Bullying of volunteers

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I’ve been asked twice in the past few days about bullying in the voluntary sector. This appears to be largely unexplored territory, deserving of greater attention. I searched “bullying of volunteers” and found only a smattering of relevant hits, and nothing in terms of a full-blown examination of the topic.

That said…

…I think we can make some credible assertions and raise important questions about the bullying of volunteers:

1. Why not? — There’s no reason why bullying-type behaviors should be uncommon among and between volunteers as compared to people in other settings with frequent human interaction. Most organizations have tensions, conflicts, and rivalries. Why should it be any different with those heavily staffed by volunteers?

2. Emotional stakes — In fact, in some cases the emotional stakes may be even greater among pure volunteers than among paid staff.

For example, in hyper-charged, cause-type situations, emotions can run especially high and play host to all sorts of negative behaviors, running the gamut from conflict to incivility to bullying. If the volunteers are working on behalf of a cause in which they have an important personal stake, the emotional ante is ratcheted up and buttons may be easily pushed, especially with “underdog” issues where people already feel marginalized.

Conversely, if the volunteer activity is associated with high levels of community prestige or power, there may be a lot of competition and posturing that create their own drama and give rise to the possibility of bullying behaviors. Ambition and recognition are not limited to paid employment, after all!

And even if social change or prestige isn’t at stake, community connections may well be. For many, volunteer activities such as coaching youth sports or organizing a church choir may be lifelines to their communities, and being cut out or pushed out of them may be painfully isolating.

3. Institutional status — The bullying of volunteers raises all sorts of institutional status questions. Are we talking about rank-and-file volunteers who are doing the on-the-ground grunt work? Or maybe this is about bullying within non-profit boards? Are there differences between all-volunteer groups and those that have a mix of staff and volunteers? And what if bullying behaviors cross certain groups within these organizations, involving staff, volunteers, and board members?

4. Behaviors — The bullying of volunteers also raises questions of specific behaviors: Do they lean toward direct or indirect? Do the emotional elements of some volunteer-driven causes plant the seeds for mobbing-type mistreatment? Given the increasing role of the Internet in linking volunteers, is online bullying more common than in, say, brick & mortar work settings?

Important stuff

We may not know a lot about bullying in the voluntary sector, but we should be taking the experiences of volunteers more seriously.

After all, the voluntary sector is significant, especially in the U.S. The unique, central role of civic organizations in the fabric of American life was recognized two centuries ago by Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic work, Democracy in America (1835 & 1840):

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

In other words, voluntary associations are a societal cornerstone, and a lot of folks devote time to them. Their experiences as volunteers not only impact them personally, but also have a ripple effect on our communities in general. It follows that we should understand the significance of when and how working relationships among volunteers become dysfunctional and even abusive.


Dissertation, anyone?

In January, I wrote up a list of research ideas about workplace bullying and related topics for scholars and graduate students, drawn from past blog posts. I definitely would add bullying of volunteers to the list.

As I explained in that earlier blog post, I’m not a social science researcher. But I’d bet that many of the quantitative and qualitative research approaches used to study workplace bullying would apply easily to examining the bullying of volunteers.

Related posts

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

Related article

Labor attorney and law professor Mitchell Rubinstein’s 2006 law review article, “Our Nation’s Forgotten Workers: The Unprotected Volunteers,” explains the precarious legal status of volunteers in terms of workplace protections.

35 responses

  1. I know that there is bullying in volunteer organizations; I have seen it myself. It surprises me that folks stick around to be bullied but some do. I think that often people just quit. There are less disincentives for quitting a volunteer job than one that pays the rent. It’s unfortunate when this happens because the organizations often have a good mission, some good people, but when bullying is allowed it becomes difficult to get new volunteers. The organization’s public image is damaged by these bullies.

  2. I am a graduate student in Conflict Management and I am at the beginning stages of studying this topic. Quitting is the first option that most volunteers which is not acceptable and most volunteers do not have a dispute resolution system in place.

