Human resources is a specialized designation that takes years of study and experience to complete. Yet many smaller non-profits are managing their most valuable assets with little or no training. This situation is even more complex for non-profits who use a combination of paid and unpaid (volunteer) staff. One of the biggest and most important decisions a non-profit will make, and one that should be revisited periodically, is how the agency will divide the workload between paid and unpaid staff.
The question of how or whether to compensate staff is a complex one:
- Which roles are suited to volunteers and which to staff?
- Who oversees the work of the volunteers?
- What happens when the volunteer doesn’t do a good job or fades away with no succession plan?
- When does a volunteer agency make the move to hire its first staff member?
- What happens if the agency doesn’t receive enough members or donors to pay for their staffing model?
- How is staff compensation set?
For small NPO’s and those relying on unpredictable revenue streams, these are big questions, that unfortunately have no ‘right’ answer. The board and the senior staff members (if there are any) should thoroughly discuss these questions. Their decisions should be intentional and consistent. Failure to plan will inevitably result in inequitable treatment of an agency’s strongest supporters and ultimately, could result in high rates of turnover, low moral or even legal action. Good planning will mitigate these risks.
Most non-profits begin life with a board of directors and a few other strongly affiliated volunteers. The organizing volunteers share a vision and passion that focuses them on doing the work required to incorporate, develop a mandate and begin to build an organization. Often, these founders, not only volunteer for the organization, they might also be the first donors in order to fund the start up. At some point, most non-profits look for more people to help to implement their mission. This is the time to think through the impact of decisions about staffing the organization.
Typically, when deciding whether to use paid or volunteer staffing, an organization should consider the nature of the role, budget, the ability and availability of volunteers to fill roles, and the ability of the organization to manage the volunteers. There should be some rational for which positions are paid and which are not. And most importantly, these decisions should be transparent to everyone.
When contemplating whether a role should be a volunteer or paid position the organization should consider:
- Does the agency have enough, secure funds to pay staff?
- Is the position a “need to have” or a “nice to have?”
- Will the service be delivered better by a volunteer or by a staff member?
- Is the position appealing enough to attract and retain a volunteer?
- How are other, similar positions staffed?
- How will staff (paid or unpaid) be recruited, screened, trained and supervised?
Perhaps the biggest fallacy of all time is that volunteer labour is free. There is an art and a science to implementing a program using volunteers. If an organization is large enough to employ an experienced volunteer coordinator, that person will be able to provide great insight into which roles are appropriate for volunteers. They will also oversee the volunteer program.
Organizations that do not have a professional volunteer coordinator will have more challenges. Typically, the volunteers leading a small non-profit are committed, knowledgeable and able to work with minimal supervision. They expect that everyone who volunteers will be similarly motivated and are often disappointed when they bring on new volunteers who don’t perform as expected. The new volunteers may also be disappointed by the lack of supervision, training and appreciation they receive.
Three strategies that should help to mitigate the risk associated with running a new volunteer program are:
- Assign one key volunteer the role of volunteer coordinator, provide them with training and connect them to your community’s local group of volunteer administrators.
- Have written instructions and a position description for every volunteer role.
- Ensure that someone will work with the volunteer for at least the first cycle of their new role and continue to track their reliability in completing tasks for at least a few cycles. If you don’t have time to do this, delay bringing on a new volunteer.
Once an agency has paid staff, clearly identifying which roles are voluntary and which are paid will reduce future chaos. Too often, agencies have paid and unpaid workers doing identical jobs. The worst situation is when they try to do this covertly. They don’t tell the volunteers that some of their counterparts are being paid. Inevitably, the secret gets out and the agency loses some of its most loyal members.
Even when everyone knows that some workers are compensated and others not, there are risks of blurring the line between paid and unpaid work. Sometimes the volunteers view the role as a stepping stone to paid employment and are disillusioned when this is not the case. Often the paid workers begin to worry about their job security. It may even be the impetus for a staff group to begin discussions about unionization.
In an ideal world, all agencies would have the funds available to hire expertise in human resources and volunteer management. This combined expertise creates a strong, interconnected team of paid and unpaid staff. In the real world, many non-profits are doing their best to deliver great programs or services with whatever combination of paid and unpaid staff they can muster. These agencies must resist the temptation to expand in a happenstance manner.
Satisfied, hardworking and engaged volunteers and paid staff are an agency’s best ambassadors. Early and thorough planning about the complex relationship between the board and its paid and unpaid staff is critical to building a strong staff team and a resilient organization.
Sandra Dunham is the sole-proprietor of Streamline New Perspective Solutions. Streamline New Perspective Solutions offers management consulting services for non-profit organizations. Please visit www.streamlinenps.ca