When a Volunteer Transforms into an Employee

By Susan J. Ellis

Just as I was thinking about this month’s Hot Topic subject, an e-mail from a colleague raised one. She asked whether I could direct her to written materials describing what happens if a volunteer is hired to fill a paid staff position. Although I have heard many conversations on this subject over the years, I was hard pressed to identify much that had been written down. So instead I offered to make this the Hot Topic this month and request the good thinking of our site visitors in the response section.

I’ll admit to conflicted feelings about tapping volunteers to become employees. On one hand, this naturally feels complimentary, since it sends the good message that the organization views volunteers as a talent pool of equal merit to its employees. On the other hand, I see three possible concerns:

  • If a volunteer comes on board in the hope of eventually becoming an employee, it transforms what ought to be the freedoms of volunteering into more of an “audition.” In other words, the volunteer is less likely to criticize or give unconventional input, will accept tasks that may not be his or her first choice, etc. -- all in an effort to show how s/he would fit in as an employee.
  • Being paid is not necessarily a “promotion out of” volunteering. If there are too many congratulations or comments like “this person used to be a volunteer but now we’ve hired him/her,” listeners might infer that the new employee was elevated rather than transferred. Given that the majority of volunteers don’t even desire full-time employment with the organization, such an implication is unfair.
  • Finally, I’d advise great caution against saying or even hinting to any volunteer that contributing services might lead to a paid job. This could lead to false expectations and even a lawsuit, should the employment not materialize.

When It Happens

In the real world, of course, volunteers who really do want to join the paid staff of the organization will apply for vacant positions. And their experience as volunteers ought to weigh in their favor, presuming that they have been competent and productive. However, anecdotal evidence reveals that making the transition from volunteer status to that of an employee is often much harder than anticipated. Here are a few factors:

  • Employment generally means a change from a part-time volunteer schedule to full time. These extra hours can change both how the ex-volunteer feels about the workplace and how colleagues view him or her. Small irritants that seemed insignificant when only encountered once or twice a week for a few hours now magnify into more serious issues. The enthusiasm of focusing volunteer attention on tasks a few hours a week becomes tempered by daily/weekly regularity. Where once the volunteer could ignore administrative memos, computer security procedures, weekly statistical reports, and other mundane responsibilities of employees, they now become a part of the job.
  • Relationships change between the ex-volunteer and other volunteers and with employee colleagues. If the volunteer enjoyed friendships with other volunteers, there may be disappointment in store. Just as employees promoted to leadership positions speak of being treated differently by their former colleagues, the same perspective shift occurs when an ex-volunteer now spends full-time in the organization. Suddenly the work becomes of primary importance and it is harder to mesh schedules with volunteer friends. Meanwhile, because the new employee is not really “new,” the normal get-acquainted period with other employees is skipped—although, in truth, most employees don’t actually get to know volunteers very well. It may come as a surprise to discover that other employees and the ex-volunteer still feel some distance, even after several months in the new situation.
  • No matter how hard we try to apply the same standards of performance for both employees and volunteers, non-paid staff are often given more leeway. Expectations are simply lower, or we accept less work or lower quality as a cost of working with volunteers. This should never be the case, but it is hard to ignore its existence. If such different standards are at work in an organization, then an ex-volunteer now in a paying job may find that the same work previously accepted without comment is now criticized or that other rules have changed to make the work harder. The new hire’s performance is scrutinized more closely and colleague employees may suddenly seem less satisfied than they were when the person was a volunteer. Often both sides are surprised—and dismayed—by this.

    It is worth noting that the opposite situation is also fraught with potential problems: when an employee leaves the job (often for retirement but also for other reasons) and then returns as a volunteer. The situation has changed, but expectations—particularly about relationships—have not. The ex-employee is suddenly without the assumed privileges of a full-time staff member, from small things such as no longer having a locker or keys to the front door, to the very real change in what work will be assigned.

What Can We Do?

If any of our visitors have had experience with this transformation of a volunteer into an employee or vice versa, please share your observations and advice with the rest of us! For example:

  • How do we strike a balance between wanting volunteers to be seen as a talent pool while avoiding any “promises” of employment?
  • Should there be a required break between volunteering and taking a paid job in the same setting?
  • How can an organization make a clear demarcation between volunteering and employment so that true orientation can occur and new boundaries defined?

Let’s see what our collective wisdom can surface on this subject. Thanks in advance!

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Anonymous, Watford Hertfordshire, England

If a long standing volunteer (10 years) is covered at holiday times by a person being paid is this fair?

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, United States

I'm not sure where "fairness" comes in here. Are you saying that, if work is being done by a volunteer, then no paid employee should ever be expected to "cover" for the volunteer if s/he is away due to illness, scheduled time off, or other reason? First, BOTH the employee and the volunteer have a standard of care to give to your recipients of service. So the first question is: with the volunteer away, would clients not be served unless someone substituted? If that's the case, then your organization is quite correct in making alternate plans for assuring the service continues without interruption. If there are a number of volunteers with the proper training to fill in, then of course you can begin by seeing if any of them are available as substitutes. But ultimately, again if the bottom line is service to clients, it would be necessary to ask one of the full-time staff to step in.

Change the question to both people being employees. When a paid work colleague goes on vacation, what happens? I suspect it's the same equation. If the work MUST be done in the interim, someone will be assigned to cover. If it can wait until the person returns, then there's no reason to ask another person to do it.

I don't think the issue is paid or volunteer. It's the priority placed on that particular service during the time the usual worked is absent.

Hope this helps your conversations about this.

- Susan