Volunteer & Staff Roles

by Anne Schink

The subject of volunteer/staff relations is a topic that frequently appears on requests for training. At one workshop we decided to create a list of responsibilities, dividing them into two columns—one for staff and one for volunteers. Many items appeared on both lists! That created lots of interesting conversation and opportunities to learn from each other. We all concluded that the mission, structure, size and scale of the organization had a profound impact on the view of who had the primary responsibility for what. While not entirely satisfying to all participants, the answer of “it all depends” appeared to be the most appropriate!

Many believed that staff ‘develop’ and volunteers ‘deliver’. Staff members have ‘time-fixed’ boundaries, while volunteers are ‘time flexible.’ Most agreed with this assessment.

Staff provide ‘leadership’ and volunteers ‘direct’ the work. On this point people differed greatly. As mentioned in previous blogs, today’s volunteers often lead projects where the bulk of the work is done by staff. This is more likely true of board members, but it is often true of fundraising and special projects.

Staff are part of the ‘structure’ based on ‘legal requirements’ and are subject to ‘accountability by chain of command.’ By contrast volunteers respond to ‘relationships’ based on ‘commitment’ and ‘boundaries.’ On this point most agreed that the structural nature of staff and organizational relationships make them quite different from volunteers whose connection is not based on a legal or structural requirements, but rather a personal connection to the project or specific task.

Staff hold ‘confidential information.’ Volunteers generally have access to ‘open information.’ Even on these points participants disagreed. Some cited domestic violence and rape crisis center volunteers who deal with confidential information all the time, as do fundraising volunteers.

Staff members often fill positions that require ‘licensing’ whereas volunteers respond to ‘orientation and training.’ Yet many volunteer positions require substantial training or ‘certification.’ Those might include emergency responders, hospice volunteers, or literacy tutors. These volunteers may actually be the professionals.

Staff get paid as a quid pro quo for fulfilling specific job responsibilities and volunteers do it for the ‘love of the work’ and for personal satisfaction. Still, this most obvious distinction did not actually hold true either. Many noted that most people in nonprofits do the work because they believe in the mission. Others argued that for-profit companies sometimes are idealistic and driven by the mission as opposed to the bottom line or profit motivation. In fact, many younger people noted that the blurring the lines between compensation and doing meaningful work is a benchmark of tomorrow’s workplace driven in part by the demands of idealistic young workers.

What does all this mean for volunteer managers? It means that within your own organization, you need to ask these questions. Be really clear about who does what in each department, what the boundaries are around staff responsibilities and volunteer roles. It is the open communication and clear expectations that will build confidence in staff that they are central to the organization’s operations and in volunteers that their contributions are integral to the work of the organization.

So, as we said at the beginning of this blog post, the answer is ‘it all depends!’

Anne B. Schink, a From the Field featured blogger, is a volunteer management consultant and the author of the Nonprofit Readiness Toolkit.

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One Response to Volunteer & Staff Roles

  1. I enjoyed reading this article. Good Job!

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