Volunteers are a critical to the operation of many non-profit organizations, and many humanitarian aid and development professionals were inspired by early volunteer experiences to pursue their careers. However, very few non-profits can operate effectively on an all-volunteer basis.
A friend who runs a food bank in Japan divides staffers at his organization into three categories: paid, unpaid and volunteer. Wait, “unpaid” and “volunteer”? That’s the same thing, right? Not according to my friend.
His organization depends heavily on the support of volunteers, who contribute tens of thousands of hours a year, and he calls them “the backbone of our operations”. Volunteers, though, contribute their time “provided no other obligations come up”, such as work or family. And fair enough. Most of us have had to adjust our volunteer commitments based on personal or professional obligations.
Paid staff, of course, are employees who draw regular paychecks and are expected to meet expectations as accountants or drivers or logisticians or nurses or whatever. They are professionals, and as accountable to management and the organization as their counterparts in the private sector. [Which is good news, because anyone who has had any involvement with volunteers knows how hard it is to “fire” someone who’s not getting paid!]
In between are my friend’s “unpaid” staff members. What’s the difference between “unpaid” and “volunteer”? In my friend’s case, he founded his organization in January 2000, but did not cash a paycheck until March 2008. He was the founder and CEO, overseeing a paid staff that now numbers 12, and an organization that – with the help of more than 7,000 volunteers – delivered over 3,150 tons of food in 2012. But it was not until March 2008 that his organization had enough financial breathing room to allow him to pay himself.
Was he a “volunteer”? No, he was a CEO, with a staff that relied on him to keep their paychecks coming, and partner agencies that relied on his organization for regular food deliveries, so they could provide food to the people they were helping.
Food banking was his priority, and his career, but he did other work to put food on his own table. His situation is a familiar one for writers and artists. William Faulkner, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, worked as a postmaster before he had success with The Sound and the Fury. Composer Philip Glass worked as a taxi driver and furniture mover in New York City even after the premiere of his critically acclaimed opera Einstein at the Beach. And T.S. Eliot worked as a banker, then an editor, throughout his career as a poet.
The three types of staff members require different treatment by managers.
My friend says, “With my paid employees, I have engaged in a contractual relationship in which I pay them for carrying out specific tasks or helping achieve the goals of our organization. Volunteers, on the other hand, are doing me a favor, and what I can demand or expect from them is quite different.”
Aid workers know that after a disaster – such as the 2011 tsunami in Japan that saw a huge increase in donations of both food and money to my friend’s food bank – the number of volunteers who show up hoping to contribute can increase exponentially.
“After the tsunami, I needed experienced staff members to meet new demands,” says my friend. “However, there was neither an available pool of qualified candidates, nor did I have the long-term financial resources to employ them beyond the disaster response period. We had a big influx of volunteers who allowed us to respond as we did, but volunteers have jobs, families and other commitments that eventually need to be tended to. A large increase in operations cannot be sustained by relying solely on volunteers.”
The challenge for managers is figuring out how to apply volunteer contributions as efficiently as possible to operations, and how to sustain expanded operations after the majority of the volunteers have had to recalibrate their lives according to pre-disaster priorities.
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.