Employee/Volunteer Relations

Synonyms: Staff/Volunteer Relations

A critical issue in volunteer management is creating teamwork between volunteers and the paid staff with whom they interact. Yet there is often tension in that relationship. The information here addresses why this occurs and how to develop good relations. Also relevant to how long-time volunteers and newcomers treat each other!

21st-Century Networks, Sarah J. Butler
Creating a System to Involve Staff as Volunteers, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch and Rob Jackson, Chapter 10, pp. 245-46, Directory of Social Change
Deciding if Your Animal Shelter is Ready for Volunteers, Betsy McFarland, The Humane Society of the United States
Designated Liaison Staff in Each Work Area, Susan J. Ellis and Rob Jackson, pp. 86-88, Energize, Inc.
Give Volunteers a Voice, Susan J. Ellis
Internal Marketing, Izabella Csordas, pp. 97-99, Foundation for Museums and Visitors, Hungary
The Power of Difference, Susan J. Ellis
Satisfy Staff First, Ivan H. Scheier, Building Staff/Volunteer Relations, Energize Inc.
A Title Without a Place, Sue Mallory, The Equipping Church, pp. 40-41, Zondervan/Leadership Training Network
Volunteer/Staff Ratios and Relations, Sarah Jane Rehnborg, et. al., pp. 28-30, RGK Center for Philanthropy & Community Service
Volunteers as Beta Testers, Susan J. Ellis
"You Get What You Pay For", Susan J. Ellis

Prof Anne-Marie Greene and Dr Jenna Ward of DeMontfort University (Leicester, UK) were commissioned to provide the National Trust with a detailed, evidenced-based understanding of: (1) what it means to manage volunteers in the National Trust (2) the nature of similarities or differences between the management of volunteers and paid staff (3) the implications of these similarities or differences for policy, resourcing and strategic planning around volunteer management within the National Trust. This report is based on empirical evidence from in-depth qualitative case studies carried out at two National Trust properties between 2013 and 2015. 

The researchers concluded that, "in practice, the management of volunteers within the National Trust is, and should be, significantly different to the management of paid staff. These differences can be classified around five broad, yet interconnected, themes: Performance Management, Communication, Task Differentiation, Trust and Fear vs Autonomy and Creativity, Emotional Labour."


, 2016, pp. 44

Developed by CNIB, this manual highlights best practices for partnering with leadership volunteers, particular board and committee members, senior advisors, and project leaders.  Accompanied by a Toolkit.

, 2017

When newspapers in England reported of serious breaches of trust between volunteers and their organisations in 2009, Volunteering England was prompted to set up the Volunteer Rights Inquiry to begin to understand the nature and scope of the problems experienced by volunteers and identify suitable remedies. This Interim Report goes into detail about the findings of the intensive set of hearings held.  In 2014, a Final report of the Call to Action Progress Group following the Volunteer Rights Inquiry was produced by NCVO.

, 2010, pp. 32

Print and e-Books in Our Store

From the Top Down UK edition book cover

UK Edition of the best-selling book that identifies the critical link between the actions of an organisation’s senior management and the overall success of volunteer engagement.

Book cover for From the Top Down

Outlines the key executive decisions necessary to lay the foundation for successful volunteer involvement: policies, budgeting, staffing, employee-volunteer relationships, legal issues, cost and value of volunteers, and more.

from Marla Benson of Volunteer Relations Consulting Group. 2016.

Connect Volunteers and Employees for Staff Development
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

Skill development for volunteers is usually separated from training provided to employees. With a bit more vision and creativity, any organization can provide all sorts of learning opportunities agency-wide for both paid staff and volunteers. It is not common for department heads or staff training coordinators to go to the volunteer services office when seeking professional development for the paid staff. They should, though.

Why not design continuing education opportunities for both volunteers and paid staff together? For example, schedule periodic in-house group discussions of current trends and issues affecting your setting and invite anyone who's interested. It may surprise employees to discover the level of understanding committed volunteers have about your work, particularly as volunteers will approach any topic from perspectives different from those of full-time staff.

Conversely, shared discussions cannot help but develop more genuine teamwork. Finally, if student interns are a significant part of your unpaid staff, such structured exchanges will add to their education-and keep employees abreast of the most current university teaching, too.

For more in-depth training, form a planning team made up of both employees and volunteers to brainstorm possible topics. Then recruit experts from the community to volunteer one to two hours to come and speak. If you are flexible about when such sessions are scheduled (at the convenience of the speaker), there is no limit to the richness of subjects you can learn about without tuition or registration.

The beauty of involving volunteers in a staff development strategy is how well this fits into today's reality of people wanting short-term volunteer assignments. Seeking speakers suddenly opens new ways to engage all sorts of experts and specialists in limited-but vital-volunteer work.

Use your imagination and create a wish list of possible topics, from the academic to the hottest fad, and each will suggest where to look for someone able to describe it to your volunteers and employees. For example:

  • College and university faculty, even graduate students, have a wealth of research information they can explain.
  • Corporate human resources, marketing, and customer service staff deal in many of the same issues as nonprofits, but starting from a different knowledge base.
  • Radio and television stations have people who can speak about what grabs media attention.
  • Various special interest and hobby groups can provide members who know quite a bit about everything from gardening to astronomy to sports coaching.
  • A high school computer club might offer someone who really understands tweeting!

