Organizational structure for volunteer engagement – HR or Donor development? Two models to consider:

Through my 10 years of doing volunteer management, I have been curious about how volunteer management is structured within organizations – who plays this role and where is the role placed within an organization. I have seen that usually the role is either grouped with HR or with donor development. In my mind, the choice of one or the other is significant, and has consequences in terms of how we view volunteers in that organization.

In the HR grouping, the organization is viewing volunteers as comparable to employees, as ‘unpaid employees’ per se. There are strong advantages to this perspective – ideally, this would mean that volunteers are considered to receive all of the benefits that paid employees receive (outside of pay)- including for example, budget for holiday parties, enough resources like space and computers for volunteers to work, professional development opportunities (and this I have not seen in practice ever – a PD budget for volunteers – wouldn’t that be wonderful!). Beyond benefits, if volunteers are considered equal to employees (just not paid), then they can do any of the work that paid employees can do (so they don’t just get the crappy jobs, which is usually what happens) and they receive the same communications and are asked for feedback in the same way as paid employed. If this happens, then volunteers would be as or more engaged than paid employees (without a paycheck, their passion for the cause as well as other benefits like feeling meaningfully involved, is what keeps them retained). The downside of this, I see, is that volunteers would need to be evaluated in similar ways to employees, especially if there are budget implications to benefits such as a PD budget. What if a volunteer isn’t as strong as another volunteer or as a paid staff? Would there be competition and a feeling of judgement? I’m not sure if this makes sense in my view of volunteer engagement being accessible and an opportunity for citizen engagement.

In the donor development group, volunteers are considered as donors, but instead of donating their time, they are donating their money. From this perspective, volunteers time donation is top of mind for all employees, and therefore time can never be taken for granted. From this perspective, volunteers are completely different than employees and external ‘stakeholders’ of the organization. The engagement strategy including for example communication and recognition would be tailored to each group of volunteers. From this perspective, ideally volunteers experience volunteering would be excellent and transformative and would inspire them to keep volunteer and encourage their friends to volunteer. They would become ambassadors of their organization and volunteers for life. When they have extra time, they would give their extra time to volunteer. They would not be embroiled with the inside politics or difficult dynamics happening internally, but they would ALWAYS see the best side of the organization.

I think I believe in number 2 – the donor development grouping. I love that this perspective means that the ‘donation of time’ is front and centre, and because of this, our engagement and the experience of volunteers is critical. Time is so precious, when we have someone willing to give of their time, we need to hold it near and dear and we need to look critically at how our organization works with volunteers.


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