  3. Yes, there is bullying among volunteers in nonprofits. I am a survivor of such bullying and hope that someone takes this subject on for further in-depth study. In my case, issues in the group still are unresolved, since remaining members wish to keep the dysfunction secret for the “good” of the project. And, because this is not school or workplace bullying, there is little support.

  4. I am a masters student studying this topic as well and believe me from experience bullying in nonprofits is massive because of the free of ideas and issues of conformity within these organizations. The first step for volunteers is to quit but when you are committed to the cause but many do leave because of the lack of control. But people need to understand that all individuals need to learn some civility and stop power tripping. If you want to every exchange ideas let chat at kg2educate@gmail.com

    • hi oh thank goodness someone i have found studying this.I have been the target of a bullying charity shop manager in a very well known charity,for 3 years. i have finally reported 90 pages of incidents but its been swept under the carpet.I am now in a mess,self esteem wrecked,feeling guilty for doing it,no backup from people i thought were on my side etc.Its a long story but am willing to tell it if it helps bring some change.

      • Hi Debbie. Is it a charity shop in Ireland? I have seen many volunteers bullied in this charity shop in Co. Meath but now it has happened to me. The manager is on maternity leave and this ego tripping women is in charge. She is so rude to both customers and voluntary staff. I have worked there for some years but yesterday an incident happened at work that has caused me not to sleep for the night with hurt. I am very diligent worker due to having owned a business of my own. I stay out of her way and get on with my work but yesterday she was awfully rude to me in front of another staff member which I am quite embarrassed about as I am 56. I do not like confrontation but intend to report the incident. Any feedback to me would be helpful

  5. I was selected to do work at a place as a volunteer with some other people, and we were all treated like dirt by a boss who thought we were apparently below him because we were working without pay. I hate people like that. Fortunately, that job is over.

  6. WOW!—for once an article on a topic like this—bullying in a volunteer organization. I just happened upon this article because I am at present involved in a International/National organization where there are two narcissistic individuals in leadership roles and one in fact does use bullying as a means to assert his ideas and power. There are others besides me who do not care for this type of behavior, but no-one thus far has really been able to control it. Up until this individual and his partner joined the organization it was at least tolerable and most of us got along. However, this person has been in the group for several years now and I do not see him dropping out at any point in the future, but at the same time I do no care to continue in an organization where he and his partner have so much control and one has to interact with them. Members talk about these two behind their backs and I have even heard of heated arguments at the organization Board meetings, but still these members persist in their bullying/know-it-all behavior. WHY!—volunteer or work for free when one has to put up with that and really isn’t getting anything out of it other than just “unpaid” volunteering?

  7. Hi,

    it is wonderful and a relief to finally read an article acknowledging the existence of non profit organisational bullying in the volunteers sectors. I have myself been trying (unsuccessfully) to gather proof of this disrespectful and cruel practice. I do know there is no legal protection for volunteers. Of course that gives licence for bullies to behave in unacceptable ways, right across the board. Thank you so much for the article and hope it gives courage for individuals to come together to work towards getting rid of these types of people eventually with legal backing. All volunteers deserve to work in a fair and respectful environment.

    • I’m very glad to hear that this article is helpful to you, and thank you for adding your voice to others who recognize the destructiveness of bullying behaviors in the voluntary sector!

  8. To Debbie and Bernie
    I’m not sure about the actual Charity shop and I’m not in a position to comment on your actual scenario BUT what I will say is that I’ve volunteered in several third sector organisations in Ireland, as a Volunteer Coordinator (!) and the attitude has been horrendous!! I wonder if this is an Irish culture problem or whether the rot runs deeper and is fundamentally about people working ‘unpaid’ and their perceived value to an organisation.
    In my experience there is little to no respect for professional ‘high calibre’ volunteers and that’s why I’m interested in collecting perspectives from volunteers at ALL levels of an organisation, especially ‘grass roots’, as a research project to present to the Volunteer ‘umbrella’ organisations in Roi and NI.
    Where is it going wrong??

