Volunteer Resources Manager, Role of

Everything in this library relates to the work that leaders of volunteers do daily. This particular section, however, looks at the context of the role of volunteer resources manager (VRM); things that do not always fit into neat categories, such as educating paid staff, fighting negative stereotypes about volunteers, being an in-house advocate, and more.

"Why?" Is More Powerful than #@#%!, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2012
Wishes and Resolves for the New Year, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2000


Get Governance Volunteers to Interact
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

It's the time of year when organizations run conferences, special events, and volunteer recognition functions. Such gatherings are great opportunities to educate board volunteers about what other volunteers/members are doing, connect the board directly with a range of people who have opinions about the organization, and make the board visible to other stakeholders.

The main goal is for the board to simply mingle, talk and listen. Accomplishing this, however, takes planning. Here are some suggestions:

  • Don't keep the board together as a group at any event. Instead, scatter them to seats at different banquet tables, have each attend different concurrent workshops, and even sit randomly throughout the hall at a plenary session. Then, encourage informal conversation, but with a purpose: Agree on one to three questions that every board member will ask participants during the course of the event, so that afterwards you can share frequent responses.
  • Make sure board volunteers are identifiable by special nametags, color codes, or ribbons. Give the average member a fighting chance to recognize and talk with them.
  • Limit private meetings to conduct board business during events as which other attendees may perceive such absence from the room as conveniently avoiding interaction with members. Even if this is a false assumption in terms of motive, board members who are kept in private meetings simply cannot be talking to members at the same time. Hold board meetings before or after, but allow board members the freedom to actually participate in the event itself.
  • Depending on the personalities of board volunteers and the culture of your organization, add some fun into the proceedings. Rotate officers at the podium for introductions or moderating panels, but have them introduce themselves with a short anecdote about their most memorable organization moment, why they ran for the board, or what mistakes they made in the past. Or have them hand out gag gifts as special recognition to selected members. Or dress them in costumes. Whatever works in your situation.

It's the board chair who establishes board culture and therefore has the responsibility of assuring that the sort of staying-connected activities described here become a natural expectation of the role of any board member. The chair models behavior, of course. Does the chair stand on ceremony, keeping staff and volunteers distant and rarely mingling informally? Most leaders do not intentionally act regal. At a minimum, you can suggest more effective ways to interact at an event focused on volunteers for the purpose of celebrating the contribution of time and expertise. Maybe your executive can then keep the momentum going!

It's All about Communication
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

Perhaps no activity is more important to volunteer management than communication, which is critical to making volunteers feel included, informed, and appreciated. We communicate all the time, even when we are not aware of the messages we send.

The way we bring new volunteers on board, for example, is all about conveying both information and a friendly tone. From our screening interview to orientation and training, and in written manuals and instruction sheets, we are saying more things than simple content. Do we jump right into rules and regulations or do we take a moment (or a page) for a warm welcome? Do we show that we take volunteer contributions seriously by anticipating good questions and providing useful responses?

Throughout the year we hold meetings (one-on-one and with groups; formal and informal), run events, send e-mails (individually or blasted to everyone), and ask for responses to surveys and questionnaires. And each communicates on different levels. Pay attention to all your opening and closing statements and consistently thank volunteers for their time and efforts. Explain the context of any information, since it's easy for volunteers to feel "out of the loop," especially those who do their service away from your central office or online.

Set up a routine feedback cycle by asking specific questions ("do you have an idea where I might find...?") rather than vague "what do you think?" questions -- and always make sure you report back the results of what you were told! If you want volunteers (and paid staff) to take your missives seriously, you have to prove that you read their responses. Begin the next meeting or e-mail with something like "thanks to the 27 of you who gave me such excellent leads, including _______________." Do this every time and people will be much more likely to keep responding.

Things to Consider
While it's true that even something like the way your office looks (cosy, cluttered, dark, whatever) sends a message, most of the time you will be intentional about wanting to communicate something. Is the message bad or great news? Is it something open for discussion or out of your hands? How quickly do people need to know it? Here are a few more questions to consider as you decide how to communicate:

  • What do you want or need to say?
  • Is it routine or special?
  • Is the recipient an individual, a limited group, or the public?
  • What's the tone you want to convey?
  • Is it one-way or two-way communication? (Announcements vs. information needing a response.)
  • Will you make a record of the discussion and/or any decisions?
  • What response or feedback do you most want and have you clearly asked for that?
  • How long should it be?
  • How will you highlight the most important parts to help the reader or listener pay most attention to those?
  • What's the follow-up plan?
  • What would a volunteer feel as well as know after getting this communication?

