Pave The Way for Volunteers

Careful oversight of volunteers can enhance their value and ease any tension with paid employees.

By Adrienne Fox Jun 1, 2010
Reuse Permissions

0610cover.gifIt sounds like a great problem to have as an HR director: hundreds of people who feel so passionately about your organization’s mission that they are clamoring to work for you—for free. But, without the proper volunteer management structure, oversight, training and communication, volunteers can run amok. And that can lead to little value creation, tension with paid staff and more trouble than it’s worth.

Many organizations—from nonprofits to hospitals to city governments—rely on the millions of people who choose to volunteer each year. Volunteering is on the rise, due to higher unemployment, retiring Baby Boomers and a sense of increased purpose in the post-Sept. 11 world. About 63.4 million U.S. citizens— 26.8 percent of the population—volunteered for an organization at least once from September 2008 to September 2009, up from 61.8 million the year prior, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Adding to the rise in volunteerism: “Many of today’s unemployed are turning to volunteer work to make a difference in their communities, to network and even to find a job,” notes Thomas W. McKee, chief executive officer of Advantage Point Systems, a Sacramento, Calif.-based volunteer management consultancy. The number of unemployed people volunteering increased from 2.2 million to 3.5 million from 2008 to 2009, according to the BLS.

Individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to volunteer, BLS data suggest. Among people older than 25, 42.8 percent of college graduates volunteered, compared with 18.8 percent of high school graduates and 8.6 percent of those without a high school diploma.

“The volunteers of today are professionals and want to be treated as such,” McKee says. “People don’t want to stuff envelopes anymore.”

For that reason and others, experts say HR professionals need to take a proactive role in managing volunteers. “Organizations that are successful using volunteers manage them the way they do paid staff,” McKee says. These organizations “interview them, write job descriptions, monitor their work, give feedback, have high expectations and provide structure. And volunteers respond well to this; they like the structure.”

Sharing HR Knowledge

In many large organizations with hundreds of volunteers, a volunteer director or coordinator manages unpaid staff. However, the volunteer director and HR professional don’t always work together to provide support to both the paid and unpaid populations.

“What tends to happen in large organizations is that HR doesn’t talk to the director of volunteer services,” admits Susan J. Ellis, president of Energize Inc., a volunteer consulting firm in Philadelphia. “I never understand how HR can have hundreds of volunteers running around its workplace and say, ‘That’s not my job to deal with them.’

” Because the HR department already has systems in place for paid employees, it’s fairly easy to share the systems with volunteers as necessary. McKee suggests that anytime HR runs a training session on motivating employees, recognition or time management, for example, the session be made available to volunteers.

Kevin Horan, vice president of HR at TechnoServe, spends much of his time in the field on training. The Washington, D.C.- based nongovernmental organization helps entrepreneurs build their businesses. Operating in more than 30 countries, the organization has 725 paid employees, including 40 in the United States and 45 expatriates. The remaining workforce is made up of local nationals. TechnoServe brings on about 125 volunteer consultants, called “volcons,” each year for three-month assignments. When Horan conducts training in field offices, volunteer consultants and locals attend sessions together and are treated the same.  

Horan is the first HR director in TechnoServe’s 42-year history. Before joining the organization, he spent 23 years in HR for the airline industry. There are similarities among airlines and nongovernmental organizations, he notes. “Managers want to know how to better manage people. Also, cost is a big concern.”

What is different: “When I walk into a training session in Rwanda for communication skills training, they are so eager and excited to learn,” Horan says. “In one session, attendees didn’t want to write in the training materials because they wanted to share them with others.” Horan provided extra copies.

To prepare for assignments, the volunteer consultants, who must have advanced business degrees, speak with people repatriating from the same country to get an honest perspective on the assignment or location. Volcons receive an orientation from the country director as well.

“We also have an HR contact for each volcon in case problems arise,” Horan says. “Sometimes, two weeks into an assignment in Tanzania and a 12-hour drive from civilization, the volcon starts wondering what the heck he just did. We have had rare occasions where we had to bring someone home early, but our recruitment process is usually thorough enough.”

Manage Expectations

Having a staff member who is able to work well with volunteers doesn’t happen by chance. It takes screening and training by HR.

