| ENGAGING & MANAGING 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.
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. Volunteers 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:
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.
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.
Glenis 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. firstname.lastname@example.org