Working with Staff

Donna Lockhart, January 11, 2010
(as it appeared in Charity Village)

Most organizations are not at the stage of seeing paid and unpaid staff as a "team" to accomplish the mission/goals of the organization. If they did, many of the challenges that are centered on volunteer-staff relations might not exist.

Here is a key question I get from managers, administrators, directors or co-ordinators of volunteers : "I spent all this time getting volunteers only to have staff say or do something/mistreat them and they are gone." Also, I hear, "How can I get staff to understand the important role that volunteers play in our organization?"

Three ideas

The philosophy of engaging or involving volunteers has to start at the top.
Healthy staff-volunteer relations do not just happen. It has to be developed, modeled and nurtured as an important aspect of the overall philosophy or culture in an organization. We often forget that many staff positions were once volunteer - nursing, teaching, clergy, firefighters etc. Managers of volunteers need to engage senior leadership in a discussion that starts to build the culture of volunteerism. We need to develop the value of volunteers as outcomes to be measured against the mission/goals of the organization. Getting the CEO or executive director on board is critical to success down the line. This leads to developing clear policies around where volunteers will and will not be used. Engaging all levels of staff to develop these policies is critical to success.

Most staff are unsure as to why the organization is engaging volunteers.
Staff often mistrust or misunderstand the role of volunteers. And quite frankly, as managers of volunteers we have not done a good job of communicating with staff the value/benefits of volunteers. During a recession, staff fear for their jobs especially if volunteer roles are increased at the cost of paid positions. It has always been the intent that volunteers would supplement or enhance, not supplant, the role of paid staff. This gets fuzzy however, as we continue to see the increase of expertise that volunteers bring and the struggles in the no profit sector around adequate funding for staffing. It is time to step back and discuss the value, role, and philosophy of volunteers in the organization and engage all staff to help set this foundation. We need to listen to staff; understand their issues; and find solutions. Their previous experience with volunteers is going to affect present relationships.

Questions you might ask of staff:

  • To what extent and in what capacity has staff previously dealt with volunteers? What is the history in your organization?
  • How do staff feel (what is their current opinion) about having volunteers involved?

Deal with staff issues.
Most of us would prefer to walk away from situations of conflict. But unless you deal with staff issues they will continue to exist. If staff treat volunteers poorly and this is not addressed, volunteers will continue to exit the organization. We have to answer staff concerns; lay to rest their issues; give them opportunity and information. Provide staff training about volunteers and give volunteers, training about the roles of staff. Start with the most receptive staff as champions of volunteers.

There are many best practices that we can put in place for volunteer programs. I believe the profession has done a good job of understanding what volunteers need to be successful. Now is the time to turn our attention to employee-volunteer dynamics that occur. We need to support staff in the valuable work that they do. Often volunteers get more recognition and rewards than staff. And let's be honest, sometimes it is the volunteer who is hardest on staff. Building good, respectful staff-volunteer relationships takes hard work. Perhaps in 2010 this will be the goal for your volunteer program.

Let me leave you with this:
"Mutually respectful relationships between employees and volunteers are one of the great hallmarks of successful volunteer programs." (Linda Graff: “Best of All” pg. 33)

  • Some additional resources:
    CharityVillage. Best Practices in staff and volunteer relations.
  • Scheier, Ivan. Building Staff Volunteer Relations. 1993 Energize Inc.
  • Energize. The Middle Management Barrier.
  • Energize. When the Ax Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers.
  • Betsy McFarland. Developing Good Staff-Volunteer Relationships.
    Staff/Volunteer Relations section of the Ivan Scheier Volunteerism Archive. Classic, timeless information on the subject.

Donna Lockhart is a trainer and consultant with The RETHINK Group. Her focus is on "developing volunteer capacity." Donna designed the CharityVillage Building a Great Volunteer Program campus course. She facilitates a wide range of workshops and training sessions in volunteer engagement. For more information visit:

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