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This page is devoted to the management of volunteer programs at the federal government level.

~ September 2011~


M. Heinlein, MA, MS, CAVS *

How often do you receive last minute calls for volunteers?  Sometimes the request comes through e-mail, or phone call. Often, it’s really just because someone saw you in the hallway and “forgot” to think about how volunteers can help them long-term, but are needed now for a “special” project.  I get the requests for volunteers to help with a mailing for an upcoming event or provide directions to guests coming to the facility.  The best one yet?  A volunteer is needed because the department secretary called in sick and someone is needed to answer the phones. 

As directors of volunteers, we are frustrated that volunteers are not being utilized properly.  Johnson makes the case in her article that it’s because “it’s easier to just do the work yourself” instead of taking the time to train and explain what is needed to the volunteer. 

On the other end of the spectrum, how often do volunteers stroll into your office saying “there’s nothing for me to do” and this is only two hours into their four-hour shift?  Yet, staff “remember” the volunteer department for short-term projects versus the long-term value they can provide to extend the resources of the organization.  I like to use the analogy (thanks to a previous mentor) that volunteers are not frozen, cannot be thawed out to meet your needs in 30 minutes or less.  According to Johnson, “it’s a short-term fix, not a sustainable solution.”  When staff take on more work, volunteers feel less needed, less utilized, and sad they are no longer needed to fulfill the mission of the organization they so want to be a part of.  It’s a ripple effect that could take a long time to repair.  Role reversal?  Absolutely. 

Role Reversal: Volunteerism’s Identity Crisis


It appears that volunteerism is experiencing shifts of seismic proportions.  Volunteers are supplanting paid staff.  Paid staff have taken over the volunteers’ work.  What gives?  Are in the midst of an identity crisis?  What are the risks?  And, can it make us stronger?

These adjustments may just be growing pains, a natural part of the development of volunteerism as a discipline.  As the field expands and become more professionalized, roles are bound to shift.  One could argue that they are also a testament to those who have worked to raise awareness of the power of community support.  People finally get it!  Volunteers can add significant value to a program’s operations.  So much so that, in the midst of severe budget woes, volunteers are the chosen life raft to save a program from extinction.  It remains to be seen whether this is strategy that will reap rewards.  I suspect it will depend on the organization.

Reverse Supplantation

This radical role reversal, that of supplanting of paid staff with volunteers, is not common within the organizations I work with, however.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  In the name of expediency, a kind of reverse supplantation appears to be gaining ground.

Most organizations I coach continue to include paid volunteer coordinators in their staffing model.  Volunteer coordination, however, is almost always part of a much larger job.  As such, volunteer management tasks are often relegated to the back burner, thus initiating the start of a vicious cycle.  As the focus on volunteer engagement disappears, the total number of volunteers and depth of participation wanes.  Ultimately, as program pressures mount, staff are compelled to assume the work of volunteers, often citing “it’s just easier for me to do it myself.” 

It’s a short-term fix, but not a sustainable solution.  The more staff take on, the less support they receive from volunteers.  Ultimately, they find themselves operating in a vacuum, completely solo.  What happens when the program’s service need expands?  There’s a frantic search for volunteers, but no one can be found. 

But, is ineffective delegation really the root cause here?

The Larger Questions

Organizations may have perfectly logical reasons why they have chosen to shift their responsibilities one way or another.  In the rush to find an answer, though, I believe we are ignoring the critical questions that beg to be answered -- What is the concrete value a volunteer manager brings to the table?  How does an organization really build capacity for the future?  What is the most effective mix of the human resources (both paid and unpaid) in delivering on our promises to communities? 

In terms of return on investment, it is easy to connect the dots between the work of fundraising professionals and the organization's bottom line.  Not so with volunteerism. Yes, we can calculate the hourly value of a volunteer's time with a widely-accepted metric, but does the presence of a paid professional increase the impact of the volunteer’s contribution to the organization as a whole?  Would volunteers meet the goals and objectives of their program without paid staff to support them?  Would a loss in program productivity be acceptable, if the budget was spared?  (For answers to these questions and more see research study, Volunteer Management: Practices and Retention of Volunteers by UPS Foundation and others.  Link on Volunteer Today home page.)

It’s unfortunate that a crisis-oriented, “bunker and beach head” mentality has assumed so much of our day-to-day experience.  People appear to be staking out their territories, rather than finding ways to cooperate more successfully.  Sadly, executive decisions to supplant paid positions, and strip people of their livelihoods, only exacerbate this reality.   

