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On this page are ideas to help you work more efficiently with volunteers. There are tips on recruiting, engaging, coordinating, and managing the work of volunteers.

~ September 2011 ~


Editors Note: Glenis Chapin recently retired as the administrator of volunteer programs for county government. Her sage advice after more than a decade working within a unionized environment can be used in nonprofits or other levels of government. As she points out there is no "quick fix" with the issue of supplanting.

Sixteen years of managing a decentralized volunteer program in Marion County, Oregon, provided me with several opportunities to address management requests about backfilling with volunteers when employees are laid off.
When the county’s volunteer services coordinator position was created, it was intended to work cooperatively with the county’s unions. From the beginning and to the present, I have been open to any questions or concerns unions might have about volunteers. I made every effort to make sure that the county’s program was built on best practices in the volunteer management field. My strategy was to keep union representatives and department staff on the same page with the intent and purpose of the volunteer program. Policies were developed with interests of the county, unions and volunteers in mind. Union representatives were invited to review and approve the first version of the county's Volunteers and Volunteer Service policy. On only a few occasions have questions developed from one of the county's five unions about the use or placement of volunteers. These have been addressed successfully using the established policies and procedures.

My first experience with backfilling vacant positions with volunteers came in the form of a memo from the county administrative officer (CAO) in 1997 when the county faced budget cuts if a tax limitation measure passed. As a result of a brainstorm with county department heads, the CAO directed these two requests to me, the county’s volunteer service coordinator:

“How can the county maximize the use of volunteers? Implicit in this question was that volunteers might be used to perform the functions of regular employees lost to the county as a result of revenue reductions.”

“How can the county maximize school-to-work program participation?  I think this question also implies that school-to-work participants could perform the functions of regular employees lost to the county as a result of the measure. It also has labor management implications.”

My response to the CAO was, “Although volunteers may be picking up work that is left to the remaining department staff after layoffs have been enacted, volunteers will be doing what they have always done—providing support for paid staff and implementing service that would be otherwise unavailable. unionmarchersVolunteers are not replacing paid staff because if dollars are restored, staff will be reinstated, volunteers or not.”

Volunteer program procedures in the form of a volunteer manager’s handbook describe this best practice in more detail:

• A volunteer job should always be created to support paid staff and must never have been a paid position. Volunteer positions and paid positions are created and kept separate always.
• Volunteer jobs should provide additional assistance to the department and not be developed to cover core departmental jobs.
• If a paid position is not filled, but will be eventually, a volunteer cannot be placed in that position until a paid person is hired.
• A prospective employee may not "volunteer" until he or she is hired. Officially, a person becomes an employee when the job offer is accepted, regardless of when he or she begins work.
• Most volunteer positions should be developed as part-time positions that can be done on a flexible schedule.

In the return memo I also expressed my concerns about increasing the number of volunteers without a concurrent increase in infrastructure to train and support staff. If an increase in volunteer numbers isn’t facilitated thoughtfully, I explained, hostility toward volunteers could occur by those who viewed them as replacing lost co-workers. It was important to remind the CAO that staff suffers emotionally from the loss of valued co-workers. They need time to adjust. Volunteers can be an asset if properly introduced into a post-layoff environment.

In the three downturns that I experienced with Marion County, as soon as layoffs were announced, departments were less willing to consider new volunteers. Creation of new volunteer positions dwindled. The reasons included “no time right now because of pending layoffs,” “too busy preparing for layoffs,” “need to wait and see after the cuts,” etc. So I learned to be patient, supportive and to wait. I learned that the volunteer position blockage will free up after the cuts are made, the new fiscal year begins, and the dust settles, nerves calm. Only then is department staff able to see the gaps created by layoffs and translate the loss into volunteer positions that support the work picked up by remaining staff.

Replacing lost staff with volunteers has come up less frequently in subsequent downturns. I hope it is because of the years I spent educating and coaching staff about the how and why of creating and supporting volunteer positions in county departments. I include the same information in my online volunteer manager’s handbook. Even though staff may use employment position titles for volunteer positions, I redirect the effort because it is important to keep the titles and duties of volunteer positions completely separate from paid positions. I gently suggest that instead of a Department Specialist 2, the scanning position for a volunteer is really a Document Specialist because no paid position exists by that title. The duties of the Document Specialist are specifically scanning and it does not contain the variety of duties described in the employee position; it is not full time.

My stance on this subject has remained the same since that first memo in 1997. Generally, when approached about the idea of replacing staff with volunteers, I see it as a teachable moment of which I take advantage. It is the opportunity to explain the ways in which volunteers can be valuable in a downturn. So instead of a wild-eyed “you want to do what!” reaction, I can present a calm redirection illuminating the actual possibilities. Cultivating trust with the county’s unions has been beneficial in these instances. The program was created with every effort to eliminate suspicion and to remain consistent about the way in which volunteers would be placed in county departments, upturn or downturn.

Hard times are an opportunity for the volunteer services coordinator to shine for he or she is the one who can offer solutions in a difficult time. Granted, volunteers aren't free, but the costs associated with volunteer are often in-kind or manageable within existing budgets, even in a downturn. Done right, placing a volunteer in a department that has suffered cuts can be a great morale booster, kind of a cavalry of one. I have learned not to push until staff has had time to grieve about the loss of co-workers, programs and funds. I have found that I am better served to remain flexible and ready to respond when the spark of interest finally ignites. Success is truly knowing your customers, anticipating what they need and being ready to provide for them when the time is appropriate.

photoGlenis retired from Marion County, Oregon, in 2011 where she served as the volunteer services coordinator for more than 16 years. During her tenure she created and implemented a centralized volunteer program for the county departments. In addition to training staff, recruiting volunteers and providing program support, Glenis was also a founding board member of the National Association of Volunteer Programs in Local Government (NAVPLG) and served as chair of three professional development conferences sponsored by the Mid-Valley Volunteer Managers Association.  An experienced volunteer engagement trainer, Glenis has a master’s degree in adult education and more than 30 years volunteer management experience. She received the NAVPLG Outstanding Volunteer Administrator Award in 2010. glenischapin@q.com

See Who Made This Issue Possible

Thank You Page


Read Educating Staff and Volunteers

Susan Ellis

article on

Training Staff and Volunteers on weathering the storm of lay-offs


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Portland State University
Volunteer Engagement and Leadership Program

Recruiting Volunteers
Begins Monday, September 26, 2011

Wonder about the changes in volunteering behavior.  What is driving it?  How man on computercan you accommodate episodic volunteers?  Should your organization go to targeted recruiting?  Build a recruitment plan.  What is appropriate to screen different types of volunteers?  Learn and discuss all these issues.  Sign up for Recruiting Volunteers a fully online and interactive class for those who are managing volunteers or hope to.   Do assignments with your own program in mind, talk with others who share your enthusiasm for the administration of volunteers and want to improve their skills. 

For more information: http://distancedegree.pdx.edu//programs/v_engagement.php

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Online College Class --Begins September 25, 2011

Recruiting Volunteers

Portland State University



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