  9. I quit a voluntary job today. I was fed up with being bullied by one person in particular while others watched and said nothing. It was humiliating and demoralizing. It was no better when I was shifted to another department, only to be frowned upon by dour, unsmiling women who didn’t seem to want me there. Forget the menial task scenario. I was given NOTHING to do. It made me look unproductive and lazy. I was embarrassed to be there. This is an international organization.

    Before working for this org, I was working for another international organization where I was bullied. My summation is that because I am well-educated, articulate and despite having a mental illness, they treated me like a threat. Also, I look very young for my age and upon disclosing my age when asked some women changed their attitudes.

    They set who I internally called ‘the dog’ onto me. A woman in her 80s who hounded me constantly about my work performance. When I deigned to say something they told me to suck it up and that she is ‘just an old lady’. Old ladies can be monsters! I will be forwarding this webpage to the head office.

  10. Dear Commenters …. I wonder if those among ye who are undertaking research into this subject would be willing to set up a sharing forum to discuss and share perspectives? Obviously any discussion on research findings would not be ‘pirated’ or plagiarised by members of the group, discretion and honour would apply, or even a confidentiality agreement, but it might be an interesting step forward! What do you think?

  11. Dear Lena, so true, old ladies CAN be monsters!!!! I’m sorry you had this experience, it can be very destructive to self-worth and value. It is very similar to other forms of abuse such as the emotional/psychological abuse present in domestic scenarios (the effects are just as debilitating). Perpetrators of bullying exist wherever they are found (yes, that does make sense) and target individuals who have a kindness and compassion to them. This truly does not make you at fault. Certain men have their own particular methods of bullying women in the workplace ….. but I’ve found female bullies to be wholly merciless, rarely censured and rarely facing consequences from their behaviour.

  12. There needs to be more awareness in this topic because it’s pretty common as it happened to me and some of my friends. Over a year I’ve been working at this major charity and the manager gave me a lot of hell. I wasn’t allowed to ask questions nor make mistakes. By time I became how she wanted me to be, I had to stand and watch her mistreat volunteers that came in and it was awful to watch. She made the environment toxic and it was commonplace for her to call volunteers horrible names or make harsh comments. She had something against people with disabilities fired one man who was autistic because he worked too slow. I finally had enough and wanted to quit after she called me up early in the morning and asked me whether I wanted this new volunteer to be fired. It should even be in my place to say so it really made me angry and fed up.

  13. This is a wonderful and therapeutic read for me as I have personally experienced volunteer bullying in an organization. I witnessed other volunteers leave because of it. I tried to voice my concerns and asked for a meeting but nothing happened. I still would like to pursue my apprehensions as I am passionate for the cause and would like to continue. I thank you all for sharing and connecting.

    • I had been a volunteer for a community nonprofit when bullying began. I had helped found the nonprofit and a large fundraising event six years before. The bullying began in private emails and spread to group emails and discussions at meetings (I was told, often, by other people who were there); everyone else either remained silent or told me they felt powerless and/or afraid to do anything, fearing it might happen to them, too. I’m not sure what was worse – the people who relayed all that was said about me (all unfounded), or the ones who remained silent. Finally, I suggested a formal group facilitation. It failed. One of the bullies raged throughout the meeting. Another whispered criticisms about me to the person who had most stood up for me (as the “ally” was to tell me later). The professional facilitator, who did not once intervene, told me much later that unless all involved are willing to come to an understanding, the facilitation will not succeed. I came to realize that bullies are more focused on holding on to their power than finding common ground again; I came to understand that being a bully does not mean you are strong or powerful, just as being bullied does not mean you are weak or deserved what happened to you. I chose to no longer participate in the group. Nearly each year since, members of the group who were aware of what happened, but remained silent, have asked to use a large display I had created on my own but had loaned for the group’s fundraiser; for seven years, it had been integral to the event. Each time, I have said no and feel that is a appropriate boundary for me. I share the information from the display through a public website, among other ways. The nonprofit continues on, as does its annual fundraising event. I have spent the past few years focusing on my own healing, and I have found new ways to contribute something meaningful and creative to my community, something that will always be important to me.

