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Seth arrived at the office early Saturday morning. It was quiet among the empty desks, almost hushed. Only one other staff member showed up, carrying a large foam coffee cup. Volunteer Hannah was sick and could not come in to answer the phones that morning. Seth had called every volunteer he could think of, but since it was last-minute, very few volunteers were at home and those who were, had plans they couldn’t change. So, Seth went in and answered the phones. After all, it had to be done, right?

We’ve all done it. Sat with a patient. Drove a client to an appointment. Filled in at events. Pulled up a chair at a table and stuffed envelopes. Manned a kitchen. Answered phones. Took visitors on a guided tour. Filed records. Completed a project. Why? Would the organization dissolve if a volunteer role went unfilled one time? Or is this just an antiquated volunteer management holdover from thirty years ago?

Are we the only profession that supposedly manages human capital but then is expected to personally fill in for that human capital every time there is a shortage? How did we get here?

If an employee in a department is sick, does the manager of that department go sit in that employees’ chair for the day and do their work, completely setting aside their own duties as manager? No, rather, the absent employee’s work is set aside or other people in that department pick up the slack.

And what about fund-raising? If a donor stops giving, do we ask the fund-raising department to pony up the missing money? Ok, that may be a stretch, but if we think of volunteers as time donors, then why do we, volunteer managers have to make up the donated time, when fundraisers don’t have to make up the donated money?

Here’s the thing: Non-profits seem to want to have it both ways. On one hand, the volunteers’ duties are considered critical enough to warrant expecting the volunteer manager to fill in when the volunteer can’t make it. But on the other hand, the volunteers’ duties aren’t critical enough to warrant paying a staff member overtime to fill in. Which is it?

Volunteers typically work in established departments as support personnel. They support on-going, organizational areas that are made up of staff and management. Let’s examine what happens when staff is absent.  If a staff member is out for the day or week, then other departmental staff pick up the slack, or fill in or divide up the work, or the work is shelved until the staff member returns.

Not so much in volunteer management. In my experience, the prevailing thought was that, “hey there’s other volunteers so there should never be an interruption of volunteer support, no matter what.” It didn’t matter that not every volunteer was capable of filling in for certain duties, nor did it matter that some volunteers were not suited for specific duties, the expectation was that volunteers were an endless supply and always interchangeable. Really? Do we ask staff in data and records to fill in for a social worker when the social worker calls in sick or vice a versa?

And here’s the perceived message: If there aren’t enough extra volunteers to fill in for absent volunteers, then the volunteer manager must not be doing a good enough job, so they should stop complaining when they have to fill in. Huh, so in the volunteer sector, are we all just warm bodies then, volunteers and volunteer managers alike?

It circles back to expectations. Organizations expect volunteers to fill tasks. They expect volunteer managers to supply the volunteers to fill the tasks. So, if volunteers get sick or go on vacation, will any old volunteer body do, including the volunteer manager?

But let’s take this one step further. If the jobs that volunteers do are really able to be filled by anyone, then that renders the job non-critical, doesn’t it? So, if an organization wants all volunteer jobs to be kept filled at all times, then the jobs better be critical to the mission, don’t you think?

Did we do this to ourselves? Do we privately chastise ourselves for not having enough volunteers? Do we feed the perception that volunteer roles must never go unfilled? Do we buy into the idea that volunteers’ roles are so generic that anyone can fill them? And if that is true, then how can we advocate for treating our volunteers as highly skilled contributing members of the team?

Let’s go back to the idea that a data staff member doesn’t fill in for a social worker. It should be the same with volunteers. You only have a portion of your volunteer base who are trained in a particular area and are able to fill in for others when they are absent. You can’t really call all volunteers, only those trained and/or familiar with the task. Or rather, we shouldn’t call every volunteer because that just feeds the warm body theory.

Ok, maybe a really nice volunteer will say yes to coming in for a job they are not familiar with and that takes care of it for that moment. But what if this volunteer is someone who is highly skilled in another area, say working with clients and they quit because they were left to “figure it out” when answering the phones for an absent volunteer?

This illustrates why categorizing volunteers by their training, skills, desirability and availability is crucial to dispelling the warm body myth. Not all volunteers are appropriate for and ready to fill in answering phone calls, or running out to get something or taking a client to an appointment. Too many of these warm body experiences will drive volunteers away.

But back to volunteer managers filling in for absent volunteers. Have you discussed this aspect of your job with anyone? Discussing the fill-in expectations portion of your job might just yield some wiggle room for you if you point out that your job is to provide skilled, appropriate volunteers for organizational tasks and that every time you have to fill in for an absent volunteer means you have less time to do your job.  It becomes cumulative. The more you fill in, the more you will have to fill in because you are not able to train and recruit volunteers. So, what can we do?

  • Point out that just like staff, volunteers will occasionally be absent and there needs to be contingent plans for those instances. This involves the staff in the department picking up the slack.
  • Provide a categorized list of volunteers for every task with emphasis on the volunteers’ training and experience.
  • Begin the cross train the volunteers who are willing. Volunteers who are willing to “float” shows your commitment to filling absentee roles when possible.
  • Gather feedback from volunteers on their fill-in experiences.
  • Advocate for moving on from the warm body theory.

Elevating volunteers and volunteer management is not an easy path. This paradox that volunteer roles are important enough to be kept filled, but not important enough to be filled with capable volunteers or staff and not just any body is frankly, ridiculous.  Volunteer roles must be viewed as just as diversified and skills based as every staff role.

We have to stop buying into the notion that as long as a breathing human being is sitting in the volunteer’s seat, we’ve done our job. We have to change the perception that volunteers are interchangeable tools and that we have to fill in when there are no volunteers available.

In order to progress in volunteer management, we need to present ourselves as the leaders of volunteers, not volunteers ourselves and show that our duties do not include filling in every time a volunteer is absent.

But, first, we have to convince ourselves.