidence to take on ‘the tough stuff’ in their workplace. A key takeaway was the connections made between managers, who would be able to offer each other support in the future.

View our events calendar for upcoming training and networking sessions.