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Developing Good Staff-Volunteer Relationships

You know the drill: Employees don’t want volunteers around. Volunteers know they’re not wanted and go elsewhere. It’s a never-ending cycle. But you can change those negative outlooks and break the patterns of dysfunction and distrust through careful planning and diplomacy.

You know the drill: Employees don’t want volunteers around. Volunteers know they’re not wanted and go elsewhere. It’s a never-ending cycle. But you can change those negative outlooks and break the patterns of dysfunction and distrust through careful planning and diplomacy.

Before you can bring volunteers on board, staff and management must be fully supportive of a volunteer program. After all, if employees can’t work well with new volunteers, how can volunteers be expected to work for your organization?

The first step in nurturing a good relationship between staff members and volunteers involves making sure volunteers are not merely an afterthought; a commitment to volunteer involvement has to come from the highest levels of the organization. It is imperative that the board of directors and the executive director in a nonprofit organization, or the municipal governing body in a public agency, require the development of detailed policies and procedures that will guide a volunteer program.

The leadership role of the executive director or CEO in creating a supportive environment for a volunteer program is essential, according to Volunteerism, Social Capital and Philanthropy in the Not-for-Profit Sector: A Research Study by First Side Partners. “In the programs where the CEO was solidly behind the involvement of volunteers, managers felt that this involvement was of tremendous benefit to their ability to recruit and retain good volunteers, and some felt it was the single most important factor in their success,” concluded the authors of the study.

The top-level leadership of an organization can help set the tone and create a positive environment for a volunteer program by:

? conducting a strategic planning process in which all staff members determine where the organization is heading and then discuss how volunteers can help meet goals
? dedicating a staff person—ideally a full-time director of volunteers—to oversee and manage the program
? requiring good structure and policies that will guide volunteer activities
? using volunteer help themselves; for example, the executive director can have a volunteer assistant or use volunteers on special projects she is coordinating
? interacting with the volunteers regularly by participating in orientations, attending recognition events, and being approachable during volunteer hours
? incorporating “working with volunteers” into staff job descriptions
? making sure that staff roles are clear and that staff needs are being met first; for example, does every staff member have a written job description that accurately reflects her day-to-day duties, and are staff members recognized for a job well done?
? training staff to supervise and work with volunteers
? rewarding staff who work well with volunteers; and
? incorporating volunteers into the organizational chart.

Getting Staff Commitment to the Volunteer Program

Volunteers need to be woven into the fabric of the organization. But integration of volunteers depends on a welcoming staff who see the benefits of their help. It’s crucial that staff and volunteers have a mutual respect for one another and see themselves as part of a team—working together for the benefit of the animals and the community. This is often easier said than done.

You can’t force volunteers on the staff. If time isn’t devoted to structuring the program and volunteers are just given random tasks haphazardly, the staff won’t perceive the volunteers as being necessary to their success. In fact, quite the opposite will occur. Employees will view volunteers as simply another “task” added to their already overburdened workloads. Worse yet, the volunteers who are brought in will feel unwelcome, unvalued, and not needed—and they’ll leave.

Consider the experience of an Ohio shelter volunteer who witnessed such alienation firsthand: “While the shelter says they want volunteers, the staff regards most volunteers as ‘in the way.’ There is very little guidance, and even less delegation of duties. Perhaps due to insufficient training and unfriendly staff, most volunteers do not stay around very long. If you would ask the staff to name—first name only—more than five volunteers, they could not do it. I think that’s a shame.”

This is not an uncommon scenario in shelters where the volunteer programs have been developed without input and buy-in from the staff.

“ ‘It’s easier to do it myself’ is a death sentence for the volunteer program, when pronounced by staff who sincerely believe it,” writes Ivan Scheier in his book Building Staff/Volunteer Relations. He acknowledges, however, that the initial urge to avoid delegating is understandable, especially in the beginning stages of the program. Staff may put in an hour or two for each hour they receive in return from volunteers. “That’s to be expected,” he explains. “But, when things settle down, you should normally expect to get back at least 10 to 15 hours of work from volunteers for every hour you invest in them. In some programs, the payoff can get as high as 100 to 1 or even 200 to 1.”