“Volunteer management duties should be included in the job descriptions of paid staff who work with volunteers,” Ellis advises. In the interview process, ask candidates about their volunteer management experience. If they don’t have any experience, then HR needs to train them.

But often, this training gets overlooked by HR managers. “Almost every hospital has volunteers, yet nurses are never trained how to work with volunteers,” Ellis notes.

Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) is a nonprofit organization in San Francisco with 13 paid employees and 485 volunteers who help poor, elderly and disabled people who are at risk of losing a pet. It provides free food and veterinary care as well as other services, such as dog walking. “We explain to people in the interview process that part of their job is to manage volunteers,” says CEO John L. Lipp.

“We train staff on volunteer management techniques or do one-on-one coaching. Articulate the benefits of this relationship and how they can use the experience to demonstrate management skills, especially for nonmanagers who want to move up in their careers.”

Volunteers fill out applications and interview with the volunteer director. Once accepted, they go through orientation, training and a three-month onboarding period.

Ellis strongly supports having a training period of one to three months. She says it gives “staff permission to give volunteers direction and feedback.”

Supervisor-Volunteer Relations

Volunteer directors and HR professionals should not be involved in the day-to-day management of volunteers. “A volunteer director’s responsibility is not to directly supervise the volunteers, just like the HR director’s responsibility isn’t to directly supervise all employees,” Lipp notes. The HR department “puts systems in place for managers to supervise, and volunteers should not be treated any differently.”

Depending on the organization’s structure, volunteers may report to a paid employee or to another volunteer. “Every volunteer needs a designated supervisor or liaison, and the supervisors need to be assessed by HR on how well they manage their volunteers,” Ellis recommends.

At TechnoServe, volunteer staffers report to the country or regional director or to the program director, depending on the assignment, Horan says. “It can be described as a traditional supervisor-employee relationship or a paid consultant relationship. They come in with a defined scope of work with deliverables and give status reports to the director.”

McKee has consulted for organizations where volunteers manage other volunteers and conduct performance reviews and are assessed on their management abilities. “You may recruit a retired executive who is an excellent manager who can be a very effective volunteer manager,” he says. However, “You still need to train that executive on your organization, management style and culture.”

At PAWS, Lipp tries to keep the ratio of paid employees to volunteers low to avoid overwhelming paid staff. One way he does this: When a client is assigned multiple volunteers, Lipp selects a team leader who reports to a paid manager.

Avoid Conflict

The idea of volunteering conjures up warm and fuzzy images of cradling babies in hospitals or helping animals in need. But volunteering generally involves other people, and people— whether paid or not—can create conflict that can fester and erode morale. Adding to this workplace dynamic: Many paid employees are reluctant to criticize or discipline volunteers.

Lipp, author of The Idiot’s Guide to Recruiting and Managing Volunteers (Alpha, 2009), has trained leaders of other organizations on volunteer management. He says conflict arises when paid employees aren’t comfortable speaking negatively about volunteers. “Acknowledge the fact that people are afraid to speak up about volunteer issues because it isn’t politically correct,” he says. “Give employees a safe forum to discuss these issues. Ask employees about their concerns before you bring in volunteers.”

Christine Nardecchia, volunteer services administrator for the city of Dublin, Ohio, has seen tension between paid employees and volunteers throughout her career. “Conf lict is one of the top struggles of my profession. And, like most conf licts, it all boils down to role clarity, communication and a belief system.


In large organizations where the volunteer base is run separately from HR, systems can go unchecked. “HR scrutiny is needed but often isn’t delivered,” notes Kate Gaffney, deputy director of talent management at New York University in New York City.

The university employs nearly 15,000 staff, faculty and administrative employees. In addition, 1,000 volunteers come on campus each year to gain skills in public affairs and at research labs, the development office and libraries.

The university system features 15 decentralized schools. Until recently, volunteer management was decentralized, too. “There were too many facets to the program to keep it that way,” Gaffney says. “Last year, we audited the program, distilled all the aspects and centralized it. We believe we have reduced our organizational liability because we have clear guidelines now.”

The audit revealed that better systems were needed to ensure compliance with federal laws. Stephanie Vullo, the university’s associate general counsel, cites three examples:

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration restricts exposure to certain chemicals for minors; now that volunteer management is centralized, compliance with this requirement is overseen by HR.

In the dental college and medical facility, volunteers need to sign Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act documents.

