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May 1999

Staff Resistance and the Highly Skilled Volunteer

By Susan J. Ellis

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As this is the middle of Spring conference season, I have been on the road quite a bit these past weeks. Being in the field is a wonderful reality check, although it can be depressing as well as inspiring. For some reason I have hit a wave of workshops in which participants have struggled with what to “do” with volunteers.   Ironically, it seems to be hardest for folks to imagine putting high-powered volunteers to work effectively. Of course, if these same community members offered checks for $10,000, no one would have trouble spending the cash! But actually having to deal face-to-face with someone able to contribute services of that high a VALUE is something else again.

While not a startling revelation, I have become more and more convinced that a major reason employees are hesitant to accept high-skill volunteers is a lack of creativity in creating assignments for volunteers to accomplish. The problem is two-fold. First, whether conscious or not, too many staff have low expectations of the skills or qualifications of potential volunteers, and so design work posing minimal risk if not done properly. Second, volunteer projects are most often carved out of the daily (or periodic) activities of the paid staff, defining volunteers as “assistants” focused on the same goals and strategies as the employees.

Both of these approaches are seriously flawed. Worse, they lead almost inevitably to conflict. Consider:

  • The people attracted to low-level volunteer work will likely be, well,
    low-skilled themselves. So self-fulfilling prophecy runs its course. Employees may appreciate the volunteer “help,” but will hardly see volunteers as key advisors, for example.
  • If someone with higher skills winds up in these assignments, she or he will soon chafe to do something more challenging. But, in their wish to keep the work simple so that volunteers (transitory as they are imagined to be) can be interchangeable, employees resist adding more responsibilities to one volunteer’s schedule.
  • Volunteer work becomes totally associated with employee work. Now if volunteers are substantively different from the staff in age, background, or whatever, how can employees trust the work will be done as they would do it? And doesn’t this open the door to volunteers feeling that they are doing what employees are paid to do?

I’d like to offer a suggestion. Gather a few people together in your office and run a think tank called “What If....” The object is to try to wipe the slate clean and see what would happen if you started from scratch. Answer the following questions

  • What if we asked our clients/customers what they most wanted from us? Would they name the services we are providing now or different ones? What gaps might they identify?
  • What if we expanded our client base beyond the individuals or groups we serve now? Might we offer programs to, say, the extended families of our primary target population? Their employers? Who else?
  • What if we provided services on the days and times most useful to our consumers? What would these be?
  • What if we were able to coordinate our services with other services our clients receive from other agencies? How could this be done to minimize duplication and maximize resources?
  • What if we had no staff at all and had to hire from the beginning? What qualifications would we seek today? What schedule would we ask?

You can see how these questions open up new possibilities. Do any of the ideas suggest completely new ways volunteers might be put to work? If nothing else, try to avoid the “staff assistant” scenario. I’m not saying it’s wrong to assign volunteers to help employees. It’s just limiting. Try: what do our clients or their families need that no employee is ever going to be able to offer, but that would strengthen the service they receive from our organization?

Please share YOUR examples of non-staff-related volunteer assignments that you have developed which tap special talents or higher level skills. Or let us know how you elicit creativity from your organization when it comes to volunteer work design.


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Have you read Susan's books? She's authored 14!

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Just released! Understand the concept of virtual volunteering and integrate online service into all volunteer involvement.


From the Top Down

Outlines the key executive decisions necessary to lay the foundation for effective volunteer involvement: policies, budgeting, staffing, employee-volunteer relationships, legal issues, cost and value of volunteers, and more. Revised in 2010


By the PeopleBy the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers

Newly revised and updated, this book remains the only presentation of the full scope and depth of volunteer activity throughout three centuries of American history.


Volunteer Management Audit
A validating tool for analyzing the effectiveness of an organization's volunteer management practices, with complete Scoresheets and instructions to conduct the process successfully.


Book coverChildren as Volunteers

How to integrate volunteers under the age of 14 into an existing adult volunteer program: multi-age teams, designing work, preparing the agency, liaisoning with schools, and legal issues.


Book coverThe (Help!) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management

Managing a volunteer program part-time? Or just not enough hours in a day? Full task analysis of the job of volunteer program manager, how to build a management team and engage volunteers in leadership of the program.


Book coverLeading the Way to Successful Volunteer Involvement: Practical Tools for Busy Executives

A set of checklists, worksheets, idea stimulators, and other practical guides for senior-level leaders to incorporate volunteer involvement as a key ingredient in the overall strategy of an organization.


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