  14. I was the victim of bullying at my church. I and another person were in charge of snacks for over 100 children at our vacation bible school. We had asked our pastor for help. He sent us three adult volunteers. Two of them were nice and pleasant but the third was just mean and nasty to me from day one. She was never mean in front of the others but would wait for me when I was alone and catch me off guard. She would barrage me with criticism and complaints. She would blow up at me and then be quiet for a couple of days. This is a week long event, fortunately, but I would get knots in my stomach just dreading seeing her. The worst is she would put a nice, sweet face to everyone but in private tell me that she’s been at the church for 29 years and I was inflexible, rude and hostile towards here (I had pretty much resorted to just doing my own thing and not pay any attention to her). Until finally one day I was walking into the room and she was literally blocking my path. No one else was in the room and she unloaded on me again. I tried to defend myself but she was attacking me on everything. Fortunately, someone walked into the room but she had her back to them and didn’t know it. They heard everything and realized the verbal abuse she was subjecting me to. I left for the day and just cried in my car. I did not want to give her the satisfaction to see me cry. I literally felt steamrolled. It is very draining emotionally, physically and spiritually.

  15. I can relate to the other people here who have had challenging experiences as volunteers with bullying (I shared my experience in an earlier comment here). After reading David’s post “Workplace bullying: Can a developing situation be nipped in the bud?” I realized the point when rude comments by one person began in private emails to me. If I hadn’t been so concerned with trying to be a “good neighbor” (ours was a community group), I might have brought the problem to the group to deal with together. Instead, I remained silent, and the bullying situation escalated over time. When I finally spoke up to the group, it was too late. I moved on and focused on my own healing. It has been a challenging process, but I do not blame myself or see myself as a victim. I can see, though, how having better interpersonal skills, being more mindful, and setting and maintaining healthier boundaries might have helped me at the time. If nothing else, I would have had a better sense of knowing that I needed to move on much earlier than I did.

  16. I have first hand experience of bullying in volunteering. I was volunteering at a dog training club and the trainers bullied me and my friend (who was also volunteering there) to take the whole class of 20 dogs, set up and clean up the hall and deal with any dog mishaps eg poo. We did this little to no training in what to do and got yelled at when we did anything wrong, no positive feedback was ever given.

  17. I volunteer at an Elks Lodge serving meals a couple of times a week. I do it for fun. One woman, who stepped down permanently because of surgery but still helps a little, is definitely bullying me, usually in private but the other day she grabbed my arm and started yelling at me in the kitchen. I don’t know what to do in future. Should I ask her to refrain from speaking to me unless it’s an emergency? Tell her “I’m sorry she feels she has to bully me, but it’s not going to work”. Tell her that if she ever touches me again I will report her or tell her to read the first sentence again of the Elks bylaws about being respectful and caring for one another, in so many words. I am quite gregarious and outgoing and have fun when I do my job. I believe she is jealous of me. Should I quit something I enjoy doing because of this unfortunate woman who obviously feels threatened?

  18. I am glad I came across this site I voulenteer in a charity shop the bullying is horrid between the manager and another 2 paid members of staff I have been so sucked in I hate it being used

    • I empathize with your situation and please do not let that negative experience impact your pay forward light going forward

  19. A volunteer is dedicated to the cause so tries hard to improve the on the ground work.
    Those above may have other reasons than just the cause to be in their positions as paid employees. Maybe public exposure, financial gains and future progress.

    The cause is often looked on favourably by the public. So when the volunteer sees that their treatment is poor, with bullying, this is not congruent with the public face. It is hard to be taken with credibility when the public’s view is at odds with the volunteers experience.

    It is then possible that the bullying may have more of a detrimental factor on the person bullied.