In offices where personal information can be accessed, volunteers need to sign Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act agreements.

Volunteers must have health screenings to be in medical facilities, and they must be fingerprinted and submit to background checks if working with children.

While coordinators in individual schools or units handle orientation for volunteers, HR professionals review policies— such as anti-harassment and minors’ rights in the workplace—with them. Oversight is controlled because volunteers receive identification cards through the HR office, and no one can access buildings without them, Vullo says.

“We have rare cases where employees resent volunteers,” Nardecchia continues. “If you have a great part-time job at the front desk of a recreation center and suddenly a volunteer comes in to assist you doing the same work, you may think the volunteer is going to replace you. The absolute bottom line is you must include staff in the planning.”

McKee agrees. “Conflict arises when staff isn’t involved in making the decision to bring in volunteers,” he says. “They feel threatened, especially in today’s economy. The more you can involve employees in volunteer management, the better likelihood of creating a ‘we’ culture rather than an ‘us vs. them’ culture.”

Ellis recalls an example where “us vs. them” reached a boiling point in a school where volunteers felt unwanted by the teachers. “The teachers’ lounge had the only adult bathroom in the school, and teachers had told volunteers they couldn’t be in the lounge because they weren’t teachers. So the volunteers took that to mean they couldn’t use the bathroom. Lack of forethought and planning is how relationships break down,” she adds.

TechnoServe recently had problems in Latin America because the locals and clients said the volunteers were spending too much time traveling to other areas, staying out too late and surfing during the day. TechnoServe shut down the program in Latin America for a few years and is slowly redeveloping it.

“We have a new regional director who is much more thoughtful about the people he brings in,” Horan says. “With the few volcons we have assigned there, we have taken a lot of time to talk about what’s acceptable and what’s not, and the importance of building relationships with the people we’re helping.”

In the Loop

Short-term assignments and irregular hours make it difficult for volunteers to build and retain rapport with paid staff members. Also, volunteer work may be done at various sites far from the main office, making communication tricky.

But to retain volunteers and enhance their connection to the organization and its mission, communication is essential.

“Communication is too important, and technology makes it so easy to keep volunteers informed,” says McKee, who recommends giving volunteers agency e-mail addresses. He adds that, if necessary, an organization can create two distribution lists—one with just paid staff for communications on vacation policies or health benefits and another for paid staff and volunteers for general communications and monthly volunteer newsletters. Even with volunteers coming and going, HR or volunteer directors should be tracking them and using that information to create or add to a list of e-mail addresses.

For a more personal touch, HR staff members should invite an active volunteer for coffee or to the office to gather ideas on how to improve the organization’s services, McKee says.

Also, include volunteers in staff meetings. “I ask staff if it is OK to include volunteers in staff meetings,” he says. “Volunteers feel important and included, and staff—because they were involved in the decision—is welcoming.”

PAWS brings volunteers and paid employees together once a year to hear big-picture updates on the organization.

TechnoServe maintains a strong alumni network to keep volcons informed. “We do alumni events in large cities with our executives,” Horan says. Some alumni return for more assignments, and a large percentage of expatriates are former volunteers.

Give Thanks

Everyone who volunteers knows that you get more out of the experience than you put in. Most people don’t volunteer for the recognition; still, a “thank you” can have a big impact on retention— as long as it’s meaningful and specific.

“If you have an annual thank you banquet, the volunteers often sit wondering if you know why you’re thanking them,” Ellis says. “Don’t give annual, broad thank yous. Recognize volunteers each time they do something great.”

McKee suggests that organizations encourage employees to write thank you notes to volunteers. “Give each staff member 50 thank you notes on Jan. 1 with instructions to send at least one letter to a volunteer each week. It’s the most inexpensive, most effective way to recognize volunteers.”

Don’t forget about the paid employees who are asked to manage volunteers. “Recognize employees who work well with volunteers,” Ellis suggests. “Hold them up as examples and role models of how to work with volunteers.”

Lipp recognizes paid staff together with unpaid staff. “It emphasizes that this is a team effort and helps erase the boundaries between the two groups,” he says.


The author is a contributing editor and former managing editor of HR Magazine.

Web Extras

Reuse Permissions


Choose from dozens of free webcasts on the most timely HR topics.

Register Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect