Volunteer Horror Stories


A woman volunteered for an organization for ten years.  She was hard-working and dependable; a modest woman, not a VIP in any sense of the word.  When she inherited some money, she quietly gave them most of it:  a $100,000 donation.

Not long afterwards, the organization held an event to honor volunteers.  She was told that they would save a seat for her at a special table.  When she arrived and took that seat, the wife of the CEO rushed up and whispered something to her.  Quietly she moved her seat away from the VIPs.  However, it soured the woman on the organization for a long, long time.  She volunteered less and less (even though she still loved the mission.)

This is what the CEO’s wife whispered:  “You can’t sit here.  These seats are for donors.”

Horrible, right?  If your volunteers go up, your donations go up, too.  So be nice to your volunteers!  (At least as nice as you are to your donors.)  See the comments below for more volunteer horror stories.  Use them to initiate discussions with your team.  The benefit is like the lesson of EXODUS:   If something horrible happens to you, don’t do it to someone else.   

Do you have a story?  You can post it below the comments in “Leave a Reply.”   Thanks!  Shar McBee

14 thoughts on “Volunteer Horror Stories”

  1. I served on a Board for four years that decided at one point to create a matrix that outlined the “Ideal Board” in terms of age, professional skills, geography, gender, and capacity to give among a few others. A fellow Board member – who had worked to revamp the volunteer recruitment and retention strategy (that had received kudos from this Board’s national body) – was up for a term renewal. Up to that point in anyone’s memory, Board terms were renewed so long as the Board member remained engaged. Because this woman was seen as having low likelihood of making substantial future financial gifts (her husband had just been laid off from his executive position), and because she worked as a homemaker and wasn’t seen as having sufficient professional skills, her term was not renewed. Adding insult to injury, neither the Board president, nor the organization’s Executive Director delivered the news. The Board nominating chair did. Needless to say, the woman fully disengaged and took the support of many friends and colleagues with her. From my perspective it was a real low point for this organization’s leadership.

    1. This is a horror story! I’ve been told that you can give your support in 3 ways: 1. with your money. 2. with your time. 3. with your good wishes. A successful nonprofit needs all three kinds of support. This one got that out of balance.

      In “To Lead is the Serve” the chapter entitled “Letting Go” has a good story about letting someone go, and doing it respectfully.

      Thank you for this! We will be back to you soon about the Double Your Donations Course.

  2. I worked as a volunteer for an organization for 5 years. I started as a dog walker and quickly became a board member and then President. I was at the shelter every day of the week and put in at least 40 hours a week volunteering for many years. I did everything from fund raising, grant wiritng, managing the staff and the board to cleaning kennels and assisting in euthansia’s. I never wanted my staff to be able to say “you don’t understand”.
    I dreaded every board meeting because of one board member. She decided that the Director of the shelter was making to much money even though her salary was an approved budget line item. Every board meeting she complained about it. She searched for complaints against the director and brought them to the board each meeting. Then one meeting she dropped what she thought would be her bombshell. She had searched the public records for arrests and found one from years before for the director. The board reviewed the information and determined that since it was an arrest not a conviction it could not be held against the director.
    This same board member threatened me on the phone and spied on my home which she openly admited. We were able to have her removed from the board eventually due to lack of attendance.
    Lesson learned; vetting of board members and good board member rules are essential for a smooth running board.
    Shar – I would love to have another chance to do the course. I am backing off on many volunteer duties and learning to delegate.

    1. Cindy, Vetting of board members is so important. Sometimes nonprofits are so happy to have people say yes to serving, that they skip this essential step.

      We would love to offer you the Double Your Donations Course, Cindy! Thanks for this story.

  3. For seven years, a woman volunteered in various ways: teaching, encouraging, and leading. She had just started a new program with new curriculum and new volunteers. In fact, there were so many volunteers, they had to rotate to help. She had even tripled the attendance.

    At the beginning of the new program, she missed several functions because of her health. She asked for help from others, but only a few were willing to learn the new role. Everything was progressing except her health, she was steadily getting very sick. Doctors did not know what was wrong.

    She called a special meeting with the membership and leaders of the organization. She apologized for her absence and they brainstormed how to proceed with the new program.

    A small group of members were not happy about her absences and aggressively shared their displeasure with her. This displeased group had previously shared with other members and the head of the organization, so now other members and the head of the organization joined in on verbally attacking the woman about how disappointed they were with her for being absent.

    She offered to train a new person and step down, but they wanted to her to complete the program with her leadership. She could not guarantee her presence with her declining health.

    As she struggled to lead the new program, the attendance continued to climb, the program was excelling, but her health was declining. But the displeased group continued to show their disappointment through complaining, less volunteering, and rallying to stop the program completely!

    After a year and a half of being seriously ill, doctors found that she had a life threatening bacterial infection!! She finished her commitment and stepped down, much to the disappointment of the displeased group, as they blamed her and closed the successful program.

    It took three times longer to recover from the infection and years to recover from the verbal wounds and emotional pain. She and her family disconnected from the organization and eventually moved to a new location to heal and find peace. Seven years have passed since that incident, seven years of healing and getting back to a place where she has the courage to step out again and do what she loves to do: teach, encourage, and lead.

  4. Ouch. This hurts, Beth. Thank you. It makes me think that we can never really know what is going on with people. Sometimes we don’t even know what is going on with ourselves (as her health situation shows.) We have to be so careful not to criticize.

    It’s kind of a law of leadership that if you step up, you get shot down.

    We’ll be back to you with info about the Double Your Donations in 3 Months Course. REally appreciate your story.

