Volunteers or staff: Who is holding up your virtual organization?


Getting the right mix of staff and volunteers for a virtual organization is a crucial task for sustainability. The key is to take limited resources (if you have unlimited resources, call me) and invest these in directions that bring the best return for all.

What are volunteers good for? Many a community organizer has had moments when the answer to this is all too clear. Thankfully, those moments do pass. Volunteers are the heart of a virtual organization. Keeping this organ alive and well is job one for staff. Volunteers bring skills, vision, energy, and passion to the organization. They tend to do so in short-term increments. They need to know their efforts are valuable. This knowledge prompts them to stay engaged. Through the serial engagement of many volunteers, certain activities are maintained: governance, oversight, incremental work on infrastructure, a supply of new ideas, and, yes, occasional sidetracks. Nobody can sell your organization to donors and new partners better than volunteers. And nobody can grow your organization over time and on budget like volunteers.

What is your staff good for? Staff are the backbone of any virtual organization. They keep it on track and guide its fortunes. They have responsibility for those tasks that volunteers should not be asked to perform (more about this soon). They also have responsibility to keep volunteers engaged. They do the thank-less work and get paid for this. But that doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t owe them a heap of thanks. Still, they are professionals, and need to step up an take charge when the need arises. Generically, the work of staff falls into two buckets: everyday necessary tasks and putting out fires. Volunteers should not be asked to perform these types of work. Staff run the events on the organization’s calendar; they manage the web-presence, the accounting, the teleconferences, and a hundred day-to-day activities. They facilitate volunteer efforts. And, when the website is hacked, or the projector bulb burns out, they fix it.

Volunteers get called in to plan and direct new activities and articulate new goals. Ideally, they are given a say (not just a voice) in the organization’s operational budget. Because they do the planning and determine the budget, it’s only fair that they do some of the work. They can be tasked to scope out any new work required by a new goal and to build new capabilities to meet this. Then they either do the work, or determine that the job is too big for them to accomplish. When the volunteers are done with their efforts, the outcomes are passed back to staff to incorporate into the organization’s operational inventory. Sometimes the outcomes are not fully ready to use (having been built by volunteers). Staff might need to hire an outside expert to polish the work. Note: this person should be fully “outside” and not a community member. Never hire a community member as a consultant to fix another community member’s volunteered contribution.

When the job is too big, volunteers might ask for some support (more often they just stop answering emails). There are many ways to support volunteers. Paying them is the least valuable, as this transforms them into non-volunteers. There are several descriptions of the negative impacts of paying volunteers. Basically you are pissing in your own soup. Other means of support are always better: find them assistants (pay for interns), pay their travel, pay for hardware and software when required, and, if nothing else works, add staff to help. Sometimes, this might mean making a skilled volunteer a “fellow” for a short period of time. This move should include a community vote, including an open call for the fellow position within the community. The community is tasked to help staff fill a temporary (less than a year) need from within their ranks. By this, the “fellow” can be paid for a time and then return to the ranks of the volunteer community.

Remember that volunteers need to know their efforts are valuable. The organization needs to build and maintain recognition systems for volunteers. These include online and in-person awards. The three motivations for engagement are money, love, and glory. When it comes to volunteers, if you are stingy with the glory, don’t expect any love. And when you let the community add to their own glory, then you can stand back and watch new leaders emerge and know your virtual organization is healthy and growing.

Image Credit: Used on CC license. Photographer: Leo Reynolds on Flickr

5 thoughts on “Volunteers or staff: Who is holding up your virtual organization?

  1. Thanks for articulating this. It is incredibly helpful to think of how to best use volunteers and staff. The one thing I would add to this that I’m seeing is the volunteers needing stable infrastructure to work and staff needs to put these supports in place.

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