I saw a very discouraging post on Facebook today. It was written by a leader of volunteers in an organization dealing with staff shortages.
He was writing about how important things weren’t getting done, and the staff that were there were just trying to shove things off onto the volunteers. When the leader told the staff that the volunteers were starting to resent it, he was told that they’d “just have to suck it up”.
It is a terrible situation.
And it’s only one of the problems that can come up in the current environment. Staff shortages are rampant in most organizations.
Even if a volunteer doesn’t mind picking up the slack caused by vacant staff positions, the more you ask them to do the more likely it is that they will burn out.
When things aren’t getting done, health and safety can be compromised. Clients can fall through the cracks and not receive services they require.
Resentment can begin to fester between staff and volunteers, leading to a higher likelihood of losing both volunteers and more staff. It can start a vicious downward spiral.
Taken to the extreme, it can even cause the closure of an organization and the abandonment of those who depended on it.
But what, as a leader of volunteers, can you do about it?
Start with remembering that you are a leader, and as such, you have more power than you might think.
Here’s what I suggested to the leader mentioned above.
- First, gather as many of the facts as possible around the impact that the volunteers make, even in regular times.
- Develop a clear understanding of what would happen if the volunteers, or even some of them, left.
- Brainstorm suggestions that would make the work of everyone easier (what doesn’t really need doing, what can be streamlined or automated, etc).
- Then go in front of the Board and executive at their next meeting, explain your concerns and offer solutions.
They should pay attention if they want the organization to thrive (and chances are that the Directors are volunteers, too!). And if you come with solutions, not just problems, you are more likely to get support. At the very least, you’ll start a conversation.
In addition, take this as an opportunity to train the staff.
In many cases, staff, unless they work closely with the volunteers or are volunteers themselves, are blissfully unaware of what a massive impact the volunteers have on your organization. They may not know the skill sets or the limitations of different volunteers. They may not see the value of them.
And they may not realize what would happen if the volunteers disappeared.
As the leader of the volunteers, it’s up to you to educate the staff on these facts. You can also provide ideas for supporting the volunteers so that the volunteers can help them even more.
Come up with quick, friendly talking points to respond with when a staff member is disrespectful to the volunteers, or tries to overload them. Try not to sound resentful (even if you are!), just point out the natural consequences of their behaviour. Volunteers leaving and more work for them!
Staff shortages are pinching most not-for-profits.
They don’t, however, need to pinch them out of existence. With a little planning and some creative problem solving, many of the issues can be resolved.
If you’re going through this, my heart goes out to you. If you need help or just want to talk, give me a call.