The more personal the communication seems to be, the better. A handwritten note is the most appreciated of all. And remember to always include an e-mail address or phone number where someone can contact you to ask questions or make comments.

Practicing What We Preach
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

One of the enduring mysteries of the volunteer management field is how often those who lead volunteer efforts do not build a team of volunteers to help them in their important work. Here we are, trying to get our paid staff colleagues to develop creative assignments for the right volunteers -- and being frustrated when we encounter resistance to this idea -- while we miss the opportunity to be role models in demonstrating how valuable volunteers are to building the organization's volunteer involvement strategy! Not to mention that we could be getting some great, talented, and much-needed help.

Ask yourself some revealing questions:

  1. I see volunteers as:
    • My staff
    • My responsibility
    • My charges
    • Allies
    • Partners
    • My bosses
    • Helpers
    • Advocates
    • Consultants
    • Other ________________________
  2. How many volunteers now work specifically with me in coordinating volunteer involvement and do not hold any other assignment in the agency? 
  3. Do I have a functioning advisory committee or management team to give me solid input and share the decision-making about volunteer involvement?
  4. I strategically involve volunteers in the following activities (always, often, once in a while, never, or never thought to do it):
    1. Designing new roles/positions for volunteers
    2. Strategizing and carrying out recruitment campaigns for new volunteers
    3. Interviewing prospective new volunteers
    4. Orienting and training other volunteers
    5. Evaluating the program overall
    6. Assessing the performance of volunteers themselves
    7. Going to meetings (with or without me) with executives or the board to report the volunteer perspective on a topic being considered
    8. Educating paid staff about working with volunteers
    9. Representing me on online discussion forums

Are you satisfied with your responses? If so, that's great! But if not, can you identify what has been holding you back from sharing your work with volunteers? Often the reasons will give you important insight into why other paid staff are reluctant to take a chance on donated talents. But you have no real excuse!

The idea is not to divert people who are interested in other volunteer assignments -- you need to intentionally recruit volunteers for whom working with you will be genuinely appealing. However, that doesn't mean you can't tap current volunteers in some ways:

  • Do a skills and interests inventory - who has additional talents you have not yet tapped?
  • Offer a promotion into agency-wide volunteer management (but be sure this is what the volunteer really wants)
  • Offer a leave of absence to work on a special project for you
  • Find cyber deputies, especially to handle social media for you

Keep in mind that, if you like your job, so will other people! You can recruit:

  • Students and career changers who want to explore volunteer management. In fact, consider creating a formal internship which allows someone to learn about the profession. You can even post an available internship for free in the special section of the Energize Job Bank.
  • People with demonstrated skill in coordinating volunteers, even if they do not realize they are "in" the volunteer management field, including:
    • Officers of all-volunteer associations
    • Leaders of political campaigns and advocacy efforts
    • Alumni coordinators
    • Special events coordinators

It is your goal to run the best possible volunteer effort for your organization to support its mission and expand available resources -- this is a vital role with which many people will be happy to help, if you ask

Question Authority
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

The job of legal, financial, insurance, and IT staff and advisors is to listen to what we need and want to do and then help us to find the best and appropriate ways in which to do it.

Unfortunately, in the real world, these experts too often instead are the "no" people. They tell us what we can't do rather than support our objectives. Further, they do not expect their prohibitions to be questioned, let alone challenged. But respect your own expertise in volunteer engagement do not simply accept a "you can't do that" response.

In assessing prohibitions, it's important to identify the fundamental issue: Does the organization want to engage volunteers in the most meaningful ways to serve clients and achieve its mission? And, therefore, what are the consequences of not permitting some volunteer activity? Often a knowledgeable discussion - focused on finding a way to support volunteering rather than avoiding assumed high risk - might affect the final determination.

Legal Restrictions
Many pronouncements by legal or human resources (HR) staff about what volunteers can or can't do misinterpret the law (such as the Fair Labor Standards Act in the United States) - they act on what they think is the law without any further research.

It's probably true that every single activity that someone does somewhere for pay, someone else does somewhere as a volunteer. So how can there be a fixed rule clearly delineating paid from volunteer work? It's situational, and therefore a legal or HR staffer ought to consider each proposed volunteer role on its own merits.

Your strategy should be to question someone who quotes the FLSA or any other law as an obstacle to volunteer involvement. Ask for the documentation on which the legal or HR person based their reply (a great way to see if they actually did any research at all). You can also talk to a Department of Labor representative directly or find examples of common practice in other organizations similar to yours.

Risk, Liability and Insurance as Smokescreens
The low probability of a worst-case scenario occurring should not overshadow the majority of times an activity will bring positive results without danger. Everything we do in life carries some risk - we all make daily decisions about which risks we are willing to accept. For organizations, the question is not "might we be sued?" It's "if we were sued, can we defend our actions?" Or, again, "are the consequences of not providing this service worse than doing it and accepting the risk?"

