Don’t Assume

May 1, 2012       Susan Ellis      

Leaders of volunteers deal daily with all sorts of misconceptions that seem never to die, no matter how often they are challenged. These include perennial favorites, such as volunteers are free (and you get what you pay for), volunteers pose greater risks than paid personnel, and so on. Perhaps the biggest fallacy of all explains the others: It is the assumption that people automatically know how to work effectively with volunteers.

It’s easy to find the roots of this assumption. In our democracy we know that anyone can donate volunteer service and that just about everybody, at some point does so. The thought process therefore goes like this: We have all volunteered. Hence, we all can coordinate volunteers.

This is one reason why most executives ask candidates for a volunteer resources manager job: “Tell me about the volunteering you’ve done personally.” Hmmm. The logic of this is akin to “I have had brain surgery, thus I can do brain surgery.”

In no other field do we think that participation equals training for higher levels of responsibility. We do not consider all employees as management material. Of course it is useful for someone who will lead the organization’s volunteer involvement strategy to have personal familiarity with the experience of being a volunteer, but this does not substitute for education in the skills of volunteer management.

You might examine whether the designated leader of volunteers has the skills to do the job, but what about everyone else in the organization who will come in contact with volunteers and be expected to partner with them in completing projects? What are our expectations — and assumptions — regarding their ability to do this successfully?

It is vital to know how prepared paid and volunteer staff will work together because lack of teamwork has serious consequences. In fact, tension between employees and volunteers is one of the problems most often cited when organizations are asked about volunteer engagement.

Why Many Paid Staff Are Unprepared

Consider some key facts:

• Only a tiny fraction of people receives training in working with volunteers as part of their formal professional education. We can predict with certainty that graduating social workers, nurses, teachers, clergy, even those who hold one of the newer Master’s in nonprofit management degrees, all will find volunteers awaiting them when they start their careers. So, why does most professional school curricula remain silent on this subject?

There are two implications someone might draw from the absence of teaching about volunteers, neither very good. Either there is nothing to say about volunteer management because it is so easy anyone can pick it up without any direction, or the subject is not valuable enough to include it with more important topics.

We have highly educated professionals who do not even know what they don’t know, confused at finding that it is not easy to work with volunteers and not even realizing that it is possible to obtain the skills to do it right.

• The subject of volunteers is also missing from most continuing education or professional development opportunities.

In the same vein, browse nonprofit conference programs and CEU offerings and see how often you find a session about working with volunteers. If it is on the list, chances are that the session is aimed at volunteer resources managers attending the same event and will not be attended by anyone who does not carry that designated responsibility. The neglect by omission started at the university level is perpetuated.

• Most organizations do not include mention of the responsibility to work effectively with volunteers in the job descriptions of all paid staff.

Employee job descriptions lay out expectations, both in what is explicitly stated and in what is omitted. Further, job applicants are screened to determine their qualifications to accomplish the stated work and, if deficient in any area, the employer determines if supplemental training might be needed. Later, performance appraisals are conducted with the job description as the framework. Naturally job descriptions evolve over time as employees become more experienced and whenever something new is added to the mix (consider that social media could not have been imagined, let alone included, in any marketing personnel’s job description even five years ago).

However, the need for new hires to partner with volunteers is simply overlooked from day one and very rarely surfaces on the agenda later.

• Volunteers are just as unprepared for leadership of other volunteers as the paid staff, and for the same reasons.

The idea that being a volunteer does not magically bestow volunteer management ability is now debunked. In addition, many people happily accept some volunteer assignments because they are fun and rewarding, a complete break from paying job responsibilities. Yet, if the volunteer has general professional credentials, pressure is exerted on the person to take on more leadership tasks, without any additional training in the nuances of working with other volunteers.

What They Need to Know

The good news is that it is not hard to develop training to bring smart, educated people up to speed about partnering with volunteers. Some day hopefully academic institutions will close this gap while preparing students for the real job world. But right now conference planners and those responsible for in-house professional development programs can offer sessions with immediate impact.

What do those working with volunteers (whether paid or themselves volunteers) need to know? Here are some possible starting points:

  • Why volunteers are of value to organizations, beyond the lack of funds. The history of volunteering as one of pioneering, advocacy, and protest as well as of people “assisting” paid staff.
  • Why some people volunteer and others do not. Why some people remain as volunteers for a long time while others seek short-term service.
  • Who volunteers are, in general and in your agency: the facts often surprise people.
  • Trends in volunteering today, including new types of service: virtual and micro-volunteering, voluntourism, corporate pro bono projects, and more.
  • The strong connection between engaging volunteers well and successful fundraising, public relations, marketing, and client development.
  • How unpaid interns or students in service-learning programs are also volunteers.
  • What is the same and what is different in supervising paid workers and volunteers.
  • The importance of communication, respect and appreciation shown to all volunteers.

It is appropriate to set high standards of performance for volunteers and to give critical feedback (helping a volunteer to do the best work is a form of recognition, in that it implies the expectation that the volunteer is competent enough to do better).

Volunteers want to be needed, useful, and asked for input, which makes them feel far more recognized than an annual certificate. It takes a village to raise a child and a wise organization to welcome and support volunteers.

When we give staff new computer software, we train them to use it. We have given them volunteers as team members for a long time without raising their skills in working them. Start today. NPT

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism and the Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program ( She can be reached via email at Her Web site is