HR has much to contribute to volunteer management

But it needs to keep in mind that volunteers have different motivations

When Catherine Connelly’s mother worked as a school librarian, she was completely dependent on volunteers to run the library programs successfully. But there were limits as to what she could ask her volunteers to do because the dynamic between volunteers and their managers was very delicate.

“It’s almost like they’re a guest in your organization,” said Connelly, an assistant professor of human resources and management at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton. “You can’t be as bossy as you would ordinarily be. Volunteers are there doing you a favour.”

But volunteers are immensely valuable to the economy. In 2000, non-profit organizations contributed $65.1 billion to the Canadian economy, or 6.4 per cent of the total, according to a 2005 Statistics Canada report, Satellite Account of Nonprofit Institutions and Volunteering.

Volunteer labour contributed another $14 billion and increased the economic contribution of the non-profit sector to 7.8 per cent. Even if hospitals, universities and colleges are excluded, the economic contribution of the non-profit sector is still greater than any of the agriculture, motor vehicle manufacturing and accommodation and food services sectors.

Unfortunately many organizations have difficulty retaining volunteers and frequently accept low levels of performance, said Connelly. Employers assume the experiences, attitudes and behaviours of volunteers are identical to those of paid employees, but they can’t be motivated with promises of financial rewards and they have tenuous links to their organizations, she said.

But even though there are many differences between managing volunteers and paid staff, there are also a lot of similarities and HR professionals can play a big part in effectively managing this increasingly important workforce, said Marlene Deboisbriand, president of Volunteer Canada, an Ottawa-based group that promotes the role and value of volunteering.

“People mostly think of HR as paid human resources, but at least in the voluntary and non-profit sector, it includes voluntary human resources as well,” she said.

The same challenges HR faces with paid staff — recruitment, retention, diversity, health and safety, screening and risk management — also apply to the management of volunteers, she said.

In some organizations, the responsibility of managing volunteers falls to the same HR professional who manages paid staff, said Connelly.

“HR has a lot to offer these organizations, but we need to be careful about transplanting HR theories from the business school directly into a voluntary or non-profit organization,” she said.

She compared volunteers to contract and temporary workers. Volunteers tend to have a more marginal position within the organization and might volunteer at an organization to get a foot in the door or gain work experience, she said.

One of the best ways to motivate volunteers is to give them tasks that match the reasons they have for volunteering — be it learning a new skill or being more involved with people, said Connelly.

“You need to be careful that you’re giving tasks to volunteers that keep them interested,” she said. “But you still have to be very careful about the impact on paid staff. You don’t want to be giving all the fun, interesting, nice tasks to volunteers, because then the paid staff will resent the volunteers coming in and taking all the good stuff. No one wants to be stuck just stuffing envelopes.”

In organizations where the management of volunteers falls under the purview of a volunteer manager, usually someone outside of HR, the HR department still has an important role to play, said Deboisbriand.

HR needs to build links with volunteer managers, because these managers are doing a lot of the same functions as HR and can benefit from HR expertise, she said.

While health and safety for volunteers isn’t legislated like it is for paid staff, it’s really important that volunteers receive the proper training, especially if they’re working high-risk jobs in hospitals or as counsellors for disadvantaged populations such as the homeless and drug addicts, said Deboisbriand.

Just as no employer would consider hiring an employee without a thorough interview and screening process, the same applies to taking on new volunteers. But HR and volunteer managers have to walk a fine line because volunteers might find the typical screening process invasive, said Deboisbriand. However, it’s necessary for proper risk management and the same applies to providing new volunteers with adequate orientation, she added.

HR has intimate knowledge of workplace legislation as well as the training and orientation that paid employees must go through. This knowledge can be shared with managers who work with volunteers.

“There are so many changes today around HR legislation, changes around standards in the workplace and health and safety,” said Barb Gemmell of Winnipeg-based Gemmell Training and Consulting, which specializes in volunteer resources management. “Those same things need to be considered for volunteer resources.”

When the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) was introduced, the best practice was for HR and volunteer managers to work together to ensure there was a consistent organization-wide approach, said Gemmell.

To date, the management of volunteers hasn’t been studied from an HR perspective, said Connelly. To help organizations take better advantage of their volunteers, she is undertaking a three-year study in the hopes of developing a series of best practices for volunteer management.

Making the most of volunteers can only make the Canadian economy stronger and make Canada a better country to live in, said Connelly.

“Not every volunteer works at the suicide hotline. Sometimes people are coaching T-ball, or they’re involved with their children’s school, or maybe they do fundraising. These are the things that make our communities worth living in,” she said. “It’s definitely a quality of life issue.”

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