Pruning with Volunteers for Performance

Pruning with Volunteers for Performance

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What happens when a volunteer presents a performance issue?

As Volunteer Partnerships Professionals, we all love it when our volunteers are there for us, respond to our call to action, toe the line and dedicatedly plough along with us, as we advance our organizations’ cause and mission. But what happens when volunteers start presenting performance issues that could threaten service delivery, affect other volunteers and make partnering them outright challenging?

Rather than playing the ostrich and sticking our heads into the sand; hoping that the problem will somehow disappear if we ignore it long enough, we all know that our role requires us to step in to manage the situation when necessary; after failed attempts by the volunteer’s supervisor to manage it.

Indeed, as Volunteer Partnerships Professionals, we have the primary responsibility of ensuring our volunteer programmes are well-oiled and poised to resource the mission of our organizations. When left unaddressed, performance issues may grow in scale, affect the morale of other volunteers and jeopardize the reputation and potential of our volunteer workforce and programme. So whether it is late-coming or allegations of misconduct, we all need to be equipped to manage these performance issues.

But how do we get started? How do we kickstart the often dreaded performance management conversations with our volunteers? Here, we propose a structure for having such conversations. We hope it will be helpful for Volunteer Partnerships Professionals to scaffold such performance management conversations, as we begin to address performance gaps and hopefully bring the best results out of it.

Perhaps, we could take a leaf from (pun intended) horticulture and learn from the process of pruning. Pruning is the agricultural process of cutting off unwanted branches to promote and improve growth and shape of the plant. Similar to pruning, with performance management issues, what we are really doing is working with our volunteers to identify what is not working and what is impeding their growth so we can cut it out. And so, we could use the P.R.U.N.E. model © to guide our performance management conversations. The beauty of the model is that you are also able to complement it with the use of other existing frameworks to make it work better.

So here’s the P.R.U.N.E. model © in detail:


Before we begin our performance management discussions, it is crucial that we first prepare for it. We need to first examine our Objectives for calling for the conversation. Are we calling for the conversation to give the volunteer “a piece of our mind”, to put him/her in place or to help him/her to be successful in his/her role? This starting point is important because it sets the tone of the conversation, affects how the volunteer will respond and will ultimately influence the outcome of the discussion. If a volunteer sense that we are genuinely interested in understanding the situation and to help them grow, it may help him/her to be open to being engaged and involved in the discussion.

It is also helping at this stage to also consider what could explain the performance gap being presented. It might be useful to consider the following questions:

  • Is it a Capability issue e.g. is the volunteer clear of their role? Are there any misconceptions of what is needed which may, in turn, caused anxiety and resistance? Do they have/are they equipped with the skills needed for the role?
  • Is it a Capacity issue e.g. is the volunteer burned out?
  • Is it a Character & Chemistry mismatch where there is a clash of personal attitudes, values and/or ways of getting things done?
  • Is it a Contentment challenge e.g. is the volunteer no longer finding fulfilment in the role?
  • or is it a Cause & Effect problem i.e. is the performance gap happening in response to other issues e.g. wrong placement of volunteers, not being provided with the right tools/data for their role, happenings at home etc.

After considering the “why” (objectives) of the discussion, it is also crucial to prepare the “stage” for the conversation. We need to look out and create the Opportunity for such a conversation. Avoid discussing performance gaps in the presence of other volunteers, over email or WhatsApp. Rather, arrange a dedicated time for a face-to-face meetup with the volunteer and ensure you have all the time you need for preparation, for the session and for post-session follow-up e.g. completion of performance management review forms.


Next, begin to build rapport with the volunteer as he/she arrives. Checking in with the volunteer on how he/she is feeling, ensuring the temperature of the room is just right for him/her or even the act of serving a cup of water all goes to communicate that the volunteer matters. Remember, a major part of performance management is relationship.


Next, set in motion the process for understanding:

  • to help the volunteer understand the reason for the conversation you are having together now;
  • to understand from the volunteer’s point of view, and
  • to understand that the desired outcome is to co-create some strategies to help him/her grow in her role.
As you share about the reason(s) for the conversation, be specific and focus on facts rather than hearsays, feelings and unverified information. You may use frameworks such as the Situation-Behaviour-Impact to frame this part of the conversation.
As you listen in on your volunteer, pay careful attention to the reason for the performance gap. You may consider considering again if the issue is due to any of the 5Cs mentioned earlier. Of course, there may also be other reasons which could explain the performance gap. Practice active listening and be present.

Position the performance management conversation to be solution-focused, so as to also help the volunteer.


After presenting the performance gap to your volunteer and listening in on them, we now have to move it up a notch to consider the next steps and what could be done to address the gap.

You might already have some ideas for how you can proceed from here but hold them for the time being. Present the opportunity for the volunteer to also co-create some solutions. Involving them at this stage will help create ownership of the issue and also help identify strategies which would have a greater probability of success for the volunteer.

When necessary, you could then put your ideas across and framing it as a question e.g. “what do you think if we…”. Some volunteer partnerships professionals may even utilize coaching techniques (e.g. GROW model) to identify the next steps.

Take notes and summarize towards the end of the session to gain commitment.

Of course, for serious misconduct, next steps might necessarily warrant suspension or termination. In those cases, you want to ensure that due process has been given for the volunteer to defend him/herself as you seek to close conclude the service well.


In the fifth and final stage of the P.R.U.N.E.© model, consider the timeline for working on the strategies identified and when you will be coming back together to review the progress. Performance Management processes without a checkpoint are almost always doomed for failure. You may also choose to check-in with them on a periodic basis as well in between.

We hope the P.R.U.N.E. model © helps you to begin to plug any performance gaps and begin to help your volunteers be successful in their roles.


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Pruning with Volunteers for Performance

by James Lim
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