Unfortunately, this reasonable approach is not often used in planning for volunteers. Maybe the real question here is: "Do we value the impact of volunteer services enough to plan safe and sound ways to do what we really feel ought to be done for our clients - even if it means paying for insurance, too?"

Those who propose volunteer initiatives ought to hold their ground, asking: "So if you think what I've just proposed is wrong, help me find another way to accomplish these goals."

Recalcitrant Webmasters
Webmasters are knowledgeable about software and technology, but they should not make final decisions about site content or determine communication priorities. If a Webmaster resists keeping the pages about volunteering current, won't post an application form, or won't do something requested to support volunteers, discover the true reason for resistance. Is the request technically difficult or is it a lack of time amid other demands? If the volunteer program simply ranks low in the sequence of the Webmaster's priorities, top management can insist that time be allocated to volunteer office requests.

Note that it is possible to recruit a skilled volunteer who can create or maintain the requested volunteer-related Web pages (following official templates) and give them to the Webmaster for simple posting to the site. This gives the Webmaster legitimate control of the Web site but removes all the common barriers of "this sort of updating is just too time consuming."

The Common Denominators
In all these cases, some key strategies apply:

  • Assume lack of education about volunteer-related issues/precedence, despite the appearance of great specialized knowledge. Too few lawyers and other advisors even recognize how complex the subject of volunteering is. It seems very simple. It rarely is.
  • Don't be afraid to challenge a turn-down or turn-away. Ask pointed questions, both to teach the other person about the complexity of volunteering and also to learn more about how decisions are reached.
  • Use outside resources. Not everyone wants to be the first to do something, but few people want to be the last, either. If the expert consultant thinks this is your own pie-in-the-sky idea, it's easy to dismiss it. But if you show how this same practice has been proven elsewhere, it's harder to say no without some clear reason.
  • Involve volunteers as co-advocates. Sometimes legal and risk management experts can't envision that volunteers would be willing to do something. Prove them wrong.

Many knee-jerk negative responses can be turned into solid support for effective volunteer service.

Remembering to Catch Dreams
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

As this volatile year draws to a close and we look toward new opportunities, it is heartening to know that volunteering is inherently an optimistic activity. No one volunteers for a cause they assume is hopeless. So the very act of participation implies a dream: this problem can be solved, this cause can succeed, this effort can make a difference.

In our efforts to professionalize volunteer management, to calculate the worth of volunteer services in the gross national product, to develop policies and minimize risk, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. We must never become so focused on the nuts-and-bolts of effective "management" of volunteers - doing things the paid staff wants them to do - that we forget our role as facilitators of what volunteers want to do.

The late Ivan Scheier always exhorted leaders of volunteers to think in these terms and he wrote all about it in his book, Making Dreams Come True without Money, Might or Miracles: A Guide for Dream-Chasers and Dream-Catchers. He proposed that leaders of volunteers recognize their role as "dream-catchers"; we have the special ability to welcome the passion and vision of those we engage as volunteers. Here are just three examples of how you can fill this role:

1. Welcome mavericks.

In general, very few organizations are comfortable with people who march to the beat of a different drummer. How do we react if someone enthusiastically proposes a new idea for how to deliver service or even for what service to deliver? Are we willing to experiment or do we dismiss the different vision as naive, uninformed, or amateur? We ought to make the volunteer program the place that new ideas can be tested.

2. Foster "social entrepreneurship."

The traditional model is for the organization to define a need or problem, decide how it will be handled, and recruit employees and volunteers to fill predetermined job descriptions. Maybe we can allow creative thinking to thrive. For example, why not recruit volunteers who are concerned about the need or problem and challenge them to "find ways to do something about this"?

3. Give permission to dream.

The volunteer program can dedicate itself to foster dreaming. On a regular basis, hold think tanks or at least "idea discussions" on questions such as:

  • If we were to start from scratch, what would you do differently?
  • In an ideal world, what would you like to see happen?
  • What idea has no one ever tried that you think might work?
  • If you were given an unrestricted grant of $50,000 (or whatever amount or currency you wish), what would you spend it on?

Don't just involve volunteers in these sessions. Paid staff rarely are permitted to dream and there is no reason why the volunteer office can't be the one place they are welcome to do so.

And how about involving clients in speaking for themselves about what they'd like? One model of volunteering is self-help. Perhaps instead of always recruiting outside volunteers, maybe we can engage recipients of service in helping each other or at least in steering the organization toward greater impact.

