How once mighty volunteer programs fall

Avoiding program failure

I read a book recently by Good to Great author Jim Collins. It is titled How the Mighty Fall. I highly 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 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 (even organizations themselves) can go from being very successful to almost non-existent within a surprisingly short period of time. Depressing as that 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 organizations 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, that can lead to disaster. I knew an organization that rescued and re-homed 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 who 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 meet its core mission. While it’s fine to grow, ensure 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 started well before that. Putting the blame on COVID, or complaining that people just don’t want to volunteer anymore, prevents you from taking proactive measures to address real problems. Face facts, accept the world is changing and your program will have to change with it, or fall.

4. Grasping for salvation

I’ve seen it happen. Once a leader accepts 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. If fundamental issues within the program 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 the program is broken beyond repair. At this point, if the organization itself is still functioning, the program leader will need to completely scrap the program as it stands and rebuild from scratch. If the organization reaches that stage, I’m sorry but everything is over. This final stage is irrevocable.

But don’t lose hope. As long as you haven’t reached that final stage, you can turn things around. So, 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.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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