Every once in a while we run into someone from Corporate America who, upon learning that we work primarily with nonprofits, proceeds to talk about how charities should be run more like businesses. We also occasionally find the Nonprofit Executive who is certain that social problems would be cured if her or his agency had more employees and higher salaries.
Since we work with nonprofits, government agencies and corporations we’ve had a lot of opportunity to notice how each of these sectors manages themselves, and we’d like to make a few observations of our own.
Hence the title above, which is mostly a rhetorical question.
Steve and Susan then provide eight simple reasons why volunteer management is superior to paid management, beginning with:
1. It’s the mission, stupid.
Employee management has a vastly overrated view of the importance of money in motivating people to do good work, despite the fact that...
Every once in a while we run into someone from Corporate America who, upon learning that we work primarily with nonprofits, proceeds to talk about how charities should be run more like businesses. We also occasionally find the Nonprofit Executive who is certain that social problems would be cured if agencies had more employees and higher salaries.
Since we work with nonprofits, government agencies and corporations, we’ve had a lot of opportunity to notice how each of these sectors manages themselves, and we’d like to make a few observations of our own.
Hence the title above, which is mostly a rhetorical question.
1. It’s the mission, stupid.
Employee management has a vastly overrated view of the importance of money in motivating people to do good work, despite the fact that survey after survey of employee behavior says that other factors are far more significant. People like to make a difference, whether they are helping others or manufacturing a better widget. “Making a profit” (or assuring that revenues exceed expenses) is not a mission statement, it’s just a way of keeping score, and it’s pretty irrelevant to most employees.
Many years ago Steve Jobs of Apple Computer asked a person he was attempting to hire away from Pepsi Cola, “Do you want to change the world or do you want to spend the rest of your life selling colored water?” Volunteers want to change the world, and that vision is enough to inspire extraordinary behavior and commitment. Good volunteer management never forgets this simple principle.
2. Recruitment is hard, but it’s the key to a lot of good things.
Recruiting volunteers is complex, difficult work, but the program that does it well ends up with a vastly superior work force. To recruit volunteers effectively, you have to have a firm idea of the work that needs to be done, the kind of worker who would enjoy and be good at that work, and the type of person who would fit into the work environment. Then you have to design recruitment appeals based on understanding the dreams and desires of potential applicants. Done well, this process can craft and shape a workforce that is representative of the best the community has to offer.
Employee recruitment is best exemplified by an actual job announcement whose entire content was: “Earn $15 an hour. Call XXX/XXX-XXXX.”
Sometimes you get what you deserve.
3. The people approach works.
Many years ago Ivan Scheier coined a phrase for volunteer management: the “people approach.” By this he meant that the best way to craft really good volunteer positions was to begin by thinking about the talents and interests that volunteer applicants brought with them, and to design a volunteer position that took advantage of these talents and interests. The theory behind this is deceptively simple: people are more likely to excel at work which they truly care about and which fits their gifts.
Employee management, on the other hand, resorts to bribery and pigeonholing. Draft a job description, heave it out there, and cram applicants into the box until you find the one who mostly fits.
Then bribe them, because why else would they want that job?
4. Money isn’t everything; it isn’t even much of anything.
The really bad news about bribery as a motivational technique is that ultimately it doesn’t work. It’s simply a more complicated form of coercion, and coercion never works as a long-term management principle. Just ask any number of ex-dictators, assuming they’re still alive.
Managers of volunteers have learned and practiced a lot about motivating workers that managers of employees rarely learn - and thus tend to take shortcuts that lead to disgruntled employees. It’s a real incentive to practice good supervision techniques to realize that any day your workers don’t want to come to work, they don’t have to.
To get employees to truly care about their work you have to care for and pay attention to them. A mere salary is a pretty poor substitute for a good relationship.
5. Recognition has nothing to do with a paycheck.
A paycheck is never a thank you. We can prove this by noting that bosses have to pay employees even for the week in which they fire them. Pay is part of a contract: you show up; we pay you. It has nothing to do with the quality or success of performance on the job. In fact, we sincerely hope that no one ever signs an employment contract that says: “I understand that I will only be paid for the days in which you are happy with my work.”
A promotion, along with a higher wage, may be a sign of appreciation, just as being fired conveys a negative evaluation. On the other hand, if losing a job results from the company bleeding red ink, the nonprofit failing to raise sufficient funds, or the wrongdoing of some executive, then the real message is that one’s performance has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s employment.
Not to mention that the best way to show appreciation is to say “thank you.” Volunteer managers see this as a major function of their role. Employee managers who assume that a regular paycheck implies thanks are sadly mistaken. We throw parties for volunteers. Ever wonder if the paid staff feels jealous?
6. We’re so flexible it hurts.
While paid management is getting increasingly bureaucratic, volunteer management has become so flexible and creative that it defies description.
We’ve got long-term volunteers, short-term volunteers, episodic volunteers, and one-day-event volunteers. We’ve got kids, teens, singles, parents, retirees and active grannies. We’ve got corporate employees, vacationers, virtual workers, affiliative groups, and families out to have fun and do good at the same time.
And we’ve crammed them all neatly into the same program.
Some volunteer programs, such as Big Brothers and the Girl Scouts, have literally re-invented the way they do business in the past ten years, all while still serving the clients they’ve been working with for decades.
“May you live in interesting times” used to be a Chinese curse - now it’s a volunteer manager’s mantra.
7. We never rest.
Not only do we engage volunteers way outside the boundaries of who might be hired to do work for pay (under age 16, over age 65, spontaneous help, etc.), but we have no limits as to when or where the work will be done. Employees sign on for their 35 to 40 hours a week, generally during some sort of standard “office” hours. But volunteers can – and often are – on call whenever needed. Whether it’s a 6:30 a.m. hospice visit or a midnight delivery of blankets to street people, driving the homebound to Sunday church services or tutoring in an after-school project, volunteers are there. Then add such things as volunteer vacations – anywhere in the world – and virtual volunteering that can be done wherever there’s an Internet connection, and you have total “availability.”
8. All this on a budget that looks like the leftovers from petty cash.
Most volunteer programs have very small budgets; many don’t have a budget at all.
Look at your average hospital and the budget for the HR department will be five times the budget for the volunteer program, even when the volunteer program works with four times the number of people. And does a better job of it.
It’s easy to talk about doing quality work when you’ve got lots of money to spend; it’s quite another thing to produce quality when even a shoestring is an extravagance.
Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, volunteer management wins the cost effectiveness battle every time. Volunteer managers do more with less than any paid manager would ever dream about doing.
One Last Thought
So these are our eight simple reasons why volunteer management is superior to paid management.
But, since we want to be attentive to what our corporate friends refer to condescendingly as “the bottom line,” we’ll offer one more bit of proof.
If you still think paid management is superior to volunteer management, try this simple test:
Announce to your staff that budget cuts require the elimination of all salaries, but that the organization will still be open for business as usual tomorrow.
Then see how many employees show up for work.