The Role of Intermediary
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

In most cases, the person responsible for volunteer involvement finds and prepares volunteers, but then day-to-day supervision and teamwork occur at the front line between volunteers and the paid staff in each department and unit. So a key role of volunteer management is serving as an intermediary. Depending on the situation, this role can be consultant, educator, liaison, advocate, advisor, arbiter, or cheerleader.

Certainly implies a lot of different skills, doesn't it?

Part of the challenge is balancing the needs and perspectives of a range of stakeholders.


Volunteers are obviously the stakeholders who come to mind first - although it doesn't hurt to keep reminding your colleagues that volunteers are not "yours"; they are everyone's responsibility. And if anything, you are their liaison.

The volunteer office is the point of entry into the organization for all volunteers. We're the people they usually meet first and they form their opinions and expectations of volunteering from us. We "enroll" them and - just as a human resources department does for employees - we interview and orient them, keep their records, track their progress, and more. If any disagreement occurs between volunteers and the employees to whom they are assigned, the volunteer office is the most logical third party to involve in the resolution of the problem.

We have an obligation to any volunteer to be an advocate, willing to challenge paid staff if that volunteer is not treated well. We start this advocacy when we advise on creating volunteer assignments that are truly meaningful. But we also have the obligation to give a volunteer honest feedback if that person is contributing to a conflict. We are also the ones who should monitor that all volunteers are growing and thriving in their roles, when they deserve recognition, and when they might need or want to move into another type of assignment.

We must also give volunteers the chance to speak for themselves. Forming a genuine advisory council or steering committee of representative volunteers shares ownership and creates allies in talking to all the other stakeholders in the organization.

Paid Staff Who Work with Volunteers

Clearly, we also have a responsibility to the employees who have been asked to partner with volunteers. This begins with recruiting the best and most-qualified volunteers possible and preparing them to hit the ground running once placed in a unit.

It's vital to be a good listener in our role of intermediary with paid staff - and not to become defensive when we hear comments that are based on inaccurate or unknowledgeable assumptions. We have to empathize with employees who, almost by definition in most organizations, are overworked (and often underpaid) and to whom volunteers may offer help but also - let's be honest - more work, too. How can we adapt to the employee's needs when legitimate, such as paying attention to times during the week that a volunteer may be more a distraction than assistance? Or is it fair to ask the same staff person to keep training a parade of new volunteers when we might create a leadership role for an already-experienced volunteer to welcome newcomers?

More than anything, when it comes to employees, we are educators. So few professions include courses on working with volunteers in professional/academic education. Staff may not even know what they don't know about volunteers! The volunteer resources manager has to provide formal training to new staff and in-service training to all staff but, most critically, must find opportunities to consult with individual employees to improve their volunteer management skills as situations arise in daily work.

Middle Management Holding Frontline Staff Accountable

Middle managers - unit supervisors, program coordinators, branch directors, etc. - could be considered the invisible obstacle to successful volunteer/staff relations. Why? Because they are very important yet usually overlooked at several key stages of volunteer engagement. The leader of volunteers should ensure that:

  • Middle managers participate in developing and sign off on volunteer position descriptions in their area of responsibility.
  • Middle managers see the time their reports spend with volunteers not as an interruption or distraction from their work, but as vital to accomplishing priorities.
  • Both overt and implied messages middle managers give to their paid and volunteer staff members in unit meetings convey the value of volunteers.
  • Middle managers themselves partner with volunteers in getting their own work done - and are thanked for this teamwork.

Top Administration (Including the Volunteer Board)

We understand the importance of the executive and board of directors as those "above" us -- the ones who make key decisions, allocate resources, determine priorities, and judge our effectiveness. But what about our importance to them?

Depending on the size of your organization, top executives and the board may be quite removed from seeing the daily impact of non-board volunteers and completely unaware of the contributions of the volunteer office to the process. Is the subject of volunteering on the agenda at any management team or board meeting? Based on what information? Have you asked to present at such a meeting?

Volunteer resources managers once again must be advocates to bring attention to volunteers as time donors, highlighting the importance of donated skills in the spectrum of other community support and side-by-side with financial gifts. We must speak the language of the organization's decision makers, not simply as cheerleaders (though enthusiasm is important) but as representatives of an in-house treasure trove of great talent.

The Recipients of Service

Different organizations take varying approaches to their clientele, but all too often the services offered to those clients are determined solely by the paid staff or funding source. That does not need to be the way volunteer services are provided. We can talk with as well as to the recipients of service to assure volunteers that what they are doing is truly of help. We can even enlist the clients themselves - or past clients or client families and friends - as volunteers, when appropriate. And if we have our finger on the true pulse of client wishes, think how useful our knowledge can be to every one of the stakeholder groups above!