Scarcity or Abundance? You Get to Choose

What limits our ability to find viable solutions is our focus on scarcity.  Rather than honing in on the abundance that exists in our communities, we are focused on what we lack.  In order to make the most of the tiny (perceived) resources at our disposal, we feel a need to make “either-or” decisions.  Paid coordinator or unpaid volunteer?  Is that decision really necessary in an abundant world? 

Frustrated coordinators woman seated often complain that “no one in my community wants to help; what we’re asking them to do is just too hard” thus justifying the need to supplant volunteer work.  Maintaining this scarcity mindset distracts us from the real task at hand.  It also keeps us from actively seeking and finding the resources we need because, face it, we just don’t believe they’re out there.

A mentality of scarcity also shuts us down, eliminates innovative ideas, and discourages us from asking the most difficult questions of all -- Is our program as effective as it can be?  Are our day-to-day tasks focused, with laser-like precision on creating an impact?  Are we willing to slay some sacred cows to do better?  Are we willing to do the difficult work necessary to expand our connections with people who can help?  Is our organization a place where the community can work in true partnership with us, and not as an add on?

Candid self reflection, combined with an uncompromising belief that abundant resources do indeed exist, can be a helpful antidote.  More than ever, volunteer coordinators must sharpen their leadership skills -- to remove any obstacles, within reason, to full participation; to design an open environment where people are able to join fully in the adventure; to help everyone assume the appropriate level of responsibility; and to celebrate as we make a difference together.  tobijohnsonphoto

Volunteer coordinators who consider leadership their highest calling, and have taken steps to improve their skills in this arena, are likely to be the greatest asset to an organization.  And, when the belt tightening occurs, the question won’t be whether paid staff or volunteers should do the work.  Rather, the volunteer-staff collaborative will have already been asking itself, howcan we connect with the resources necessary for our good cause?  And, they will probably already have an answer.

Tobi Johnson is president of Tobi Johnson & Associates, a nonprofit consulting firm that helps organizations strengthen their volunteer engagement and improve program performance.  Tobi recently joined the virtual faculty of 501c3University.com, and she publishes Tobi’s Nonprofit Management Blog, where she regularly shares free tools and tips to help nonprofits not only survive but thrive in today’s busy world. 

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*The author of the Federal Government Volunteer Programs page is melissa.heinlein@va.gov, MA, MS, CAVS. Melissa is the Chief, Voluntary Service at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, (215) 823-5868. Before venturing to the nonprofit sector, Melissa Heinlein spent time working for financial, IT, and pharmaceutical companies. With her business and marketing background, she took those skills and worked for Junior Achievement and structured a formal volunteer program at Hope Springs Equestrian Therapy before going into healthcare at Abington Memorial Hospital as the Assistant Director of Volunteer Resources. Her latest adventure is Chief, Voluntary Service at Philadelphia VA Medical Center. Melissa is past president and member of the Delaware Valley of Association for Volunteer Administration.  She is a member of the Pennsylvania Society of Directors of Volunteers in Healthcare, Inc. and held positions as education chair (state and local), vice-president (state), and member-at-large).  She holds a MA in Communications from West Chester University, MS in Administration of Human Services from Chestnut Hill College, and is a certified administrator of volunteer services through AHVRP. She is currently a doctoral candidate with her PhD in Human Development at Marywood University. She also contributed to the first textbook on volunteer administration.  In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, writing, sports, and exploring the outdoors. She prides herself when she talks about interacting with volunteers 5-99 years old – horses and dogs included.

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The National Association of Volunteer Programs in Local Government (NAVPLG) is an association of administrators, coordinators and directors of volunteer programs in local government. Its purpose is to strengthen volunteer programs in local government through leadership, advocacy, networking and information exchange. NAVPLG is an affiliate of the National Association of Counties and is seeking affiliate status with the National League of Cities. Cost is $20 for individuals and $75 for group local government membership. An affiliate membership is $25 and is intended for those who are not local government members but may have an interest in the group. There is a quarterly newsletter, national network, and access to NACo's Volunteerism Project. For more information contact Robin Popik, who is a Volunteer Resource Supervisor. She can be reached by phone at 972-941-7114. Be sure to mention you read about this in Volunteer Today.

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