Giving staff and volunteers a voice in policy development helps them accept new rules and structure instead of resenting unexpected policies suddenly thrust upon them.
Volunteers may have misconceptions as well. They may think that because a staff member receives a paycheck, he or she doesn’t care as much as the dedicated volunteer. For example, staff members who euthanize animals may be viewed by misguided volunteers as the “bad guys.” Education and mutual respect is the key to understanding. The volunteers need to be educated about the work that goes on in the shelter. They need to understand the difficulties staff face, and they need to be supportive and respectful. It’s critical to avoid an “us” against “them” environment.

This article was adapted from Volunteer Management for Animal Care Organizations, written by Betsy McFarland and published by Humane Society Press through a grant from the Munder Family Foundation. McFarland is the director of communications for The HSUS’s Companion Animals section. Order copies online for just $14.95.

To help facilitate a good relationship, make sure you provide balanced praise: Rather than praising only the work of volunteers, praise the combined team efforts of staff and volunteers. Not only will that motivate staff and volunteers; it will also help strengthen the relationship between them. And keep track of what your volunteers do for you and how much money they donate and generate. Sharing such information with the staff will help facilitate buy-in.

Finding the right balance and developing positive staff-volunteer relationships is important. “There may be no factor within your program that impacts retention more quickly and obviously than relationships volunteers and paid staff have with each other,” says Sue Vineyard, contributor to Grapevine, a newsletter for volunteer managers. “People simply stay longer in situations where they enjoy their coworkers and others they encounter.”

Bridging the Troubled Waters

Which of the following two scenarios sounds familiar to you?

? “We’ve tried the volunteer route, and it’s never paid off. Volunteers just don’t know what they’re doing and my staff complains that although these volunteers mean well, they just get in the way. My operations manager doesn’t have time to deal with them. Plus, they create problems by mixing up the cage cards and giving visitors the wrong information. We always have too many volunteers on Saturday and not enough volunteers during the week. And they don’t seem to stick around very long. It just doesn’t seem like the time we’re spending on this program is worth it.”
? “Our volunteers have been a blessing to our operation. They’ve been involved in almost every aspect of what we do, and have helped our paid staff tremendously. The staff seems to really enjoy the volunteers’ company and assistance. The program our volunteer coordinator has set up is top-notch, and the people she brings in seem to really enjoy their work. I think it gives them a strong sense of accomplishment. Our volunteers have helped us expand our outreach program. I don’t know what we’d do without them.”

If you find yourself feeling like the frustrated manager in the first scenario—and wishing you could be as positive as the one in the second—follow these steps toward developing stronger staff-volunteer relations:

1. Conduct a strategic planning process with the entire staff—and a few volunteer representatives if you have them. If you’ve never done strategic planning before, don’t worry. There are plenty of resources to help you. Humane Society University offers an online course in strategic planning (for information on the course, visit Also, visit and select “strategic planning” from the topic search drop-down menu for a host of helpful tools. Or check out one of these great books: Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations: A Guide to Strengthening and Sustaining Organizational Achievement, by John M. Bryson (Jossey-Bass, 1995), and Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A Practical Guide and Workbook, by Michael Allison and Jude Kaye (John Wiley & Sons, 1997).

As part of the strategic planning process, have the staff help identify services in need of improvement. And determine what services or programs staff would love to offer but haven’t had time to implement. Don’t rush the process. Strategic planning is intensive and time-consuming, but your organization will benefit tremendously overall. And it will make the staff—and ultimately the volunteers you recruit—more effective.

