Rescue voluteer
Posted January 12, 2019 at 08:32 AM Under "People Management"
Volunteer conflicts and division in rescue

Hi, I have tried to search for this topic but could not find anything although I can't believe our rescue is the only one that has this issue. Please forgive me if I am duplicating anything.

Our rescue started small and we are all volunteers with no home base. Our adoptions are done via foster homes and pet stores. As we grew and more volunteers came on board, different personalities have surfaced and factions have been created. If we as a rescue could put all of our efforts and focus into saving just the cats and doing what is best for them, we would be much more effective and things would be smooth. However this is not the case. There is division among the directors and volunteer supervisors and intake people as well as foster homes. It almost seems like we have 3 small rescues operating in one. How do other rescues deal with internal politics and certain volunteers in key roles insisting on doing things their way instead of following procedures? It is causing so much stress for some of our volunteers and directors. How can we not just all care about the cats?

In a paid employment setting, I am sure that some of these people would be put on report or fired although that would not stop the petty gossiping and bullying. Because we are all volunteers, this type of solution is not really available to us.

So how do we get to work in harmony and get over this? I would appreciate any feedback and ideas.



  • January 14, 2019 at 04:53 PM
    Best Answer

    You are definitely not alone! Unfortunately, we have a lot of conflict in the animal welfare field. I think it's a result of lots of passion and limited resources. It's frustrating and sad--too much of our time and energy goes into fighting and negativity instead of doing the work we care so much about. I've attached a handbook on conflict resolution for animal welfare people. (I created it for a capstone project for a certificate in conflict resolution and mediation.) I also attached a survey I conducted of animal welfare workers (paid and volunteer) about conflict in their organizations. I think you'll find it interesting and that you will definitely see how not alone you are! Feel free to reach out if I can share any further resources. Wishing you the best with your current organizational struggles.

    • January 13, 2020 at 06:20 AM

      Thank you so much for sharing these!

    • January 15, 2019 at 03:16 PM

      Thank you for sharing. I agree - lots of in-fighting and varied personalities when it comes to animal-loving folks. Can't wait to read the resources.

  • January 12, 2020 at 10:22 AM

    I know this post is a year old, but I was just searching for other's experiences as I had a bad bad day yesterday dealing with this. I have served as the founder and director of a 501c3 in the past, have volunteered for other rescues and shelters and feel like I get seriously pummeled each and every time. I will never stop working for and advocating for animals, but I am at a loss as to why this in-fighting, meanness, backstabbing and lying always occurs. I actually find it to be better in shelters than in the all-volunteer world. Since leaving my rescue a few years ago, I have focused simply on fostering in shelters and while I have a definite loss of control in regards to animal adoptions, it is much easier to take that the hostility among those supposedly working together in the community. It makes me truly sad because that energy could be used to much better use helping animals or even working together to make progress. I found those resources that Karen shared helpful and am going to pass them along if I may. There is always a lot of talk about compassion fatigue and I agree that there is absolutely heartbreaking work involved in animal welfare, but to me the main fatigue comes from dealing with others involved.

    • January 15, 2020 at 06:34 PM

      peacelover, you're welcome to share what I posted. And for what it's worth, I absolutely support you finding a role in animal welfare that allows you to do the work you want to do without depleting your spirit. That's not the only option! Sometimes it's about steering clear of drama when you see it, and sometimes it's about steering clear of an organization altogether. But you shouldn't--and dong--have to be miserable to help animals.

  • February 17, 2019 at 04:41 PM

    Hi, OMG you are so not alone in this situation. As part of the orientation, volunteers are told that there are certain expectations. if the expectations are not followed then they can be released from the program. It just has to be clear and direct. Written contract, Verbal correction at first issue, Written correction at second issue and then Termination on the last. Keeping people who cause conflict make other good volunteers leave due to stress and negativity.

  • February 01, 2019 at 09:20 AM

    I work for a public open admission shelter with 45 employees and over 500 volunteers (from five-day-a weekers to once a month or so). We have experienced the same issues you described, except some staff played the same games. My view is the only way to weaken the factions that can develop is to provide an alternative - strong leadership that declares the organization's values (especially around lines of responsibility and internal communications) and promotes policies and procedures to implement those values.

    You'll find there are a lot of volunteers who don't really like the informal cliques and will come out to support well-crafted official statements of who you are and how you expect people to behave - but they'll also watch to make sure the leadership lives up to them. If that happens, those who gain power from the informal structures will find they're slowly marginalized as people gravitate to the official way of doing things.

