Nonprofit “Volunteer vs. Staff” Talent: Interview with Susan Ellis

I was introduced to volunteer expert Susan Ellis, president of Energize, Inc., when researching my volunteer engagement series. I had several follow-up questions for her, and she graciously gave her time to answer them in this interview.

QSM: It’s been said that nonprofits are likely to rely more on volunteers in lieu of hiring paid staff in today’s tough times. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Susan: The idea that anyone “chooses” to work with volunteers rather than paid staff is a non-starter. If there is work for a 35-40-hour-a-week position, it’s a job. Maybe you could get trained volunteers capable of doing the work, but you’d need at least 10 volunteers to juggle their part-time schedules to fill the 40 hours of work needed – and who’s going to supervise them?

On the other hand, there are lots of particular activities that are actually done more successfully by volunteers because of the “perception of credibility” that people assign to volunteers. So a nurse can help someone with AIDS, but that’s his/her job. When a volunteer is supportive of someone with AIDS, the impact is greater because it is perceived as a matter of will not obligation. Donors prefer to give money to volunteers who do not themselves stand to gain anything monetarily from the donation.

Organizations may be increasing volunteer numbers, but to do different things than employees had been doing. For example, when libraries close because of budget cuts, volunteers may be able to open the building doors on a Saturday so that people can use the resources and borrow/return books. But the services provided by librarians are missing during those times.

QSM: What do you advise in situations where there is resentment between paid staff and volunteers? 

Susan: The subject of tension between volunteers and employees is indeed the #1 most requested training topic in the field. Resentment is inherent in the roles unless anticipated and managed, but it can be overcome with great success. Volunteers do not WANT the staff’s jobs! They want to be of use to a cause they care about, for a few hours at a time. When staff feel threatened, they circle the wagons and won’t let volunteers be helpful, except in menial ways.

Resentment occurs if volunteers and employees are expected to do the same things – always a bad idea. I say that the most successful programs recruit volunteers for skills and talents totally different from the paid staff. Let paid social workers counsel and paid teachers teach. Get volunteers to teach “food shopping on a budget” or spend one-to-one time with a student who needs some extra help to practice a lesson, or talk to the class about what it’s like to be a police officer. Those sorts of roles do not cause resentment – they are welcomed by everyone.

Is there lousy volunteer management out there? Sure. But does that mean there is no value to it? NO. Getting (or giving) a salary is not the highest good in the world. I can pay an adult literacy tutor or a Big Brother/Big Sister, and the tasks done may be the same, but the adult loses a friend and the kid gets another teacher or babysitter. Again, perception of credibility.

QSM: Are there any resources that explain when to use staff and/or volunteer talent?

Susan: Self-servingly, I deal with exactly these issues in From the Top Down, and often in my Hot Topics, such as the one I wrote in December, When the Ax Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers.

QSM: In the latter article I especially like your comment, “Plan for volunteers when times are good if you want their help in times of crises.”

Susan: There have also been dozens if not more articles in the last year about how important volunteering is to the unemployed themselves. If the person selects the right volunteer role, this can be job training; it can assure that something meaningful appears on a resume in between losing a job and now. It immeasurably improves self-image and emotional well-being. (Note that the worse the economy becomes, the more people offer to volunteer. Really! And this has been true since the Great Depression and in all recessions.)

QSM: Thanks, Susan, for sharing your great advice and wisdom!

One Comments

  • Vicki July 5, 2010 Reply

    I’m so glad you did this interview. Susan is very insightful and answered a lot of questions I have had about this topic.

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