News and analysis
October 15, 2009

Volunteers Can Cause Friction With Employees

Staff members and unpaid volunteers in nonprofit organizations have traditionally been two quite separate tribes with different values, customs, and worldviews. They all lived peacefully together in casual times, but new economic and demographic realities are making staff-volunteer partnerships tighter and tougher, and the strains are showing.

Many charities were already developing programs to better use the talents of skilled baby-boomer volunteers when the recession hit. At the same moment when businesses were shedding workers through layoffs and early retirements, tighter nonprofit budgets instantly created an opportunity for volunteers to fill serious gaps.

Nonprofit groups that have adapted their cultures to deal with all the changes are reaping windfalls from volunteers. But others face a bumpy road, as volunteers and workers demonstrate a lack of trust in each other and paid employees worry about job security for themselves, training needs for volunteers, and the impact volunteers will have on a traditional staff hierarchy.

"It's inevitable that there will be tensions between paid staff and volunteers, but that doesn't mean you can't deal with it and minimize it," says Susan J. Ellis, president of Energize, a Philadelphia organization that consults on the management of volunteers.

"But if you have been ignoring the staff and volunteer interactions up until now," she cautions, "you may never be able to handle the new pools of volunteers."

The secret, according to Ms. Ellis, is to be clear that the new volunteers are coming in so that the group can extend its reach; the volunteers are not coming in to replace paid staff members.

"By working as a team," she says, "you can accomplish so much more."

'A Work in Progress'

But the kind of teamwork Ms. Ellis champions is not always easy to create.

Last fall, Volunteer San Diego, which recruits, trains, and places volunteers throughout its region, started an effort to blend volunteers and employees on key projects. As the group had twice as many volunteers taking orientation over the previous year, the talent pool was deep.

"We are challenging the traditional notion of what volunteers can and should do in an organization," says Sue Carter, the charity's executive director.

She knew the staff might be upset, so she called a meeting early to ask employees about their concerns and solicit ideas for making the new arrangement work.

Employees said they worried that volunteers wouldn't be sufficiently professional or wouldn't fully commit to the work, leaving employees in the lurch at difficult times. Also, staff members feared it would take longer to train volunteers to do some jobs than it would take to do the work themselves.

For Ms. Carter, it became obvious that new policies were in order: The volunteers were made to understand that they couldn't be casual about their work for the charity. They were asked to be specific and serious about their contributions.

"It has been a work in progress," says Ms. Carter. "We have had our hiccups, but it's worth it."

The biggest success so far has been Volunteer San Diego's six-member volunteer social-media team, which uses Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and podcasts to recruit and educate volunteers. A single staff member supports the group, which is led by a volunteer.

Volunteer San Diego is trying to calculate the value of its new blended work force. Volunteers, in fact, are helping to do the analysis. The organization will spread the lessons it has learned to the 700 nonprofit organizations it serves.

Fears of Job Loss

To successfully blend paid and volunteer help, charity managers need to articulate that the goal of adding volunteers is to augment resources, not reduce payroll, says Ms. Ellis. She believes that the worst fears of some job-insecure staff members can be lessened with a comforting recitation of the facts: "Volunteers are, almost by definition, part-timers," she says. "Consultants might have more reason to worry, but not usually full-time staff."

The old lines between volunteers and employees, however, may be shifting in some organizations. Stephen Ristau, a consultant in Portland, Ore., who specializes in managing volunteers, is training 25 teams of librarians to help California libraries use volunteers for a broad range of unpaid jobs that go beyond traditional volunteer tasks such as reshelving books. A retired advertising copywriter, for example, might help a library better market its services.

California budget shortfalls are causing some libraries to trim their staffs. "We need to make extra efforts now to make sure this isn't seen as a response to layoffs," Mr. Ristau says. "It is an extra resource in tough times to help the stretched staff."

Managing people who donate their time to a charity used to be almost exclusively the job of an organization's coordinator of volunteers. Lines of authority were clear. As more volunteers now work alongside or are directly supervised by other employees, that has changed, Mr. Ristau says. It's not just the volunteers who need training; staff members also need education in how to work more closely with volunteers.

For paid workers, the new world may seem a little upside down. Some volunteers may actually be better educated and more experienced than the staff members they are supporting. That is a challenge for the volunteers, too — how to give the charity the full benefit of their skills without showing off.

In times of change, top leaders should communicate to the staff and volunteers that this is an experiment, Mr. Ristau advises.

"Tell them we are going to try new things and learn from them," he says. Then constantly watch and adjust, he says.

Two years ago, Lutheran Social Services, in St. Paul, started using volunteer leaders on teams throughout Minnesota to promote a wide range of programs for elderly people. The volunteers, all retired professionals, did things that staff members often had little time for, such as speaking to service groups and attending health fairs. When three members of one five-member team quit suddenly in the same week, John Bringewatt, who supervises the program, heard from a frustrated employee who felt burned after spending lots of time training those volunteers, often leaving her own work undone.

Mr. Bringewatt investigated and decided the volunteer job descriptions were ambiguous and that supervising five volunteers was too much for one staff member.

"It's bad management not to be willing to reassess and tweak a new program," he says.

In some cases, staff members may have unrealistic ideas about how much responsibility volunteers can handle, says Marilyn Kronmal, director of lifelong learning at California State University, in Los Angeles, who trains nonprofit groups in managing volunteers.

Also, she says, some staff members may never get the hang of how to use an extra pair of hands. "If an employee doesn't want to work with a volunteer," she advises, "don't send them one."

'Just the Typist'

Respecting all workers, paid or volunteer, is key to creating harmony.

Carol Freed of Bend, Ore., who has volunteered for 40 years for numerous causes, said she has sometimes felt her ideas threatened staff members at those organizations. Often, she says, employees' attitude was, "We are the trained people."

The retired medical transcriptionist types 100 words a minute. She was often asked to type surveys, reports, or other documents as a volunteer. She still remembers one staff member at a volunteer job refer to her as "just the typist."

"People want to feel that their contribution, whatever it may be, is important to the big picture," she says.

In her own town, she points to the High Desert Museum, which, she says, knows how to communicate with volunteers.

The museum is aggressive in its efforts to include volunteers and to prepare volunteers and staff members to work together, says Tracy Suckow, the museum's human resources and volunteer-program manager. The museum has 43 employees and 300 volunteers age 13 to 86, says Ms. Suckow, and posts volunteer openings on its Web site. Volunteers do all kinds of jobs for the museum, from giving talks to running a sawmill.

The museum conducts regular meetings and training seminars for volunteers and paid workers; one recent training was about communicating across generations. Problems between employees and volunteers are usually ironed out early, she says, because its personnel handbook outlines clear steps for resolving conflicts.

Staff members and volunteers socialize at a summer barbecue near the beginning of the high-traffic tourist season and again at a season-ending potluck event.

"We couldn't survive without the volunteers," says Ms. Suckow — something she also tells each new employee.


  • Openly discuss with staff members the impact volunteers have on helping to carry out the group's mission, and calm fears that volunteers might replace paid workers.
  • Involve staff members in planning volunteers' roles.
  • Adapt the charity's strategic plan to clearly define the role of volunteers.
  • Make sure the manager of the volunteers is someone who serves at the upper levels of the organization, and can inspire staff members' respect and loyalty.
  • Craft specific job descriptions for volunteers and include performance expectations.
  • Include the volunteers' manager in any major decisions the charity makes.
  • Communicate frequently. Don't rely on water-cooler chat to keep staff members and volunteers informed.