The Great Divide: Leaders Who Are Paid and Leaders Who Are Volunteers

By Susan J. Ellis

I just returned from Mexico City where a conference about museum volunteering brought me face to face with one of the recurring issues in our field: the disconnect between those who are paid to be coordinators of volunteers and those who, as volunteers themselves, lead other volunteers. Present were full-time volunteer program managers who recruit and place volunteers in their museums and presidents of volunteer councils (or other names), self-governing groups of volunteers who operate inside and outside their museums in a wide variety of activities.

All-volunteer groups and leaders exist in settings other than the cultural arts, of course, notably hospital auxiliary officers; service club and fraternal association presidents; leaders of “friends” groups assisting libraries, parks, and other programs; heads of volunteer emergency response teams; etc. Frequently there are also paid coordinators of volunteers operating in the same environment. So the issues I’m about to discuss affect many people.

Intellectually, everyone at the conference could agree on the common denominators of our roles. Whether paid or unpaid, we all share such mutual tasks and concerns as recruiting volunteers (even if some of us call them “members”), designing work for volunteers to do, keeping them motivated, recognizing their efforts, etc. We also sensed that we all belong to that vague territory we call the “volunteer community.” Yet, despite all we have in common, often we found ourselves operating from quite different perspectives.

What concerns me is the too-frequent underlying tension that exists between the two “sides.” I have heard volunteers disdain the “need” for a paid coordinator and I have heard paid managers bemoan the “problems” of dealing with volunteer leaders. Just as we have long recognized the critical issue of volunteer/employee relationships within our organizations, it’s time to acknowledge our own inability to work together as colleagues in this field as successfully as we might.

The Roots of Tension

With due acknowledgment that what I am about to say does NOT apply universally, the traditional all-volunteer association is in trouble. Even if some groups are presently viable, their long-range future outlook is not rosy. Many are “aging in place” without attracting new or younger members, let alone any type of diversity. They are recycling officers because few members want to take leadership roles. Their projects and amount of money raised are in a downward spiral. Understandably, volunteer leaders are defensive about this situation, especially if they cannot see alternatives to future survival.

It often happens that a paid coordinator of volunteers position is developed by the institution long after the all-volunteer support group has been active – sometimes in reaction to the diminishing returns of the old system. A disproportionate number of these paid management positions are filled by people who honestly don’t have much in common personally with the leadership volunteers they inherit.

I have to admit that, in my experience, the volunteers who lead all-volunteer groups (at least, those groups most connected to institutions, such as auxiliaries, friends, or docent councils) tend to fit many of the stereotypes about volunteers that most of us have been fighting forever. These volunteers tend to be women, middle-aged and older, married, well-to-do, and often proud of not being career oriented. Historically, it was exactly this sort of volunteer who was the powerhouse of social change, using her prestige and contacts to influence key (male) decision-makers and raise large amounts of money. And some still do just that. However, the world has changed around many of these volunteers, who do not necessarily feel inclined to change along with it. So, the paid volunteer program manager and volunteer leader are out of sync with each other.

The seeds of discontent are sown by unwitting executives who add the new staff position without any clear explanation of what will be expected in terms of coordination and cooperation between the new employee and the pre-existing volunteer leaders. In some cases the new in-house volunteer office is given no authority (or direction) to deal with the all-volunteer group. The two programs are left to their own devices to work out a relationship and bump against each other trying to co-exist. And if it’s an ex-volunteer association officer who is hired as the new employee, all sorts of additional friction emerges (especially if no additional training is offered to help the ex-volunteer learn the scope of the new role).


What are some of the consequences of not working together? Here are a few I’ve observed:

  • The volunteer program manager is seen as competition, siphoning off younger, more diverse people from membership in the volunteer association. Of course, it is also felt that such “temporary” volunteers aren’t the sort of folks the association wants anyway!
  • The volunteer association officer assumes a hierarchy in which s/he is on the top and views the volunteer program manager as administrative (largely clerical) staff. Because the volunteer program is structured so radically different from the volunteer association, the officer does not see ways the program manager might be a resource to the association.
  • The volunteer program manager assumes a hierarchy in which s/he is on the top and views the volunteer association as an irrelevant (or irritating) appendage. Because the volunteer program is structured so radically different from the volunteer association, the program manager does not see ways the volunteer association officer might be a resource to the in-house program.
  • The division between what are essentially all institution supporters confuses the community. Debate ensues over whether or not all “volunteers” should be required to “join” the all-volunteer association or be automatically considered members.

I’m sure you can describe other scenarios – and hope you’ll share your experiences by posting a response.

What Can We Do?

Very few forums have been able (or even try) to address the needs of both “halves” of our world. Officers of all-volunteer groups rarely join local associations of directors of volunteers. Volunteerism books tend to take one or the other perspective. Once in a while an article from the “other side” turns up in a journal and occasionally a conference workshop presentation is offered that hints at the broader picture. There are practical reasons for this lack of connection, including how hard it is to find and market to volunteers who rotate out of office regularly, have other priorities in their lives – including other careers - beyond their volunteer leadership identity, and whose availability to network is predominantly evenings and weekends – the opposite of the schedule preferred by full-time volunteer program managers.

But I am convinced that we must make the effort. What we share in common is more critical than what separates us. We are all devoted to the success of our causes and we all know a lot about leadership styles. It drains time and energy to be fighting each other, especially as we would be so much stronger together. I have been tilting at this windmill for a long time and still haven’t found the key, even in terms of how to make this website truly useful to every leader of volunteers, paid or not.

How have you educated yourself about “the other side”? What resources would you like to see to help collaboration? What has worked in your organization to connect paid and volunteer leadership?

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Melissa Betts, Director of Children's Ministries, Cullman FUMC, Cullman, AL, United States

I am the Director of Children's Ministries at a medium/large church. I have been in this church for 6 1/2 years. I thank you for this article and the responses posted. I inherited two weekday programs with paid directors and staff, hired a nursery coordinator with paid staff for the church, a Children's music director. I supervise all of these directors. I also have a leader of preteens who is a unpaid "staff/volunteer", preschool music leaders who are volunteers, a county wide weekend feeding program (which I started) runs with only volunteers, and the volunteers who work on Sunday and weekday service times and special event volunteers.

I feel my department is so "fragmented". We are not working as one body, one department. I am working on setting up a quarterly staff and volunteer staff meeting once a quarter. I need ideas to bring unity to our department.