    At the end of the day, I pose the question to my staff about a troublesome volunteer: "If they were to leave, could we manage without them?" The answer is always, "Yes." So, don't let an individual derail your efforts. I hope that helps.

  • January 29, 2019 at 12:05 PM

    I love the workplace culture agreement but not the fact that it's needed. Unfortunately, we have all experienced the drama and competitiveness in rescue which seems to have only become worse as people now have the ability to hide behind a keyboard. I see transparency mentioned in other replies which has become increasingly important for grants and donations as has reputation. Staff and volunteers should understand this -- they represent your organization in person, in social media, in dealings with other rescues. For profit, non-profit doesn't matter as professional behavior expected and that shouldn't need to be explained. Inappropriate behavior by anyone should be addressed and volunteers can be terminated. If you don't already have in place, maybe consider formal job descriptions, organizational chart, update mission statement and/or tag line to include references to teamwork, cooperation and respect. When boundaries are defined, it may be easier for individuals to maintain focus and perspective. <3

    • January 30, 2019 at 11:30 AM

      Hi SilverCometAWA, I'm sorry if I made it sound like our Workplace Culture Agreement was punitive or had to be put in place to solve problems. For us it wasn't like that at all! It's really a positive thing, just like having a mission and values, or a strategic plan. It's a tool that helps clarify expectations and keeps all of us driving in the same direction. slightly smiling-face

      • January 30, 2019 at 12:00 PM

        Oh nnno no remark was generic and intended to mean I regret that animal rescue has that element of human drama..not reflective of your organization specifically. i think it's great that your group proactively formalized documentation to prevent issues. <3

        • January 31, 2019 at 12:09 PM

          Got it! Thanks for clarifying. slightly smiling-face

  • January 25, 2019 at 09:00 AM

    We are a new all volunteer managed group. All the comments in this thread are incredibly useful. My husband and I are co-founders of Project Delta View Cats in Pitysburg, CA. We are not and never will be a 501c3 non profit ourselves. There are too many of these in our county already. Rather we created a partnership with our city and our county animal services to target promoting humane management of our community cat over population. We then invited a 501c3 Community Concern For Cats to join our partnerships as our S/N service as they now have a clinic for community cats. They also will provide medical care, along with county animal services, for injured, sick community /colony cats. Animals Services Director Bet Ward then referred us to another new 501c3 which she was already working with, Friends Of Contra Costa Animal Shelters, to host our donor page. This allows us to fund raise offering tax deductible donations. We just received our first $40!!!! Oh and we just received our first Maddie's Grant!!

    We don't want undiscussables to even begin if we can avoid it. I spent 30 years in my own organizational development consulting practice and we are working hard to create a culture of transparency, collaboration and acceptance of differences. Neither my husband nor I enjoy "drama" and I will use every skill, tool I have as well as everything I learned on this forum to help our newbie volunteer group to inspire all volunteers to feel accepted, valued and no one triangulates about differences. Whew, big job ahead!!

  • January 16, 2019 at 08:45 AM

    We too are an all volunteer rescue and where there are people with opinions there will be conflict. Our rule is no one can do anything that is illegal, immoral, unethical or cost the rescue more money than they bring in. So if they have checked the laws and best practices and are in compliance then they can try it. If it flops it flops but we don't make advances without taking some risk as long as that risk is taken within the guidelines of the law. If they want to do a fundraiser and are confident it will bring in more money than it will cost then they provide the seed money upfront because if they are confident they will get their seed money back. If they aren't that confident then maybe it isn't such a good idea and the rescue shouldn't be putting the money up either.

  • January 15, 2019 at 04:11 AM

    We are an all-volunteer group. We have a volunteer application and have an interview (breakfast/lunch/coffee) with a prospective volunteer before they start with the group. That way, we can explain clearly what we do and don't do. We ask about what level of involvement they are seeking; how many hours/week are they willing to commit; how we generally communicate with one another. The group and the volunteer then can judge whether volunteering is a good fit for both parties. We also have a volunteer handbook that spells out our expectations. A lot of prospective volunteers don't commit after the interview.

