I received an email the other day, from someone who asked for advice in dealing with inactive volunteer moderators on their community. I thought that might be a good topic to discuss here today.

Managing a team of volunteer moderators can be a wonderful, worthwhile and rewarding experience for everyone involved. I have managed volunteer moderators for many years, working with around 150-200 different individuals.

Where you can get in trouble is when communication breaks down. If you are responsible for managing volunteers, one of your primarily objectives is to ensure that never happens. You need to take ownership of communication and make sure everyone is always on the same page.

Setting the Proper Expectations

Volunteer moderators can’t be treated like actual employees. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not legal (in the U.S. and many other countries). Volunteer moderators don’t have shifts, they don’t have specific times where they are obligated to be present. They moderate in the course of their routine visits of our community. Any minimums you put in place should be very light.

For me, an inactive moderator is one who has a long, unexplained absence. How long? I’d say at least a week or two. Absences are not a big deal. Being a volunteer moderator is something that must fit in someone’s life – it is not a focus of their life (nor should it be). For this reason, there will be times where a moderator is away. Just like there are times that I am away, even though I manage the community. Being away is no big deal. Being away with no explanation is a concern.

Providing Notice for Absences

That’s why I overtly encourage my moderators to let me know when they are away. When someone is away, I don’t act like it is a bad thing. If it’s for fun – like a vacation – I hope they have a great time. If it’s because they are stretched at the moment – busy time at work, finals at school – I wish them good luck. If it’s something bad – a health crisis, a family emergency – I send positive vibes and both feel and express compassion for them.

In other words, being away is no big deal. It’s nothing to fear. People need it. It makes them stronger. It gives them perspective. It makes them better moderators.

All I ask is that, if possible, they let me know if they will have an extended absence. I set the example by letting them know when I will be away. This ensures that everyone knows when we might be a little light moderation wise.

Disappearance Doesn’t Mean Removal

If someone disappears for a while, without having let me know before hand, that doesn’t mean they are removed from the team. Instead, I will check in with them. If people disappear, I’m concerned. It’s not terribly common. I develop friendships with my moderators, and I want to make sure they are doing alright, first and foremost. If they are fine, then everything else is fixable. Usually, they will have simply forgotten to let me know, due to stress or being busy with life outside of the community. This just serves as a reminder to let me know if they need to take some time away.

If it happens a lot over a period of months, then we might need to have a conversation. A majority of the time, a moderator will decide on their own that it may be time to step down. No one wants to be the team member who doesn’t contribute. But, sometimes, I need to be the one to bring it up.

Flexibility is important. I have moderators who have been with me for several years – one of my current ones has been with me for almost 12 years. If she messaged me tomorrow and said she might be away for 3 months, I wouldn’t even bat an eye. People like her don’t come along every day. She has invested a lot of time into the community, and I have invested a lot of time into helping her fine tune her talents as a moderator. Of course, take the time away, we look forward to having you back. The opposite is a worse prospect.

After all, she’s not preventing anyone else from becoming a moderator. Moderator:user ratios are nonsense. I want as many good people as possible. No one is standing in the way of someone new joining us.

Most Moderators Make the Right Choice

By managing a community, my goal is not to dominate the lives of my members. I want them to have happy, balanced, fulfilled lives. I recognize that, eventually, everything must come to an end. Just because being a moderator may have fit into someone’s life well at one point does not mean that will always be so. In contacting a moderator who has gone inactive, I might ask if being a moderator has become a burden and if they are busy enough where they might not need the extra responsibility. It’s about what works best for them, more so than what works best for me.

Leaving the staff doesn’t mean leaving the community. I want people to stick around in the community as their schedule allows – and I communicate that. I express how much I appreciate people, and I encourage them to stick around as a member.

Almost every time, a moderator will take that conversation in one of two ways. 1. They want to stay, and they become an active contributor again. 2. They want to go and resign in good standing.

Forcibly Removing Moderators

If you never hear back from someone and a few months go by, that could very well mean something serious has happened. Sadly, depending on how much you know about that person, you may never know. People come in and out of our community – most of them, we will never know when they have passed away. If you have such extreme difficulty in contacting the staff member, you should let your other moderators know because they, like you, probably also care about this person. And when you have to remove them from staff, they’ll know why.

In my experience, if you communicate these matters properly, it is pretty rare to have a moderator that you have to forcibly remove for inactivity, because they insist on remaining on the staff, but refuse to participate. Most people usually take the hint. But if they don’t, you just have to tell them, in a delicate way, that you are making the decision to remove them from staff. You can say you feel bad that you have to continually follow up with them regarding being a moderator, so you are going to go ahead and remove the burden at this time.

Graceful Exits

No matter what, you should always allow people the opportunity to leave gracefully. This means encouraging them to post a farewell in the private staff forum and allowing them at least a few days to read the replies before you remove their access. If they refuse, that’s their choice. But you gave them the option.

Inactivity isn’t a big deal, it’s just a part of managing volunteers. It’s when you don’t pay attention that more serious issues arise.┬áThere is a cycle of identifying new moderators, bringing them on board, empowering them and helping them to be successful. Ideally, you keep great people as long as everyone is happy. Naturally, other matters will take priority and people will leave. But as long as you handle inactivity in a thoughtful, proactive manner, you’ll be able to build a strong, tight knit, loyal team.