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The Dos and Don’ts of Turning a Volunteer Into an Employee

By June 26, 2023October 19th, 2023No Comments

Volunteers are an essential part of modern nonprofits. They perform indispensable work and provide tremendous value because they believe in the organization’s mission and values. Although the amount varies from state to state, a recent study valued volunteer work at an average of $28.54 per hour. This number illustrates not just the value of the work itself but also the work that paid staff are freed up to do because of the efforts of volunteers. It is clear that without the work of volunteers, nonprofit organizations would be hard-pressed to meet their goals.

Sometimes nonprofits hire volunteers as part- or full-time staff members. Because volunteers are already familiar with the organization’s work and are passionate about its mission and goals — and have shown their capabilities, skill at working with others, and motivation — it seems like a logical step. However, the relationship and legal differences between employees and volunteers are highly complex. Many nonprofits hire people for the wrong reason or without a clear idea of what to expect from them as an employee. Here are some of the dos and don’ts if you are considering hiring a volunteer to join your staff:

Do recruit a volunteer for a role that requires part- or full-time wage work

Imagine your organization receives a grant for a new project or secures additional funding or your leadership determines that you need additional staff in a key department. Going through the traditional route of recruiting and hiring someone externally is an option, but it makes sense to consider your volunteers as well. Because your volunteers have hands-on experience with the work and have already built relationships with the organization, they are uniquely suited to step into the role with a limited need for orientation.

However, the complexity of the legal obligations your organization has to its volunteers means you need to make it clear that, just like the volunteer work, nobody is required to apply to be considered for the role. Additionally, although it may be tempting to ask volunteers to help fill in the responsibilities of the role while you are recruiting, this can lead to legal issues because wage work and volunteer work need to remain separate. Also, just because a volunteer is already a trusted team member does not mean they will not need additional training and orientation. If they are interested in the role, you should empower them to speak up about areas they do not feel confident working in yet.

Don’t offer a volunteer a job just to keep them around

Long-time or skilled volunteers can often become critical parts of your organization, even as they are offering their skills for free. A common issue with these kinds of volunteers is burnout. Because they feel undue pressure as a critical part of the mission, they run the risk of overworking themselves, particularly if they have work outside of the organization. Some nonprofits respond to this by “working out” a part- or full-time role without considering the other options, just because they want to keep the volunteer in the organization.

This approach raises many issues: The role may not require enough hours to make it financially feasible for the volunteer-turned-employee and does not lessen the pressure on them to perform. Moreover, they may not want a paid role and the additional responsibilities it entails. If a volunteer or volunteers disclose feeling burnt out or overworked, other solutions are possible, including recruiting more volunteer help, taking a closer look at their task to see whether there is a way to help them do it more efficiently, or exploring schedule flexibility, a leave of absence, or other options.

Do work to delineate responsibilities and expectations for volunteers and staff

Most nonprofits experience pressure to “do more with less.” Because of a lack of timely resourcing, they are reliant on a mix of paid staff and volunteer work. At many nonprofits, this can lead to some overlap when staff and volunteers work closely to accomplish their goals. This happens out of necessity but also because they may not know exactly what their responsibilities are. Their shared feeling of commitment to the mission also leads them to work beyond their base responsibilities.

Although this process may seem like a natural, or even welcome, response to the issues that nonprofits face, it’s important that you clearly define responsibilities and limit the times this kind of overlap happens. Creating a situation where a volunteer “becomes an employee” in terms of the work they are doing, can expose your organization to legal issues over unpaid work. Defining these responsibilities is also crucial when you recruit volunteers to join as employees because they should feel their obligations have changed and be clear on what those obligations are and are not.

Don’t expect a hired volunteer to simultaneously be a volunteer and an employee

When you hire a volunteer, it’s important that they feel a “clean break” from the responsibilities of volunteering. Volunteer-to-hire team members often feel an implicit pressure to continue their volunteer work outside of their new wage work, leading to legal issues and burnout. It’s a natural response because they feel they are the best equipped and experienced to do the volunteer work. Making it clear that there is a formal difference between the two roles is essential. Being explicit about this from the beginning, backfilling the volunteer work, and ensuring that the new hire is properly trained and resourced are all great ways to head off this issue and ensure the new employee is well-positioned for the long term.

Guidance from experts

It’s clear that striking a balance between volunteer work and paid work is essential, both to your team and to the volunteers you are considering for a full-time role. However, because of the frequent overlap, under-resourcing, and other issues, finding a way to balance these issues and avoid legal issues or staff burnout can be difficult. As nonprofit experts, we help organizations like yours navigate these challenges and free up resources to further your mission. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help, please reach out to us.

(Photo by cottonbro studio)

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