    If the volunteer is vulnerable, working between jobs to keep up skills bullying can take an enormous toll on their already fragile mental health. If they are made to feel that they can’t even perform as a volunteer because of endemic bullying you can see where this can go.

    • Well said!
      It is extremely difficult for the volunteer to voice their concerns. There are usually no unbiased ears to resolve volunteer complaints

    • Graeme – Yes, in the volunteer world “bullying can take an enormous toll.” Camilla – It can be very difficult to continue with “your pay forward light going forward.” As I stated in comments earlier, even a professional facilitation did not help the situation I found myself in. There was no other recourse for my own peace of mind than to step away, and it has taken a long time for me to regain confidence that I have anything of value to offer, especially in the volunteer realm. And, because the people in my group – a few were bullies, many others remained silent – are among my neighbors, my experience also has had an impact on my interpersonal relationships. I hope no one believes the impact is less because the bullying happened in a volunteer situation, rather than in a paid one.

      • I believe the emotional impact is worst during a volunteer position. You are giving up your free time to assist with non-profit/community efforts, which should be praised and appreciated, not marginalized. Do not let bullying doubt yourself or second guess your efforts. Stay strong.

      • Camilla – Thanks for your kind words. For a time, I did doubt myself and second guessed my efforts as a longtime, dedicated volunteer. Sustained bullying and bystanders who remain silent, people you once believed to be friends, can have that impact, and it can be traumatic. I have found a path to healing and have reconnected with my strength, thanks to the support of people I trust. I have found other, more meaningful ways to contribute to my community, and I no longer choose to be involved in the group where the bullying happened.

    • I was bullied in my last job but at least they were paying me. To cop it again when i wasn’t even being paid was another real blow. It really effects my self-esteem and I wonder what I do to attract such cruelty.

  20. At last, someone is talking about it. I came across this while googling “volunteer resignation letter”. After months of training, assessments and an appraisal, I became a volunteer guide for a local NPO. I’m really great at what I do and I give it my all but I have been singled out for bullying. Not just by one staff member but three! I have written two complaints to the GM who has chosen to do nothing. Maybe I am more sensitive to such horrible behaviour as I have been out of work for a while and these paid employees are behaving so unprofessionally, but I’ve never been able to treat people like this in any job I’ve ever had. It is with great sadness that I have to resign.

    • Glad you found this community thread. Hopefully finding this conversation, knowing you are not alone, helps you through your journey of coping. Our thoughts, sensitivity and emotions are valid and justified, as they are our feelings and they are actual. Our actions do not attract such behaviour, but it makes sense that it would effect your self-esteem. I wish you positive energy on your journey.

      • Camilla – Thank you so much for your comforting and important words, from one who posted earlier on the “Bullying of Volunteers.”

  21. Thank you for raising awareness to this topic!

    As someone said above, it’s therapeutic to read and to relate to the stories here shared. I too, was a recent victim of bullying while doing a temporary volunteer work by another “senior” volunteer who not only used offensive words, but also used sarcasm to devalue my work. Last week she belittled me in front of other volunteers and, prior to that, used derogatory words when I refuse her aggressive request to do a job that I was not assigned to. Prior to this episode, I made an effort to be resilient towards her behaviour, but it quickly escalated and it took away all my motivation to go further with this experience.

    Initially, I really identified with the non-profit’s philosophy and their cultural impact goal, but this feeling quickly eroded when I faced a chaotic working environment within the organization. To make matters worse, some of the more experienced volunteers did not make the newcomers feel welcomed to this experience, displaying a negative attitude whenever me or other volunteers asked for information or help to do a task. And, to make matters worse, all volunteers were put to work on jobs without proper training, without any formal instructions.

    I left for good after the insult episode, being the last straw before snapping. No one, specially good-willing volunteers, should be facing a bad experience, specially when they give their time and dedication for a cause they believe in.