Note that it is flattering to be approached to share your knowledge and most people will make time to be of help, particularly if they feel good about your cause. Not everyone wants or feels able to do hands-on, with-your-clients volunteer work. Inviting someone to develop staff skills is a way to improve the capacity of the entire organization to meet its mission more effectively. It's this multiplier effect that makes your recruitment pitch appealing.

One possible initiative is to train a volunteer or two to interview staff about their personal, professional learning objectives. These might include the chance to practice conversational Spanish, learn how to write a funding proposal, or be more effective in doing Internet research. Once such wishes are identified, recruit volunteers with those skills to be "staff development coaches." Their role will be providing individual or small group tutoring and support over several months. Again, this offers the right volunteers a meaningful way to serve your organization's mission by building the skills of the staff.

Another great volunteer role to develop employee skills is on-call advisor. Recruit experts willing to be called on for, say, three hours per year (but someone needs to keep track, both to make sure the volunteer is indeed asked to help and to assure the hours are not exceeded). These volunteers do not have to come on-site; staff will consult remotely by e-mail or phone or, if necessary, go to them. What might such advisors do? Everything from critiquing draft reports and press releases to explaining how a particular neighborhood organizes itself.

Everyone benefits!

Training Others about Volunteer Management
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

Last month I conducted several long training sessions in Singapore, my fifth visit to that lovely country. The National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre recruited a group of well-qualified volunteer program managers for a special train-the-trainer opportunity, combining observation of my presentations and group debriefing/reflection. As part of mentoring these colleagues, I developed a tip sheet based on my personal experience in training many, many different audiences about volunteer management. If you need to raise awareness of volunteerism, whether for in-house staff training or in presentations to the public, the following might also be helpful to you.

  • Everyone has some personal experience as a volunteer, but practically no one has ever been formally trained in volunteer management.
    • Even people already in the role of leader of volunteers. Even volunteers themselves.
    • But because of their own experiences with volunteering, people think they "know" best practice. In reality, they often perpetuate negative stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecy seems to confirm them in their attitudes (i.e., if you don't expect much from volunteers, you won't get much).
  • Adults bring a wealth of life experience to any training situation and we've already acknowledged that most have been or have worked with volunteers. Check this by a show of hands. Plan an opening exercise that gets everyone to share their personal perspective and what their philosophy is about volunteering in society. Valuing volunteering is the first step in wanting to mobilize volunteers effectively. But few people have ever been asked to articulate why volunteering is important.
  • It is critical to allow negatives to surface. No one can learn anything if they haven't accepted the premise of the great potential of volunteer engagement and instead are mentally reviewing their reservations or concerns.
    • But it doesn't seem "nice" to voice objections or concerns, and people feel they have to be nice about and to volunteers.
    • So the trainer must be realistic and encourage - even initiate - discussion of possible problems, whether imagined or real.
    • On the other hand, the trainer must be solidly in favor of volunteering and the best practices of recruiting and working with all sorts of volunteers.
  • Language matters. A lot. The word "volunteer" repels as often as it attracts. Find out what term resonates with each audience and be sure to use various words to describe volunteering (do some homework to learn their jargon). Also:
    • Avoid saying "use" volunteers - we use things, not people.
    • Avoid always describing volunteer roles as "assisting paid staff." First, there is a huge all-volunteer world in which there is no paid staff. Second, many volunteers do not work "under" employees - instead they are expert consultants and partners.
    • Avoid female pronouns for low-level volunteer roles. When giving examples, always try to speak about a wide range of different volunteers, at different levels of responsibility, of different ages, etc. Fight stereotypes naturally by sharing your understanding of the diversity of the volunteer community.
    • Don't assume volunteers only work for nonprofit organizations. They also are active in government agencies. And for-profit businesses send their employees out to be volunteers.
  • Know your audience. Very often the people to whom you are speaking are responsible for volunteer involvement, but are not the executive or decision-maker in their agency. Acknowledge when something is not in their control to do on their own, but strongly encourage them to advocate on behalf of volunteers by proposing changes to top management.

Law Enforcement Settings

Linda Bailey
Submitted by Linda Bailey, Mesa Police Department , Mesa, Arizona, USA

In a law enforcement environment, distinctions between sworn and civilian personnel are deeply felt. Officers may think of volunteers as untrained, inexperienced and uncommitted. Attitudes change slowly, so expecting officers to eagerly supervise volunteers may be unrealistic.

We have successfully broken down attitude barriers by creating a volunteer council. It consists of all those who supervise volunteers--both sworn and civilian paid staff--who take on a sense of ownership of the volunteer program and really care about its results. They help me plan our volunteer recognition banquet, formulate volunteer performance evaluations and have helped with advertising ideas for recruiting new volunteers. When problems arise involving volunteer supervision, we have an open, supportive forum in which to discuss possible solutions. Members of the council have come to recognize how fortunate we are to have so many wonderful volunteers and they have come to understand that volunteers are motivated by the same desires as paid staff: the desire to be a part of something they believe in, a sense of personal gratification, and acknowledgment that their contributions matter. Council members carry these ideas back to their various divisions throughout the department, and in doing this they have helped our whole organization learn to appreciate and welcome volunteer involvement.