Volunteers – ‘free labour’ or ‘unpaid staff’ … Three things revealed to get your paid staff onside!

Recently I met with a group of volunteer management coordinators to discuss volunteer engagement. We talked about using volunteering as a tool to give immigrants Canadian work experience and thereby making them more marketable as potential employees.

Good intentions aside, there is more to gainfully employing volunteers than the Boss or Board of Directors swooping in and instructing everyone to get more volunteers! Those following my blog know my opinion of ‘volunteer engagement’ and that it isn’t one of my favourite terms.

As far as I am concerned if you aren’t engaging volunteers – you likely aren’t engaging paid staff. Therefore I much prefer considering the organization’s human resources as either paid & unpaid staff. Organizations wishing to involve volunteers or employees need to concurrently:

  • Consult with those individuals with whom the volunteers will be working;
  • Ensure roles, management and support requirements are clearly defined; and
  • Senior management must create a culture where volunteers complement and strengthen the capacity of the organization.


Developing Effective Paid and Unpaid Staff Relations

If you expect volunteers to work alongside paid staff, it is critically important to build a culture of trust, openness and respect so that both groups are treated as equal custodians of the organization.

Use the following tips to develop effective relationships:

  • Encourage paid staff to voice their concerns and show you are open to resolving these issues.
  • Be a role model; ensure you follow your advice so that you are a role model.
  • Approach the issue with a positive framework and communicate how volunteers add value
  • Integrate the volunteer program within all aspects of the organization.
  • Develop a rationale for volunteer involvement that is understood by the paid staff.
  • Hold joint unpaid and paid staff planning and staff meetings, to share ideas, understand each other and develop trust.
  • Provide shared spaces where volunteers and paid staff can socialize and work together.

The commitment from top management to the role and importance of volunteers within the organization is absolute!


Paid staff may have fears concerning involving volunteers. And, while this may be based on genuine concerns, a fear, even an unrealistic one, will impact how a person reacts and may have a long-term detriment to the program.


Here are 3 tips that can alleviate the most common Paid Staff fears around volunteer programs:

  1. The threat of job loss or reduced hours

Paid staff often fear that volunteers will gradually take over the functions and roles performed by paid staff. This can be heightened if paid staff feel threatened that the volunteers come with many skills and qualifications that may be higher than there own.

Addressed this issue by providing a clear rationale for a reason for volunteer involvement and provide a clear delineation between paid and unpaid roles within the organization.

  1. Concern that volunteers are not accountable

As volunteers give of their time freely and make such a valuable contribution, there is often a concern that they act as free agents and do not have to play by the rules. Often staff will feel reluctant to criticize volunteers, as they know how much the volunteers give of their own time.

This issue can be addressed by ensuring there are policies that relate to volunteer staff, and that clear and effective management systems for volunteers are in place.

  1. Fear of not being able to manage volunteers

Often paid staff, who do not have the necessary skills, are given the job of working with & supervising volunteers and the organization does not acknowledge the additional time and skills in supporting and training the volunteers.

Providing training in working with volunteers should be given to all staff that work with volunteers. This should include an essential introduction to all the elements of working with volunteers and include the rationale of the volunteer program. Remember to provide paid staff with the opportunity to openly discuss their concerns and also to encourage suggestions and approaches in which the organization could better work with and support volunteer staff.

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