Things have changed significantly in the world around us over the last 30 years, but many nonprofits continue to use the same outdated volunteer playbook as they did in the 1980s. While most volunteer managers several decades ago would be expected to maintain the entire volunteer program and serve as the point of contact for all serving individuals, the changing nature of our social sector demands something new.
THE OLD MODEL
Before this transformation took place, interactions between the volunteer and the organization were quite simple. The person designated as the volunteer manager handled all things volunteer – from the creation and scheduling of opportunities to the rectification of complaints, this individual was solely responsible. In many ways, the “Volunteer Department” was isolated from the rest of the nonprofit and had few meaningful ties with staff members and directors in other departments or programs.
THE NEW MODEL
As organizations have grown and adjusted to the new landscape, the dynamic between volunteers and the entity has changed substantially. In their book Volunteer Management, authors McCurley and Lynch describe the revolution this way:
“As volunteer involvement has become more sophisticated, this situation has changed considerably. Volunteers have ‘diffused’ throughout the structure of the agency, become a more integral part of it, and sometimes assumed tasks and responsibilities that had previously been done by paid staff. As new activities were undertaken by volunteers they began to work more in partnership with staff, operating as ‘aides’ or members of teams, or simply as assigned workers to a staff department. They began to work regularly ‘with’ and ‘for’ other members of staff than the Volunteer Program Manager. In some cases they have been totally assigned to other staff.” (p.231)
No longer is the Volunteer Manager solely responsible for the supervision and guidance of volunteers – a new “relationship triangle” has emerged in which volunteers will interact with both the Volunteer Manager and the agency staff under which they work.
This transformation is a powerful one, and there are signs that organizations have not handled it well thus far. A 2008 study from Australia found that roughly one-third of volunteers reported negative aspects of their relationships with paid staff members at the organization with which they served (McCurley and Lynch, p.229-230).
In short, poor volunteer relationship management is becoming the norm.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
If your nonprofit starts to implement the new model without the right groundwork, a heavy price could be paid. As the volunteer program becomes more complex and greater expectations are placed upon paid staff members, many on your team may become fearful, frustrated, or even resentful. The restructuring may exacerbate fears that:
- He/she will be unable to manage the volunteers now under their care effectively
- His/her job will become irrelevant or outsourced to unpaid volunteers
- Volunteers will not perform the work as well as he/she would and the quality of the program will suffer
Additionally, the new responsibility of managing volunteers will undoubtedly divert employees’ time and resources away from other projects. Consequently, they will often become bitter that their workloads have increased without their consent or input.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Break down walls around the volunteer program.
Under the new paradigm, staff members will become the primary relationship the volunteer has with the organization. Volunteer Program Managers must build relationships with relevant staff members to ensure the transition is going smoothly. Especially at first, volunteer managers should be spending more time with staff members than the volunteers themselves.
Clarify the role of the Volunteer Manager.
While the distinction may feel arbitrary, the title given to the Volunteer Manager shapes the role this individual will have. For example, “Director of Volunteers” and “Director of Volunteer Services” sound similar but signal very different responsibilities. The Director of Volunteers may be expected to maintain relationships with individual volunteers while the Director of Volunteer Services is tasked with enhancing the volunteer services carried out at the departmental/programmatic level.
Redefining this person’s role (and putting it in writing) is vital. Volunteer Program Managers must become primarily focused on equipping, training, and consulting staff members how to oversee volunteers in their care.
Change the Narrative
Let’s face it – most of us humans are not fans of change. When told that things are going to look and function differently, the gut response is often pushback. The volunteer program manager’s goal should be to create a new, positive vision for how the new model will amplify the impact the organization is able to have on the community. To do this, the team must develop “a sense of benefits being greater than the difficulties or problems” and “a feeling of control over the situation.” If staff members feel disempowered or overwhelmed, the entire culture of the organization can become an increasingly hostile one.
Build Staff/Volunteer Trust
Do NOT take resistance to the new model personally or criticize them for difficulties they’re having. Hesitations can be perfectly natural, and harsh responses can prove detrimental. If the Volunteer Program Manager attempts to force departments to comply with an iron fist, he/she will likely create a hostile environment that increases both staff and volunteer turnover.
I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.