Should You Hire Volunteers?

hire volunteers

I had someone ask me a question recently: “Is it okay to hire volunteers?” In our current environment of staff shortages and burnout, organizations are scrambling to find qualified staff. I have found, though, that many hesitate to tap into a pool of potential staff members that are right in front of them. Volunteers.

In many cases, volunteers are seen as “unpaid labour”. We love them, and appreciate what they do for us, but we often discount – or are completely unaware of – other skills that they might have. You may very well have the perfect Marketing Coordinator stocking shelves in your thrift store, or your next Executive Director walking dogs at your animal shelter.

Because we don’t see them doing work that takes a higher level of skill, we often unconsciously feel that they don’t have that higher level.

Yet volunteers can make the very best of employees.

A volunteer usually already has a strong connection and commitment to the organization. They are already part of the culture, and know how things are done. Let’s face it, they care about what you do! This speaks volumes for their potential commitment as an employee. (Read: less turnover!)

Through their volunteer work, they’ve also likely developed a clear understanding of the organization’s mission, values, and operations. Therefore, they won’t need to adapt themselves to the culture and processes. They are likely to be able to hit the ground running and make a positive impact more quickly than a new hire who is still learning about the organization.

Additionally, the organization’s volunteers may already have built relationships with other volunteers and staff. This can be very helpful in fostering a positive working environment.

Finally, hiring from within the organization helps to foster a sense of community and inclusiveness, and can help maintain continuity and encourage greater employee engagement and job satisfaction. Remember, many people volunteer to gain work experience; why not take advantage of the experience you’ve given them?

There are, of course, some risks involved when you hire volunteers.

Sometimes managers overlook the best candidate in favour of someone they already know. This is known as the familiarity bias, and can lead to less competent or skilled people getting hired than if you had only looked outside the organization.

Say your soup kitchen is looking for a new kitchen manager. You may have a volunteer who has years of experience cooking for the program. They may not, however, have experience in budgeting or inventory management. So, when considering whether to hire a volunteer, you need to be as careful about reviewing their skills and qualifications for the position as you would if you didn’t have a history with them.

The other challenge that may come up is resentment amongst the other volunteers. Hiring a volunteer, for example, who has been with you for about a year, may cause volunteers who have been around longer to ask why they weren’t hired. To mitigate this, ensure that your hiring process is fair, objective and, most of all, transparent. If other applicants – or even just interested onlookers – know the skills and abilities that you were looking for and how the successful applicant met them, any resentment should be negligible.

I’m not saying that you have to hire volunteers.

Volunteers can bring valuable skills, perspective, and organizational knowledge. But they also need to be held to the same standards as external candidates in terms of skills and qualifications. What I am saying is just don’t forget them! Know that, even if  someone only washes dishes for you, doesn’t mean they’re incapable of a much more challenging position.

Take a second look at volunteers when you start hiring.

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