    1. Thanks! I think leadership & volunteering are a learning experience & a great adventure!! I agree, we don’t know someone’s perspective or expectations, it really helps to overlook their weakness as well as try to see something positive through painful experiences. The healing and strength are worth the journey.

  5. Rebecca Henderson sent these “Horror Story Experiences”:

    Not having a clue what other board members names are is one……

    Being asked to help w/ an event, taking a day of vacation from work to do so, arriving at the event site, and then being told there are “too many vols….why don’t you come back some other time?” is another…..

    Board chairs ignoring bylaws is a big one……

    Board members getting drunk at fundraisers is horribly embarrassing….

  6. Hi,
    Each year, we have an annual event to raise money for tuition assistance. As you know, to manage an event of this magnitude with over 500 attendees, we need a village of volunteers! At this annual event, we host a silent and a live auction. We let our volunteers bid on auction items as a benefit to volunteering. Last year, we had two volunteers arguing over an item, one saying that the item was hers because they had completed the “Buy it now” portion at the bottom, meaning that she was committing to purchasing the item at a pre-set price. The table monitor did not see that this item had been “bought now.” The other volunteer kept bidding on the item as did other guest to the event. At close-out, these volunteers demanded that we settle this issue. At that same moment, we were currently running our Live Auction and hosting what we call a “call for donations,” where guests can donate money to our tuition assistance program. I knew that if we reached a certain level, one of our donors was going to contribute an additional amount of money. So I was listening to the Live Auction to make sure that we reached this level simultaneously as these two volunteers wanted me to handle this matter over the auction item. Then, if to make matters worse, one of these volunteers who was helping with event break down, decided to remove all the numbers from our silent auction table before the guests had picked up their purchases! So you can imagine the amount of confusion this caused for our folks who came looking for the items but were not able to find the table where it was since the table numbers had been removed….we have over 20 silent auction tables! Then, this same volunteer ended up going home with the wrong bag. So the next day, which was a Saturday, this individual came to our office which is normally closed on the weekends but happened to be open that day because another program was happening on our campus. This individual walked into our office, went through the materials that we had brought back into the office that day from the event and took her bag! We had finished breaking down the event the night before at 1:00 a.m. and had come to the office early on that Saturday to just unload the rental truck. Our plan was to sort the materials out on Monday since we were all so exhausted from all the hours that we put into the event. We were baffled by this volunteers immediate need for her purchased jewelry as well as her complete disregard for our own well-being in needing to rest after such an event. We also felt completely frustrated with her lack of respect for our office and the private papers that we store there! Oh brother is right!

  7. Our group is not unlike many others. There is a core group of women that have given so much of their free time there over the years. They are getting older and have developed their own life’s challenges. They do show up, they do help in fund raising and helping others. As President, on rare occasion, I am sometimes the parent – having to ask certain ladies to take a time out. It a solution works with our group. I willingly do to keep things running smoothly and we all get a kick out of it -even the one who gets the time out.
    The horror story involving my volunteers is this: This one lady in particular has a sever medical problem and when new people come around and they start to work together, she’s very up front with them and lets everyone know what’s going on. Her condition causes her head to shake and she seems like she’s cross when she speaks and that’s not always true. She asks that when this starts-just tell her. Last year a new member joined and came to help. After a few months she stopped coming. I called her and left 2 messages before she called me and said she wouldn’t be back because she could stand this woman, that she thought the woman’s medical condition was bs but I should call her if the woman “croaks” and she’ll come back to help out. I thanked her for what she had done and if she changed her mind, she would be welcomed back. We haven’t seen her since. I am not sure if it is my horror story or the woman that quit. I was surprised she did renewed her dues.

    1. Do you know the moral of the emery board, Lynette? Our rough fingernail is jagged until we smooth it with an emery board. Sometimes people rub us wrong. Later, after the situation has been smoothed down, they no longer irritate us. But first, we have to go through a bumpy period.

      I’ve worked and volunteered with many people who rubbed me the wrong way, and later they turned out to be my friends. Too bad this woman was too quick to blame and not patient enough to let herself be smoothed over.

      Thanks, I’ll get back to you about the Double Your Donations in 3 Months Course.

  8. Someone emailed this story and didn’t want to use her name.

    I have been a donor to and volunteer for a University for many years (at least 10). I have been named to the Alumni Board, received a Spirit of the University award, and received the Dean’s Recognition award. In addition, my husband and I have been donating at least $2,000 a year and on other years as much as $25,000. We donated (we are the only ones who did) a classroom in the College of Liberal Arts. We both volunteer at Homecoming and pre-game hospitality events.

    Last year, the development office called me to ask if we would help fund a Distinguished Alumni Scholarship-they wanted $10,000. We agreed and wrote the check.

    A few months later, I received my invitation for the ceremony honoring the Distinguished Alumni Award winners. My husband’s name was omitted, so I sent in my RSVP and asked if he could accompany me. I was told I could if he paid the $60.00 admission fee. I was furious! I sent an email to the VP of Alumni Relations, VP of Development, and the chair of the committee in charge of the event telling them that because we had funded the scholarship I thought we would be comped…but apparently I thought wrong. I did not receive a phone call, but rather a very weak email from the VP of Development saying he could come for free. Talk about a slap in the face! Ask how likely we will be to give again!!

    So my relationship with the University has cooled. I will always love my Alma Mater, but my involvement has lessened.

    1. The University could have saved the relationship with a sincere apology. Instead of becoming defensive, if the “important” people from the University had approached this couple and let them know that their support is important, that they are sorry and it won’t happen again, I think the relationship could have been saved.

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