The question of where to “place” responsibility for the administration of volunteer involvement surfaces repeatedly, with no agreement upon standard practice. While there is no definitely right or wrong department or level in an organization where volunteers belong, where they appear on the organizational chart sends a message as to their importance.
The key is to make the choice strategically. What roles do volunteers fill and in what units? What future plans might expand those functions and therefore affect organizational placement?
Interestingly, a new trend for larger nonprofits seems to be to put volunteer services into the marketing or public relations department. In most cases, this means a transfer out of the chain of command running the organization’s direct client services, a move that could have unintended consequences.
On the plus side, this placement acknowledges volunteers as vital to strong relations with the community. It also provides the volunteer resources manager (VRM) with access to resources in media relations, technology, graphic arts, and other elements important in recruiting and recognizing volunteers.
On the other side of the coin, however, the marketing staff is removed from the daily operations of the organization and outside of any decision making about client services. This poses a serious problem for the VRM, who must be in the loop about what is going on so volunteers can be placed into all units throughout the organization. This requires ongoing contact with direct service staff and participation in planning sessions no one else in marketing would ever attend. So how can the head of marketing competently supervise the VRM and represent the needs of volunteers higher up the chain?
Another negative is the message this placement sends about the role of volunteers. Rather than clearly integrated with the service delivery team, being assigned to the marketing department implies that volunteers are mainly “for show” or to win points with the public. It certainly does not convey the sense that volunteers are doing substantive things to further the mission of the organization.
Other Common Placement Options
One can identify pros and cons for any of the placement options common for volunteer services. A popular home for volunteer services is the human resources or personnel department. This makes a lot of sense, as volunteers are indeed human and a great resource. On the plus side, putting volunteer management into human resources permits merger (or eliminates duplication) of some systems for creating position descriptions, staff handbooks, training, and recordkeeping. The VRM is then positioned to be the human resource “specialist for non-paid staff,” and can assure that organization policies foster good employee-volunteer relations, that staff is trained in how to work with volunteers, and more.
Of course, it has been proven over and over that when the VRM is placed into human resources, attention to volunteers is whittled down over time, as volunteers are given lower priority than paid staff. The tendency is to define volunteer management as employee management, without acknowledging the key differences — nor encouraging or funding these special issues.
For example, HR responds to employee vacancies within an allocated budget, while a VRM can and should be proactive in developing many new roles for volunteers, and doesn’t need to wait for funding.
Another popular option is to place volunteer resources under the development or fundraising office. From this vantage point, volunteers are presented internally and externally as part of the department that coordinates outreach to community groups and businesses, bringing in all community resources (both money and time) to further the mission of the organization. All fine and good, but as with the marketing department already discussed, fundraising staff has little direct involvement with the service delivery staff, so again the VRM is at a disadvantage in placing volunteers strategically.
Because most organizations value raising funds more than raising time and talent, the VRM is rarely viewed as a partner in resource development, but rather as an assistant to the staff bringing in money. Even more serious is that volunteers may get the message that they are wanted only for their financial value.
When volunteer resources is placed within a specific client service, program, or unit, that particular unit benefits from a strong volunteer component, but the VRM can end up buried in that one unit with little opportunity for widespread engagement throughout the organization.
Placements With Status
All of the options above put the VRM and volunteers “under” another department. That sends a message. If the organization wants to promote volunteer involvement as important and essential, there are two more choices.
The VRM can be placed within the executive offices, reporting directly to the executive director. This demonstrates the value placed on volunteer engagement and gives the VRM continuous overview of the whole organization, as well as access to top decision makers. But the proximity also means that the executive can divert the VRM to other areas and activities unrelated to volunteer engagement. More critically, lower level staff might feel constrained from sharing concerns or needs with the VRM.
Finally there is the creation of an independent volunteer resources department, sending the message that volunteers are recognized as vital enough to warrant focused attention. The VRM is seen and treated as a department head, serves on the senior management team, submits a budget to be allocated to support volunteers, and is held accountable for running a successful volunteer involvement initiative.
Even this option has its downside, particularly that employees can view volunteers as “belonging” to the volunteer resources department when, in fact, everyone is responsible for supporting volunteers wherever their assignment places them. Also, most department heads do not engage themselves in the functioning of other departments and so may wonder why the director of volunteer resources shows up in their work area, speaks to their employees, and works with staff at all levels. Yet, this is precisely what is required to identify positions for volunteers and place them effectively.
A Multifaceted Hybrid
The reason it is so difficult to determine the best placement for volunteer resources is that the function is closely tied to many departments in an organization, yet is unique in many ways.
Volunteer resources looks like human resources in many of its staffing functions, but has the ability to be creative in recruiting limitless skills and talents, from people of all ages and backgrounds, for work done on a regular schedule, episodically, as single day projects, even virtually.
Just as with development, volunteer resources expands the assets of the organization with donations of time and skills, yet it is more complex to put volunteers to work effectively than to cash checks.
The VRM has in-house responsibilities directly tied to client service delivery, yet also must have a community presence in order to recruit a wide diversity of volunteers.
Volunteers can be assigned to any unit or supervisor, and some work directly under the supervision of the VRM. Human resources also deploys its hires throughout the organization, but only maintains an administrative connection to them once placed. The VRM, however, continues as an intermediary, offering third-party support to both the volunteers and the staff who partner with them – as well as training in how to be successful in supporting volunteers.
Where the volunteer resources appears on the organization chart is a decision deserving careful assessment. Recognize that the placement can enable or disable the VRM in developing the potential of volunteer engagement for ongoing success. NPT
Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism and Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program www.everyoneready.info. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Web site is www.energizeinc.com