Staff Resistance and Highly-Skilled Volunteers

By Susan J. Ellis

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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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Anonymous, Massachusetts , USA

I am writing as member of the volunteer ranks as opposed to being paid staff. I have been reading through these forums to gain some understanding of what future changes I might expect from our museum's management regarding volunteers. Although much of it does, many of the accepted principles found herein are not applicable at this organization. This is not to say they shouldn't be, but how these concepts would be implemented is the question.

The museum is a major attraction in the region, and is quite vast in terms of size and holdings. We differ from many other organizations in that we maintain and display highly technical equipment and machinery, as well as the more typical historical artifacts found in museums.

In contrast to many of the examples I've read, in this case, the volunteers possess virtually all of the technical know how, and share a long history with this equipment. Most of us work or have worked in the subject field professionally, and have more than three quarters of a century of collective experience. This has always been the case as long as I've been around. Historically, it has been the volunteers that have initiated and executed most of the exhibit development that has taken place in the 50 years since the museum's opening.

Everything however is about to change. There has already been a shift in trend from the status quo regarding the volunteers. Our role as it seems, is about to be reevaluated, and most likely more restricted. This includes a more formalized volunteer application procedure, I.D badges, sign in sheets, etc. All of which are fine. Also circulating are rumors of activity reports, project proposals, procedures, and risk assessments which are while annoying, are certainly manageable. The topic of key control, and limiting access to exhibits, and project planning and development are the most concerning of the changes taking place. Many of the volunteers who built these exhibits with their own hands (and sometimes money) are facing being locked out of these areas. The biggest fear is the place moving in the wrong direction toward having a polarized environment where the attitude is "they're just volunteers." There is a volunteer coordinator who we should be dealing with directly Unfortunately, that position is only a collateral duty, and the person is very busy with their primary responsibilities. There has been extensive staff turnover in the last year or so, and just about all of the administrators that had any technical knowledge have left. This would be fine if their subordinate workers had even minimally adequate understanding of the machines that they "maintain." This is unfortunately not the case. The management structure is the epitome of the "upside down triangle." The office is top heavy with directors of this, and directors of that, none of which have any experience whatsoever with the technical side of the museum's holdings. There is no middle management present, and a only a handful of unskilled general purpose maintenance workers at the floor level. "Maintenance staff" is even an exaggeration, because most of their skills do not extend beyond basic janitorial duties.

In addition to absorbing another nearby museum, a conventional one but of similar context, the organization hired a new Director of Collections who oversees both facilities. This seems to be a very broad and all encompassing position. There seems to be much confusion over the jurisdiction of this director even among the other staff. In a world of ever changing titles, I think the intent is for this individual to be a "director of operations," subordinate only to the Executive Director. So far this has been more self proclaimed than defined as so by the organization. They are currently conducting interviews for a new Executive Director as well.

My goal is for an efficient, mutually respectful working relationship between volunteers and staff. I know that we are not totally unique in the fact that we have a large contingent of highly skilled volunteers at this museum. I also know that other institutions have built wonderful team atmospheres among all of their people whether they are paid employees or not. I think that we are unique however in that compared to similar museums, the stark contrast in knowledge between volunteer and staff member can not be paralleled. The role of the volunteers therefore should be further expanded, not restricted. Ego, fear, and insecurity seem to be driving forces behind this negative attitude toward our dedicated volunteers, and if we can't find a way to work together effectively, it will be the downfall of an otherwise great place to visit.

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, USA

Thank you for your well-articulated and concerning response to my 1999 Hot Topic (it is now 2016 and -- clearly and sadly -- the core issues never change). I am going to reply to you directly and privately, but wanted to allow your comment to become public. This situation needs some external mediation or, as you predict, the future is very cloudy for your museum. Hope we can help in some way.