Does It Matter if Volunteers Work in a Nonprofit or a Government Setting?

By Susan J. Ellis

Back in 2000, I wrote “Volunteering in For-Profit Settings: Exploitation or Value Added?“ I suspect that most readers understood why this was a “Hot Topic,” since involving volunteers in a for-profit business seems somewhat controversial. A topic that rarely even comes up on the radar screen, however, is that an enormous number of volunteers are not active in nonprofit agencies but rather in programs that are part of government at local, state, or national levels. Is this an issue worth examining? Are there real differences and implications to identify?

It is common, even standard, to think of volunteering as synonymous with the nonprofit sector of society. In fact, this was one of the criticisms I listed in my reaction to the recent Volunteer Management Capacity in America's Charities and Congregations ( report: the complete absence of any recognition that we need to assess the capacity of government agencies to work effectively with volunteers, too. And this seems to be an international myopia.

For the record, here are just a few government settings and programs (and the list can be longer in more socialist-democratic countries) that we take for granted will recruit volunteers:

  • Public schools
  • Courts and prisons
  • Public libraries
  • Parks and recreation programs
  • Homeland security projects
  • Community policing/police auxiliaries
  • Veterans hospitals
  • State departments such as elder care, services to children and families, public health
  • Fire departments and emergency response teams
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service)
  • Cooperative Extension Service (including 4-H)

It quickly becomes obvious that the list is long and critical to both community quality of life and to the core of volunteerism. In fact, numerically, a huge percentage of volunteers are supporting government programs. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I started my volunteer management career at the Philadelphia Family Court, so I have always been attuned to this strange invisibility of the government volunteer world.) The only problem is the unexamined assumption that not much is different between volunteer management in the public sphere and in the voluntary sector.

At the Points of Light 2004 National Conference for Community Volunteering and National Service this month I’ll be facilitating an all-day pre-conference session for volunteer program managers in government – a seminar that has been run for several years, specifically in response to the feeling of these colleagues that they needed something with a slant towards their non-nonprofit needs. In preparation, I created the following as a handout.

A few important differences between

Nonprofit Organizations…
Government Agencies…
Are governed by a volunteer board of directors with legal authority to make decisions and amend bylaws.   Operate under authority of legislation, whether Federal, state, county, or municipal law.
Executives have the power to request governance changes and can influence board response to such requests.   Executives cannot change the law and rarely even have contact with the government representatives who vote on legislation.
Control the transition of leadership, board terms of office, etc.   Have no control over elections and have to cope with changing rules and degree of support with each new Administration.
Determine for themselves which clientele they want to serve.   Are mandated to serve all citizens meeting qualifications set by the law.
Are responsible for finding their own sources of funds and revenue, and can accept whatever donations they wish.   Must budget according to tax revenue allocated to them.
Can budget and fundraise for any need they identify.   Expend funds that may be narrowly authorized and cannot always accept donations of funds, goods, or services.
Can collaborate with whomever they wish and involve whatever type of community resource they wish.   Are limited to designated jurisdictions and may be restricted from certain types of collaborations or volunteer involvement.
Often involve higher numbers of volunteers than paid staff, and employees are rarely unionized   Generally involve fewer volunteers than paid staff, and employees are usually unionized.

It must be acknowledged that all the “human relations” elements of good volunteer management apply whenever volunteers interact with employees, regardless of setting. So a great many of what we consider best practices in our field don’t need any adaptation to a government setting. But the differences above are more than window-dressing. They speak to real issues of authority, funding, and even public perception.

On a day-to-day basis, here are some of the ways the differences matter:

  • Volunteer program managers (VPMs) in a nonprofit can attempt to change policies or budgeting in their agencies by educating up, using persuasive data, and other reasonable strategies. In a government setting, certain rules and regulations – and available revenue – simply cannot be changed by the VPMs’ bosses – it’s out of their hands, too, until the legislators want to change things.

  • Volunteers need to understand that they are limited in creating systemic change when they work inside a government agency – but they can be encouraged to act outside of the agency as private citizens, voters, and taxpayers. Looking at the biggest picture, individual volunteers who care about the services they support as volunteers can have a huge impact when they choose to become activist volunteers in political (not necessarily partisan) ways.

  • This ability of government volunteers to exercise their power as voters is truly scary to many public servants, so tension is inherent in staff/volunteer relationships. This manifests itself in limiting the roles volunteers can perform or, if a volunteer role is itself mandated by law (serving on a commission or being an ombudsman), the paid staff may try to marginalize the unpaid efforts in various ways.

There are also some key philosophical questions to consider. We say in the US that we have a government “of, by, and for the people” – so should we think of citizens as having a right, or even a responsibility, to give their time and talent as well as their taxes to provide services?

In a nonprofit agency, volunteers (even members of the board) are third or even fourth parties, alongside recipients of service, paid employees, and funding sources and donors. But this identity is blurred in a government context. Here, a volunteer is also a taxpayer, with legitimate vested interest in the way money is spent. Given the universality of government worker labor unions, who has the greater stake in keeping costs down and tapping all the willing resources available among the citizenry? In the broadest sense, perhaps it is acceptable for government to “save money” (or spend less) through volunteer services, since the money “saved” is their (the volunteer/taxpayer’s) tax dollars.

Clearly, at least once in a while, we ought to recognize and discuss the practical and philosophical questions that differentiate volunteering in a nonprofit agency from a government program.

What do you think? If you are in a government setting, what other issues do you feel are of special concern to you? As a citizen, what is your position on volunteers, taxes, and services?

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