Replacing Volunteers with Paid Staff

By Susan J. Ellis

There is endless talk about making sure volunteers do not displace paid staff.  This is a legitimate topic, though one based more on fear than reality.  But what about the opposite issue?  When and how is it legitimate to place employees into roles traditionally held by volunteers?  This is an emerging trend that deserves attention.

On the macro level, of course, this is exactly what history teaches us about the formation of all organizations and institutions.  A small group of visionary, maverick volunteers sees an unmet need, gets together, and works hard to start a service or facility.  As the volunteers evolve their program, inevitably at some point money is raised and staff hired – specifically to do more intensive work than the volunteers want or can continue to do. See my NonProfit Times article on “The History of Volunteer Involvement in Seven Stages” for more.

But the issue I’m concerned with here is different.  More and more I’m hearing of paid workers being assigned, too often thoughtlessly, to roles that were always considered the domain of volunteers.  In many cases, volunteers are still doing the same work, possibly on a different schedule than employees but also side-by-side.   It’s no surprise to those of us in volunteer management that tension frequently results. 

Perhaps the most common example of this volunteer role substitution by paid staff occurs when staffing reception or information desks, and also on-site gift shops.  Hospitals and museums lead the list of settings making this change.  There are  other examples, but let’s examine these to analyze what is going on. 

Many institutions have asked volunteers to handle these functions for as far back as memory allows. No one today may even know why this tradition started.  It probably was connected to limited funds that had to be expended on other priorities and the feeling that spots such as an information station or gift shop were excellent opportunities to set a welcoming tone by neighbor-to-neighbor interaction.  Regardless of its roots, the volunteers who gladly accepted the responsibility when asked have developed a sense of ownership and pride for it.

Now add in a few other key factors:

  • Aging-in-place of long-time volunteers who may no longer be able to handle the required duties as well as they used to, or who no longer represent the institution’s desired face to the public.
  • Resistance by new volunteers to committing to a fixed schedule over a long period – exactly what a front desk or shop assignment requires.   These locations have to be covered, no matter what.
  • Introduction of computers, complicated phone systems, electronic cash registers, and other technology – plus all sorts of new privacy regulations – which make the work much more complicated than being friendly to visitors.

From the perspective of consistent service to consumers through assured, constant, competent presence at a location operating many hours and possibly all week, employees may actually be better suited to these types of roles, despite the tradition of assigning volunteers there.  When you pay someone a salary, you can require attendance at hours you set.  There is no question that paying one to three employees to permanently work the desk or the store is the easiest way to go.  And if money is available to pay such staff, it’s legitimate to do so.

So What’s the Problem?

The problem is how the transition from volunteer to employee is handled.

If management decides outright to replace all volunteers in a certain activity with paid staff, the change should never be a surprise.  In fairness, and to show respect for past efforts, the volunteers involved should be told in advance of the plan – but not as a simple announcement.  The change-over should include:

  • Public thanks to those currently filling the volunteer role and recognition of all the volunteers from the past.  Acknowledgement is critical and only fair.
  • Asking for input and advice from volunteers about what should be included in the new staff’s job descriptions.  Who is in a better position to know what this work really entails?
  • Asking for ideas as to how, possibly, volunteers might still be involved in the service provided, but in new ways that expand/enhance the primary work of the new paid staff.
  • Offering reassignment to those who wish to remain as volunteers in support of the facility.  The alternative opportunities should be attractive and not seen as “demotions.”
  • Explanation of the timeline and, if the full transition to paid staff will occur over several months, clarification of how volunteers will function during the changeover.

Do not take volunteers for granted and assume that, because they give their time willingly, they will blindly support any management decision.   Even more serious is the potential for conflict between the new hires and the volunteers still on board – tension that may well be conveyed in service delivery.

But few organizations replace volunteers wholesale.  Instead, they inch their way into displacement, sometimes without any plan at all.  It starts with filling schedule gaps, perhaps by sending an employee in another job over to the desk or store for a few hours if volunteers cannot come in.  Or one staff member is hired to cover evenings or weekends.  Suddenly the situation evolves in which employees and volunteers are doing the same work at different times, and sometimes side-by-side.  That’s when the real trouble begins.

The absolute worst thing to do is ignore the dynamics of this situation and let the employees and volunteers “work it out.”  They can’t.  It isn’t their job to answer such central questions as:

  • Who’s in charge?  If there is a difference of opinion, whose prevails?
  • If both an employee and volunteer are on duty together, who responds first to the client/visitor/customer?  (Why?)  What does the other person do while that is happening?
  • Since an employee will be working more hours than most volunteers, what’s the employee’s job description as compared to that of the volunteer?  What else will the paid staff member be expected to do when things are slow at the desk or shop?  Which activities take priority?
  • Who sets standards for service delivery?
  • Do the volunteers and employees report to the same supervisor?

None of these questions are necessarily hard to answer, but answered they must be – and by someone in authority.  Left invisible, resentments will fester.  Don’t victimize either the paid or the unpaid staff by dropping them into an unclear work environment. 

These sorts of issues arise every time an organization changes its direction in when and how to deploy volunteers and employees to fulfill certain roles.  The advice stays the same:  articulate why you are making the change; speak openly with everyone involved; and clarify expectations on all sides.  Such respect and recognition will win long-term loyalty.

Have you experienced this sort of displacement of volunteers?  How did the transition go? Do you have any advice for other readers?

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