Guest Post: Are volunteers really “unpaid staff”?

In an ideal world, nonprofit volunteers and employees are all considered staff.  But that doesn’t mean we manage all this talent the same way.

A lot of agencies may take the view that volunteers are unpaid staff and should be vetted, placed and managed as paid staff would be.  I often wonder how well that approach really works for the complexities involved in volunteer management.

I agree with the principal that volunteers should be vetted in the same way as paid staff. Taking the time to do a thorough reference and background check is important, especially if the volunteer is working with youth or other vulnerable clients. Besides the issue of liability and risk, an agency never wants to send the signal that volunteers can “slip through the cracks” of a vetting system.

However, once a volunteer is on board, does the idea that they are “unpaid staff” really hold up? How can/should good volunteer management practice differ from managing paid staff? This is a complex topic deserving more conversation and debate than can be accomplished with one blog, but perhaps the largest difference between paid staff and volunteers is that volunteers chose to spend their time at your organization and can opt out at any time.

I heard the phrase “Volunteers vote with their feet” at a conference many years ago. This expression reminds me that if I am not providing a quality experience for our volunteers, they can seek out another agency or just stay home. Here are the practices that I find most essential to managing a voluntary workforce.

 

  • Good communication is key. I learned this the hard way when I was newer to the field and scheduling volunteers for an event. Because of limited parking, we were reserving all the spaces near the venue for guests and asking staff and volunteers to park several blocks away. We (i.e. me) did a poor job of letting volunteers know the parking situation when we asked them to help at the event and an even poorer job of explaining it after they did sign up.

Sadly a few great volunteers dropped out when they found out that they had to park and walk to the event. When staff talked this over afterwards, someone said to me, ”We have to park off site that day, why can’t volunteers?”  While we could direct staff to park off-site, I realized that we could not make the same demand of volunteers unless we set that expectation in advance. Instead of telling the volunteers “you have to park off site today,” we had to explain the situation in before-hand and ask for their help by parking off-site.

  • Volunteers may need the flexibility to try different positions. Through the different agencies I have worked at over the years, I have encountered a few excellent volunteers who needed to try different assignments before finding a role that was the right fit. Staff do not have the same flexibility in shifting roles.  You couldn’t start as an employee of a fast food chain and say,”I don’t like working the fryer, can I help with marketing instead?” A volunteer, however, may not mesh with one department’s staff and may flourish under another’s guidance and supervision.  This individualized approach to volunteer roles may be all that’s required to transform a struggling volunteer into a fabulous one.

 

  • Without a paycheck, the meaning behind the work matters even more. Through many volunteer interviews I have had that gratifying moment where a volunteer applicant has told me, “your agency really helped me when I was in trouble as a kid, now I want to give back” or “my class had a great docent-led tour so this was the first place I thought of volunteering.” Recently another agency sent an email to our CEO praising the wonderful experience our staff and volunteers provided one of their clients. I ALWAYS pass these stories on to volunteers. Even if they weren’t the one who gave the tour, provided the tutoring, or worked with the client, it is so important to let volunteers know that they are making a difference and their time is well spent.

 

  • Show volunteers that you value their feedback. I am always looking for opportunities to receive feedback from the volunteers.  At my agency, we do annual performance reviews with volunteers and a check-in meetings for new volunteers. These meetings are two-way conversations, where we clarify expectations and the volunteer shares questions or concerns about their experience.

We have a volunteer engagement committee that provides me with feedback through quarterly meetings. We also send out an annual survey that asks volunteers if we succeeded in helping them meet their goals in the volunteer experience.  If anything, these performance reviews, meetings and surveys are more focused on how the agency is meeting the volunteer’s needs than a typical staff review, which primarily addresses how staff are meeting their performance goals.

If the volunteer feedback suggests that something that isn’t working, let them know that you heard them and are working to address their concerns. I always tell volunteers that I may not be able to fix everything they find frustrating, but they are valued members of our team and we always want to hear what’s working, what isn’t and what we can do to improve their experience.

As paid employees we want to work in positions we enjoy, we want to know we are making a difference and we want our work and feedback to be appreciated.

Unless we are independently wealthy though, we’ll probably still show up on that cold, snowy Monday without this level of communication and appreciation.  What might compel paid staff however, may not motivate volunteers – so we must strive a little harder to understand and meet their needs. Otherwise we might find ourselves alone in the building on that cold and snowy Monday!

 

Laura Pic (2)Laura Rundell, CVA received her BA in Political Science from Earlham College. She spent five years working in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives before leaving to pursue her Masters degree from Northeastern University. She completed her certification in volunteer administration in 2013. Lauraran the volunteer program at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, PA which received a citation from the Mayor in honor of the volunteers’ contributions to the community.

In 2013, Laura relocated to Connecticut where she works as Volunteer Coordinator for LifeBridge Community Services in Bridgeport, CT.

 

 

7 Comments

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts Laura, you are dead right to highlight that we can’t expect the same working relationship with volunteers as staff.

    Not sure whether you’ve seen the research below across the pond. De Montfort University studied the National Trust (major UK heritage charity) and found 5 broad but interconnected differences between managing volunteers and staff

    https://www.dmu.ac.uk/documents/research-documents/business-and-law/hrm/crowe/managing-a-volunteer-workforce-report-june-2016-final.pdf

  • The “try several roles” approach really doesn’t work for us very well since there’s quite a bit of training and, for certain roles, certification that we have to put a volunteer through.

    Granted, if there’s a real issue (and given the nature of our work they happen…even with decades of experience, it gets to me at times) we can shift someone to another role. I do envy those whose biggest problem is shifting someone from events work to helping with fundraising.

    The way we minimize this is to create “tracks” by which we can get someone into a role that interests them while minimizing the risk of wasting their time and ours (and our money). As it stands, we categorize people into basically “behind the scenes” (BTS), on-scene support (OSS) or operations (“ops”). The BTS folks are closest to what people think of when you say ‘volunteer’ although we always have a shortage of people there because it’s also the boring side of stuff. We have had to start requiring the ops folks to do BTS stuff due to the lack of interest.

    Aside from that, we actually have it in our policies that even in terms of “rank”, we don’t differentiate between paid and volunteer.

  • Great points. One of the risks of volunteer engagement is losing good volunteers by neglecting to do the things Laura suggests. Although volunteers need to be held accountable for their performance, we have to remember that they do have many choices of where to devote their time and talents.

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