2. Discuss how volunteers can improve existing services and allow for new ones. Again, proceed slowly and listen to employees’ concerns about volunteer assistance. If a volunteer program is forced on staff, they may well sabotage the program—whether intentionally or not. The staff’s attitude toward volunteers—whether positive or negative—will shine through loud and clear. The success of a volunteer program depends on the staff’s belief that volunteers can really help. To help staff members recognize the benefits of working with volunteers, highlight some of the following points in your discussions:

? By supervising and working with volunteers, employees can gain valuable supervisory experience that will look great on a resume.
? Employees will have a say in what volunteers do and in the development of volunteer-related policies.
? Volunteers can help free up staff time spent on daily tasks, allowing staff to focus on larger organizational goals.
? When volunteers, as members of the community, see firsthand what staff face at animal shelters, they may become more supportive. Such support may help staff members feel less isolated from the public and feel their work is validated.

If the potential for these benefits is still not enough to gain support from staff for a volunteer program, up the ante. The Dumb Friends League in Denver, Colorado, goes the extra mile and actually offers an additional 50 cents an hour as an incentive for staff members willing to work with and supervise volunteers. Such an approach is sure to be popular with staff in any community!

3. Encourage employees to share their concerns. Talk specifically about the challenges staff face in working with volunteers. More than likely, you’ll hear at least some of the following common concerns:

? Volunteers will make mistakes.
? Volunteers will be valued more than staff.
? Volunteers will question staff decisions about difficult issues such as adoptions and euthanasia.
? If volunteers do well, they may replace staff.
? Volunteers will be spying on staff and will be critical of their work.
? Volunteers are untrained people who need to be assigned simple tasks.

Of course, many of these fears are just misconceptions. But some are valid—volunteers will make mistakes if not properly trained. And they may question staff decisions if the reasons behind those decisions aren’t explained up front. To help ease these concerns, explain how upper management will create the necessary orientation and training program to prevent these problems.

4. Define policies that address concerns of both staff and volunteers. Key staff should of course be included in a policy-creating “working group.” But if your shelter has volunteers, be sure to include them, too. Giving staff and volunteers a voice in policy development helps them accept new rules and structure instead of resenting unexpected policies suddenly thrust upon them.

How can developing policies reduce staff concerns and prevent misunderstandings with volunteers? Take this example: Your staff resents constant questions from volunteers about the status of certain animals—why one was euthanized or another excluded from colony housing. Certainly, volunteers should be able to ask such questions. But in many cases it works best to have one staff member—perhaps the volunteer coordinator himself—serve as the point person. With such a policy in effect, staff who are directly involved in euthanasia decisions and other difficult tasks won’t feel like volunteers are second-guessing them. Having one person assigned to handle questions from volunteers makes it easier on everyone involved and avoids hurt feelings.

5. Provide staff with a “safety zone” away from volunteers. At the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm in Rochester, New York, staff were becoming frustrated by volunteers showing up early in the morning, before the shelter opened. The staff wanted a chance to start their day and drink their coffee without the volunteers asking them questions. Maggie Huff, the volunteer coordinator, stepped in and required volunteers to adhere to the shelter hours. Staff members greatly appreciated the quiet time and were ready for volunteers when the shelter doors opened. Paying close attention to staff needs can go a long way toward keeping the peace.

Can Volunteers Replace Paid Staff?

An organization’s decision to bring in volunteers may spark fears that volunteers could eventually replace staff. After all, volunteers can do many of the same tasks the staff do—and they aren’t paid a salary. Why couldn’t the organization simply look to the volunteers as an alternative to an expensive payroll?

In a well-run organization, staff have nothing to fear. Paying a salary provides the organization with more stability by requiring staff to be there at certain times and perform specific job functions. Volunteers, on the other hand, are afforded more flexibility in choosing what positions they’d like to fill and how many hours they will work. And most volunteers hold full-time jobs elsewhere—they can’t fulfill the responsibilities of full-time staff when they can donate only a few hours of their time. Ultimately, paid staff are essential to operating a full-scale shelter successfully.

Typically, in a thriving organization, an expanding volunteer program leads to the creation of new jobs as resources become available. In fact, many community animal welfare groups start out as all-volunteer-based but eventually add paid staff positions as their services and programs mature. Volunteers enable shelters to do more in the community—which increases donor support and demand for the programs that result in paid positions. In other words, an effective volunteer program usually leads to more paid staff, not less!

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