HR Toolkit

Workplaces that Work

Staff-Volunteer Relations

Whether they are frontline or administrative volunteers, special event or fundraising volunteers or sit on a committee or board of directors, volunteers are an integral part of nonprofit organizations. Therefore, when we talk about workplaces that work, we need to consider how staff and volunteers interact. First, there needs to be an organizational commitment to the value of volunteers that starts from the top down. In this section, you'll find practical ways to promote positive relations between the staff and volunteers in your organization.



Addressing concerns

Although we talk about the importance of volunteers, it's not uncommon for there to be internal resistance when it comes to involving volunteers. Before any progress can be made, these concerns need to be acknowledged. Concerns may include:

  • Will my job be replaced with volunteers?
  • It's easier to do it myself than involve volunteers.
  • I enjoy the hands-on part of my job. I don't want to give that part up to volunteers and be left with only a supervisory role.
  • It takes too much time to get a volunteer trained and up and running.
  • Volunteers are well meaning but don't have the same level of professional training that I do. Service to clients will be affected.
  • My job description is big enough already without having to add on supervising volunteers.
  • I don't have any training in volunteer management. That's not my job.
  • Volunteers aren't dependable.
  • You can't get rid of volunteers even when they aren't doing a good job.
  • I'm worried that volunteers won't respect confidentiality.


Promoting positive relationships

Acknowledging concerns is an important first step in promoting positive relationships between staff and volunteers. In addition, there are a number of other steps that will help build a strong foundation for staff-volunteer relationships:


Top-down commitment

There needs to be an organizational commitment that volunteers are integral to advancing the mission of the organization and the commitment needs to be shared from the top down. An important question to ponder is "If we had an unlimited budget, would we still involve volunteers?" If the answer is, "yes" then ponder the unique value that volunteers bring to your organization and to your clients.

Excellent Website

The Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement

Provides a framework for involving volunteers at the governance, leadership and direct service levels. The Code outlines the values, principles, and standards for effective volunteer practices within organizations. It also includes an audit tool for organizations to assess their practices.


Investing in infrastructure

While it may appear at first that volunteers are "free" because there is no cheque to be paid, there is a cost to involving volunteers. Your organization needs to provide staff with a budget to recruit, properly train, supervise and recognize volunteers as well as to cover the cost of professional development. When staff has the resources they need, you set the stage for successful staff-volunteer relations.


Understanding today's volunteer

In the past, volunteers operated more "behind the scenes" supporting the work of paid staff. Today's volunteers have much different expectations and oftentimes come with highly developed, specialized skills that they want to utilize. That means that staff is more likely to be in a coordinator or manager role and the volunteer in a consultant role. It is important to recognize the change and to build volunteer positions that tap into the strengths of both staff and volunteers.


Consultation and feedback

Involve staff and union representatives (if applicable) in the design of volunteer positions so that you have their insight and buy-in. Find out about your staff's own volunteer involvement. One of the best sources of information about how to effectively involve volunteers is to reflect on your own experience of being a volunteer: What went well? What did you appreciate? What didn't you appreciate?

Discuss volunteer placements with staff before introducing the new volunteer(s).

Arrange a review date with staff to evaluate how volunteer placements are going.


Excellent Website

A Matter of Design: Job design theory and application to the voluntary sector

Adapts human resources and corporate theory to provide a new perspective on engaging volunteers. Starting with an analysis of mission and moving through the elements of volunteer involvement, this resource examines how to create volunteer opportunities that both help the organization fulfill its mandate and are satisfying for volunteers. The resource will give you the theory, and a step-by-step process using helpful templates and examples of small, medium and large voluntary organizations.


Policies and procedures

Ensure that you have policies and procedures in place that address all aspects of volunteer involvement so that there is consistency in your organization. Include a policy that states that volunteers augment but do not replace paid staff. Some organizations have separate policies for volunteers while others integrate volunteers into their human resources policies and procedures.


Supporting staff

In some organizations, there is a point person for volunteer-related matters. Oftentimes, this person has a job title like Manager of Volunteer Resources or Volunteer Coordinator. However, in most organizations, all staff has contact with volunteers and therefore it is important that all staff have some level of training about how to effectively involve volunteers.

  • In staff job postings, include reference to volunteer management responsibilities
  • Include volunteer management responsibilities in staff job descriptions and on performance reviews
  • Recognize paid staff for working well with volunteers
  • Support staff when a volunteer placement is not working out
  • If there is a Manager of Volunteer Resources, let staff know that this person is a resource to the whole organization about current trends and best practices


Excellent Website

CharityVillage Campus

Offers an online, low-cost course entitled "Building a Great Volunteer Program."

Energize Inc

Offers self-instruction guides plus online seminars led by leading experts in volunteer management. You can register for individual memberships or organizational memberships.

Index of Volunteer Management Theory

Volunteer Canada


Other ideas

To nurture staff-volunteer relations, consider including volunteers in staff training sessions. Not only do you invest in the knowledge and skills of your volunteers but it's also a great team building activity.


The board / executive director relationship

A very specific staff-volunteer relationship within organizations is the one between the executive director and the board of directors.

No single relationship in the organization is as important as that between the board and its chief executive officer. Probably no single relationship is as easily misconstrued or has such dire potential consequences. That relationship, well conceived, can set the stage for effective governance and management.

-- John Carver, Boards that Make a Difference, 1990



While the term executive director is used throughout this discussion it is understood it is only one of many terms (such as president, senior manager and general manager) used by organizations in the sector to refer to their most senior staff person. The important consideration is not the title but the work-related responsibilities and their value within the organization.

General practices to build effective board / executive director relationships include:


Clarifying roles

There are different governance models with differing roles and levels of interaction for the board and executive director. At the simplest level, boards of directors govern an organization leaving executive directors to oversee the day-to-day management. However, emerging organizations often have working boards that take on many of the day-to-day activities (frequently in the absence of any paid staff), while older organizations have boards that focus on policies and strategic planning. It is important to make a deliberate decision about what governance model will be used in the organization. Agreeing on the roles, responsibilities and accountability is a big step towards a positive working relationship.


Strategic planning

When an organization has a comprehensive strategic plan (jointly developed between staff and the board plus other stakeholders), it provides focus and direction for the board and the executive director. A strategic plan also demonstrates how the work of the board and the executive director complements each other as both work to meet a common goal.


The importance of evaluation

In addition to developing a board performance evaluation process, it's also important to have a clear performance management process in place for evaluating the executive director.


Relationship building

It's also a good practice to include information about roles and responsibilities in board training and in board manuals. When a new board chair or executive director joins the organization, discuss the roles and responsibilities and how the relationship can work effectively. Meeting agendas can be collaboratively developed by the board chair and the executive director.


Next Section: Workplace Wellness