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the organization I volunteer with is exploding in drama and rage-quitting — what should I do? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I’ve always loved horses and owned two for several years. A few years ago, after my last horse died of natural causes, I reached out to a local not-for-profit that provides therapeutic horseback riding lessons for veterans, physically challenged children and adults, etc. to donate leftover feed, saddles, etc. I was really impressed with the volunteer coordinator and the program, and I volunteered to help out with lessons. I went through the training and was looking forward to getting my “horsey” fix in after missing my boy for several months, and worked for exactly five lessons before one of the newer therapy horses was assigned to me. I had been told during my training that the horse’s trainers weren’t confident he’d be a good fit for the program but never told why. Well, I soon found out because this new horse spooked, bolted, tossed his rider, and ran me into a fence. Very bad scene — fortunately the rider wasn’t hurt, but since my responsibility was controlling the animal, I felt terribly guilty, even though I did everything I could think of the try to stop him, literally throwing my body in front of him. I was in a lot of pain, noticeably limping back to the barn, and was later diagnosed with a torn ACL and a minor fracture.

The volunteer coordinator, Lydia, called me right after the accident to get my statement for the insurance, and I mentioned that I had initially been assigned to a different horse, but was taken off him and put on the newer one. She said, “I thought you’d be able to handle him.” This hit more like, “With all the experience you’ve had, we figured you could control this maniac.” I told her I’d injured my knee, but didn’t realize the extent of the injury at the time and never told her. She never contacted me directly again.

I stayed on the volunteer emails but didn’t respond to volunteer requests for a couple of years while my knee healed. I’ve recently retired and was thinking of reaching out again for a different role, maybe cleaning stalls or working on the ground with the horses, until this past week. My inbox has been blowing up with emails starting with Lydia’s sudden resignation over “several changes to the program” that she did not agree with. Volunteers and teachers expressed surprise and confusion.

Finally the new president of the board emailed to explain the changes that were being made, which seemed … not unreasonable (staffing the office in-person, having more than one person on-site at a time, using a lift for students unable to mount the horse independently). But then Lydia sent a message through one of the remaining volunteers to give her side of the story and the stuff hit the fan! She’d been working a hybrid situation for 10+ years and her family situation prevented her from being in-person in the office full-time, but she was given an “ultimatum” to be in person four days per week and didn’t agree with other program changes, such as servicing certain students but not others with different abilities who had previously always been in the program. Again, not unreasonable, but long-tenured volunteers and teachers began rage quitting. I’ve never seen so many hysterical emails, obviously written under much emotion.

But the kicker was the final email from the president of the board, sent early yesterday morning after no teacher or volunteers showed up for lessons the night before. She “wanted to make sure (she) congratulated (volunteers) on not making this about the population (the program serves) but about (Lydia).” Her tone was obnoxious and hostile (i.e., “thank you for disappointing these families” and accusing volunteers of not caring about the families and students). More rage quitting emails followed.

I suspect today’s email to the volunteer group has been written by someone else, because it is more business-like and less emotional. While I still believe in the value of this program, and I don’t have a lot of skin in the game over Lydia’s resignation, red flags are flying about ever reaching out again. I’m not wrong about this being incredibly toxic, am I? Should I sit back and wait to see how things shake out, or write (privately) to the president of the board with my own experience? There will obviously be a lot of newer faces and maybe this is a chance to help this program grow in a new direction, but the reaction of the president is alarming.

Oh no. You’re not wrong: it is indeed incredibly toxic all around.

I’m sure the president is very frustrated — by Lydia using the organization’s email list to rile up the volunteers (and more than once!) (and why did she even have access after the first email?), by the rage quitting, by the drama swirling around all of this, and by teachers and volunteers not showing up for lessons — but part of her job is to handle that frustration professionally and privately. Her email “congratulating” volunteers on “making this all about Lydia” is over-the-top inappropriate for her position, and was like throwing kerosene on a fire. Her job is to minimize drama, not add to it. But she chose to add to it.

So just … bad choices all around in this organization, and no sign of mature or steady leadership.

Given all that, I don’t think there’s a ton of value in you contacting the president with your own experience. The president comes off poorly here, and there’s no reason to assume she’s a thoughtful steward who would benefit from hearing your experience and perspective. I do think there could have been value in sharing your concerns right after your injury. But since it’s been a few years and there’s capital-D Drama imploding right now, I’d leave it alone. She’s also probably not currently  in a position to make good use of whatever feedback you offer; at this particular moment, it’s all likely to feed into one agenda or another, and you won’t be able to tell from the outside if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Sit back and wait to see how things play out before you consider staying involved. If new leadership steps up, or maybe if this president seems to right things in time, you could consider being involved again. But there are tons of other volunteer causes that are well-equipped to use your time and skills; unfortunately, right now this isn’t one of them. Which sucks, because they have a great mission (and I assume they might be the only such organization local to you). But wait for the drama to die down and then assess if you want to stick even a toe back in.


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