    When volunteers don't follow our rules and go off on their own, it's important to address the issue right away and communicate with the volunteer. I believe communication is probably the most important element of conflict resolution--although sometimes it is very difficult and painful. We try to keep everything on a professional level--not engage in personal attacks--and make it a point to not gossip as to the reason a volunteer leaves the group when/if that happens. We try too to be open to others' suggestions about how to change or improve our group.

    We also try and recognize the contributions of each volunteer and offer some fun, non-work activities, like have a pizza party once a year for the volunteers.

  • January 14, 2019 at 04:56 PM

    Oh, and here's the Workplace Culture Agreement we use that @Kristi B. at Cat Adoption Team mentioned. Note: you can't just roll out something like this with no preparation. We worked on our culture for years before we were ready for this. But it's a great tool. I knew I wanted us to have one from my first day!

    • January 15, 2019 at 08:28 AM

      Karen, this is amazing! Thank you so much for all the documents and help. We have a meeting coming up on the 25th and I have asked 2 of our directors to look at your material and see if we could present your work at the meeting. Again thank you so much!

    • January 15, 2019 at 03:09 AM

      I love this handbook on conflict resolution. We had issues between workers and printed this book, sat down in a small staff meeting (5 people) and went through it, asking everyone to apply ideas discussed to their interactions. We also developed procedures for basic daily activities, do this, then this, then this, and that stopped the "I will quit if she doesn't change" problems. Highly recommended!

      • January 16, 2019 at 11:26 AM

        I'm glad to hear that you found the handbook helpful, @RJ Owens! Thank you for sharing how you used it with your team.

  • January 14, 2019 at 10:32 AM

    Although you are all volunteers that does not mean that you can't hold each other accountable for following protocols and treating people well. I liked what @SandiS. said for ideas too.

    You can fire a volunteer. I don't think you should do it lightly, and I think there is a lot to consider when making these types of decisions, but it is still an option.

    One thing that also might help everyone get on the same page is to look at a workplace culture agreement. We (as management staff) helped create ours and it really gave us tools to talk to our staff AND volunteers about what was happening. We had our staff and volunteers sign it, so we are all playing by the same rules. It is a great tool to help remind us how to treat each other, and resolve conflicts in-the-moment as much as we can.

    The last thing that I will mention is leadership. Changing the culture in your rescue really needs to come from the top down. Recognizing that you may not have a "top" person, you may need to think about a few people who are most influential in your rescue, and make sure that they are ready to talk- the-talk and walk-the-walk.

    @Karen Green helped our organization get on track with our culture, and has made our shelter a great place to work. I am sure she would be more than happy to share her tips as well.

  • January 14, 2019 at 05:22 AM

    PJ - your not alone when it comes to this - many of us have it happen.

    Just this summer a volunteer came to me that "everyone is talking about such and such and this person is saying this and that person is saying that, etc, etc." which then created this back and forth about this, that, and everything else....gossip and miscommunication.

    I figured if those volunteers with questions or concerns can get their questions answered correctly or their concerns validated it would stop the gossip. We have a weekly volunteer newsletter that comes out so each week so I created "Ask Kim" (I'm the CEO and Co-Founder) where any/every volunteer can ask me directly about anything they want information on. This gives them (and everyone else) the opportunity to clearly understand what is going on and why but more importantly it takes away the opening for gossip conversations to take place. From me, they are getting direct and correct information, leaving no room for gossip.

    If you don't have a volunteer weekly newsletter I would just look for something that gives your volunteers an opportunity to 1. be heard and 2. have what they have to say shared with others. That's key, sharing the information so for that reason I keep their questions anonymous.

    The best part - out of 140 volunteers only 1 ever asked a question (but she asked 7!) so now I use "Ask Kim" to share information about the rescue with the all the volunteers on each segment of the rescue. This too worked great because they got to learn what each group does and why.

    To avoid gossip just find a way to open up communication in a professional (and adult) way leaving those who gossip out on a ledge or out of your organization.

    I hope this is helpful - hang in there.

  • January 13, 2019 at 07:32 AM

    Have a sit down meeting with all the personnel involved. Have a list of action items that need to be addressed. List the problems that are occurring WITHOUT naming names. Ask each member for solutions. List the solutions. Decide as group which solution would be the best. Develop a 3 strikes rule. (We use that with all our volunteers.) Make an agreed upon list of infractions that would result in a "strike". Have everyone sign the rough draft. Set up a formal protocol based on your rough draft then again have all sign it, include a statement that they agree to abide by the rules. It may help.