Common Sense and Volunteer Involvement

By Susan J. Ellis

I get a lot of e-mails and phone calls from people in search of a way to answer an unexpected question from their executive or some specialist in the law, human resources, or accounting. Here are four actual examples to demonstrate the range:

  • What are valid tasks for a volunteer to do?
  • How do we make sure a volunteer does not get romantically entangled with a client?
  • What are acceptable retention rates for volunteers?
  • How can we prove that recordkeeping software will make our volunteer management system more effective?

The attitude underlying all the questions is that there is something so very special or unusual about volunteers that there must be an answer to de-mystify the situation. The first advice I almost always give is to try substituting the word "employee" for the word "volunteer" in the question and see if this alters the premise of the query:

  • What are valid tasks for an employee to do?
  • How do we make sure an employee does not get romantically entangled with a client?
  • What are acceptable retention rates for employees?
  • How can we prove that recordkeeping software will make our employee management system more effective?

All of a sudden the perspective changes. In some cases, we realize that we would never expect to draw a conclusion about all employees as we often do about all volunteers. We need to focus on specific volunteer assignments. For example, we would not ask what any person on our payroll could be asked to do. Instead, we might narrow it to what should be the scope of work for social workers in our family counseling unit or for carpenters in our maintenance department – clearly coming up with very different task lists. In the same vein, very few paid staff earn a gold watch after 25 years on the job anymore. Retention of employees, while important, is hardly the first question on everyone’s mind. What makes this such a hot button when it comes to volunteers?

In other cases, as with the possibility of finding love, the question turns out not to be about volunteers or about employees, but rather about human beings. We would understand that an organization needs to maintain propriety and protect vulnerable people, but cannot prevent emotions. So the issue becomes one of policies regarding how any representative of the organization should behave (not feel).

Finally, some questions would never be raised at all in the context of employees. When a department or unit manager asks for something, be it computer software, time to attend a conference, or anything else he or she has identified as professionally necessary, the main question that might be raised is whether the cost is covered in the budget. Most managers do not expect to be challenged on the legitimacy of their requests. Yet, over and over, those with responsibility for volunteers must justify their expenses, not on grounds of cost but on "is this really worth it?" The old myth "volunteers are free" rears its ugly head whenever any money needs to be spent.


Another situation I hear about all the time is applying consequences to all volunteers for the negative actions of a single individual. Just last week I heard about a tutoring program in which one volunteer was accused of unwelcome advances toward a student. Naturally this is serious and, until the facts were determined, that volunteer should have been asked to stay home. But what happened? All the volunteers were barred from doing any tutoring! Can you imagine a school furloughing all teachers if one was accused? Or a church closing its doors to all its clergy? Absurd.

I’ve often reflected that volunteers are not just held accountable; too often they are asked to justify their very existence. It’s a fair-weather friend philosophy: we like you as long as nothing goes wrong. Did the children no longer need tutoring? Was the possible misbehavior of one volunteer really enough to taint every other one?

Overreaction is akin to worst-case scenario planning. That’s when an organization is so afraid of any risk, no matter how slight, it simply decides not to engage volunteers at all in an activity. So because someone might get hurt or do something wrong, a potentially great service needed by clients or the public is stopped before it starts. Risk assessment is always valid, as an organization should want to keep all participants safe. Risk assessment leads to appropriate volunteer assignments, identification of the necessary qualifications to fill those roles, targeted recruitment for those skills, proper screening, solid orientation and training, and then monitoring. In other words, the risk is managed and minimized. Unfortunately, however, some executives automatically say "no" and practice risk avoidance – just because volunteers are involved (though, in most cases, the same risks apply to paid staff).

Let’s hear it for common sense. That means focusing on any probable situation, not digging for every possible problem. What is most likely to occur?

Second-class Citizens

Let me share just one more pet peeve of mine: illogical policies that interfere with volunteers being effective in the work we’ve just assigned to them and thus treating volunteers as second-class citizens.

I am particularly concerned when an organization simply does not think through the ramifications of its rules. A great example – and I am currently dealing with this very issue with no less than three major clients – is putting key information onto an intranet with no system for giving volunteers access to it. In one case, an online discussion forum (which was fully open to the volunteers) was closed down in favor of a wiki that lives on an intranet to which only paid staff are given passwords. This may indicate thoughtlessness (cluelessness?) of the IT staff, but the outcome is both offensive to volunteers and an obstacle to accomplishing projects.

Similarly, although we encourage inviting leadership volunteers to participate in Everyone Ready®, our online volunteer management training program, several times we’ve discovered organizational members who want to do this but "can’t" because of the same policy of denying access to the official intranet to anyone who is not on the paid staff. (I do wonder whether this also means that volunteers on the board of directors can’t get in either.) I can understand wanting to avoid automatic access to the intranet by just anyone (one assumes that carpenter already mentioned would also not be able to log in), but being unwilling to establish a policy permitting volunteers who are directly involved as partners to employees in accomplishing work is quite a different matter.

Other "second-class" treatment examples are:

  • Making volunteers hunt for an open work space somewhere instead of setting aside specific desks, computers, and other needed tools specifically for use by volunteers
  • Making volunteers hunt for an open work space somewhere instead of setting aside specific desks, computers, and other needed tools specifically for use by volunteers
  • Not providing an official e-mail address (or letterhead stationery) to a volunteer who is doing research or outreach specifically as a representative of the organization
  • Not providing a secure storage area where volunteers can leave purses, briefcases, and other personal items while on duty in the facility
  • Not inviting volunteers engaged in a project to planning or reporting meetings about that project

What’s especially onerous about all this is the very negative message such actions convey to volunteers about the degree of value placed on their service by the organization – whose decision makers seem oblivious as to what is going on and how comparatively simple it is to correct it.

OK, your turn. I am very interested in what you have to share as your examples of lack of common sense when it comes to decisions affecting volunteers. What are your examples of nonsensical policies or actions taken against volunteers that demonstrate a basic misunderstanding of what is or is not "different" about unpaid workers? How can we prevent these situations from happening?

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