    Whoever is reading this and is looking for an advice on how to deal with a situation of bullying: don’t be silent, be vocal about it, and if the situation doesn’t improve, just quit. Your time and dedication can be used in better and healthier environments. You deserve respect and to feel good while doing this type of work.

  22. This is very true, volunteer organisations can be really bad for bullying. I worked for a volunteer organisation that involved a lot of hard and dirty mechanical work that for the most part I enjoyed. I started to notice though, that some of the guys there would say horrible things about each other behind their backs, which I didn’t like, but I shrugged my shoulders. Some of them started sniping at me a little, and I just ignored it at first and answered back, but it began to get worse.

    I first realised how bad it was when I got a smear of dirt on one of the canteen tables. It’d come from my wrist when I was at work, and my work group immediately started making jokes aimed at me, telling me that I was in serious trouble with the café staff. They then kept picking up on other small mistakes I made and basically, verbally pushing me around, pointing out other little mistakes I made. I reported the matter to the manager who took it seriously and confronted them about it. He said that they were shocked and remorseful that I was upset by their behaviour and I thought that the matter was over.

    Unfortunately I’d also had the same problem from another guy, who had a habit of pointing out mistakes I made, sometimes to other people. When someone pointed it out, this guy (let’s call him Rick) basically pointed at me and said “He’s done it, he even admitted to it”. He would sometimes encourage others to say horrible, mocking things to me, so I knew it hadn’t stopped.

    Rick and another guy I’ll call Steve also at one point turned on me on another occasion roundabout the same time, in which they berated me for cleaning rust off something they’d allegedly finished cleaning. I apologised, even though Steve brought it up again. When I was allowed to leave – because I’d started in the early hours before everyone else, they said that I wasn’t going anywhere until that job was re-done, even though senior management said I was allowed to go. As I was walking away, trying to see if they’d physically try to stop me, I could hear that they were saying “Is he going to re-do that job? He’s probably working out what to do with it.”

    The last incident with Rick happened when I was doing an important morning job that went a bit wrong. Rick and an older guy I’ll call Dave both helped me fix the problem and as I was talking to one of the staff for the day, they’d both started telling him how I’d made a hash of work that morning, and blamed me for an oil spill, which one of the senior staff I’ll call ‘Pete’ later told me may have just been a dodgy valve.

    The previous incidents I referred to my supervisor, who’d been responding appropriately, and he and Pete agreed to back me up. I thought that was it, and I wouldn’t have any more trouble.

    Unfortunately, when I was put in charge of another morning task, all was going well until a last minute change of plan I hadn’t heard about. In a moment of panic that I’d get roughed up if it wasn’t done, I tried to do the job a second time, but too quickly, and it went wrong, and the guy on site – I’ll call ‘Kevin’ – well, he completely lost his mind and blew up in my face. I owned up to my mistake and said I was sorry and he says “you f***ing will be” and continued berating me, telling me that I was badly trained and no excuses (which I didn’t make). I went to do some other checks, but things kept going from bad to worse because I was so nervous, and I kept making more mistakes until he assigned me to some simpler duties to get rid of me, which was pretty humiliating.

    I recognised that I’d made a foolish mistake, but basically I lost my confidence in being able to do what I was supposed to do.

    The guy in charge that day seemed to make light of it, and I said I wouldn’t make the same mistake again and Kevin said “I hope not” from a few yards away (even though I wasn’t talking to him). Later Kevin seemed to settle down as the problem had been fixed, but I tried to keep a wide berth from him after that.

    I’ve since left the place, and it was a pretty heartbreaking to do because it was something I’d dreamed of doing since I was a kid, but being treated badly by the other guys made me hate doing it rather than love doing it, and I just couldn’t bring myself to carry on with it anymore.

  23. An excellent topic that, alas, will probably always be timely. It’s the shadow side of human nature, bullying–the illusion of power and control at the expense of the vulnerable. I’m a volunteer and will probably quit because of the bullying and plain rudeness. Who wants to be around such people without at least a significant salary? Or even with one.

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