Perhaps one of the most difficult and sensitive issues to deal with as a volunteer coordinator is how to deal with volunteers who have difficulties with boundaries. When we refer to boundaries, we are talking about what is appropriate behavior in a given situation. This set of guidelines can vary depending on agency, position, and skill level of the volunteer. For instance, a simple gesture such as a hug between client and volunteer may be appropriate in a socially-focused organization but completely inappropriate in another agency. Even within the same organization, volunteers have to be careful to stay within their guidelines. For example, a well-meaning helper may give some advice they aren’t qualified to give.
The Overzealous Volunteer
At other times, an overzealous volunteer can impede upon someone else’s job. Whether a client is involved or not, it’s in the best interest of all if you can intervene early — or , better yet — prevent boundary issues from arising. As a volunteer coordinator, the best thing you can do is be very clear about your expectations. Because there is so much gray area, don’t assume that what’s acceptable and what isn’t is common knowledge. Most volunteers who have trouble in this respect have good intentions. The problem is that they don’t see things from a professional’s perspective. As such, you’ll definitely want this subject to be a large part of your or ientation. It’s also a great idea to put your standards, as well as the consequences for violating them, in writing. It’s probably also wise to have your participants sign a copy of the rules. This leaves no doubt that participants are aware of your guidelines.
Dealing with Conflict
Of course, when a situation arises, you may have to make a judgement call. If possible, ask another member of management to analyze the situation with you. It helps just to make sure you have someone else’s perspective when making a tough call. Once you put your heads together, you may want to consider a few things. First, simply ask yourself how you would feel explaining the situation to your supervisor. Would you be comfortable, or would you find yourself at a loss? Next, take it up a level. How would you feel the situation would reflect on you and/or your agency if it were part of a newspaper headline? If the thought of this makes you cringe, then you definitely may want to rethink things. Finally, do you feel you would be OK with explaining the scenario in a court of law? If your gut reaction to this is not good, then you definitely need to take action. In the end, you may feel a little uncomfortable addressing sensitive issues with folks who are helping you, but remember that the volunteers are operating on behalf of your agency or organization. As such, they carry many of the same risks as a paid employee. For that reason alone, its best to keep your eye out for problems. However, organizational liability and risks aside, it’s important to also protect your volunteers. Setting strong and clear boundaries is a great way to keep well-meaning volunteers from falling into a difficult situation.