Skip to main content

The Marriage of HR and Volunteer Management: The Odd Couple?

The Marriage of HR and Volunteer Management: The Odd Couple?

In our last Points of View we offered a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reaction to the current fad of suggesting that volunteer involvement would be infinitely improved if we simply turned things over to corporate human resources “professionals.”

One recent example of awesome proportions would suggest that the fad isn’t going to go away any time soon:

The London Olympics planning committee is thinking of turning the training of volunteers for the 2012 games over to McDonald’s -

Yes, that McDonald’s – we could not possibly make this kind of thing up.

So we’re taking another crack at this topic, but this time from a somewhat more serious perspective.

Starting with a Bit of History

If you haven’t been around since the beginning of time (like both Susan and Steve) you might not be aware that at one point volunteer management actually was a part of human resources.  You might want to take a look at something Susan wrote in the first issue of e-Volunteerism, a look at the career of Hat Naylor, one of the founders on volunteerism in the United States.  And at one point in the history of the Association for Administration of Volunteer Services (about 1978, if memory serves, and before the name change to the Association for Volunteer Administration) there was actually a spirited debate about officially dissolving as an independent organization in favor of becoming a sub-discipline of the American Society for Personnel Administration (now the Society of Human Resource Management, a place which actually celebrates its beginnings as a volunteer organization; see

Volunteer management has always had a bit of difficulty deciding where it fit in the organizational structure.  As a result we have volunteer programs that:

  • Operate out of the executive leadership units of organizations
  • Are integrated in human resources or personnel departments
  • Are an adjunct of fundraising and development offices
  • Are sub-units of field or program services departments
  • Don’t directly connect to any other part of the organization

Those who have argued for the uniqueness of volunteer management have – obviously – been in the forefront of the various professional associations of volunteer managers around the world, leading the battle to get some recognition for the distinct skills needed to successfully involve volunteers.  Most days we agree with this theory.

The Uniqueness of Managing Volunteers

Although volunteers clearly are both human and a resource, it’s not as obvious as it seems at first glance to coordinate an organization’s entire workforce, paid and unpaid, from the same office.  There are a number of things about managing volunteers that seem to us to be very different from managing employees and which suggest that simply turning responsibility for volunteer involvement over to a human resources department is not such a good idea.  Here are a few of them:

1.  The people with whom volunteer program managers work come with a range of ages, backgrounds, motivations, and other characteristics far beyond the experience base of HR professionals.

Let’s just talk about age for a moment.  HR professionals are accustomed to a workforce that usually ranges from 20 to 65 years, with a few reaching down into the late teens or continuing a bit into late retirement.   Volunteer programs do not face those boundaries. Steve knows of one volunteer program whose youngest volunteer was 5 and whose oldest was 94 – a generational span absolutely outside the parameters of HR.

Volunteer programs have the most diverse workforce on earth, and good volunteer managers have learned to meld a very wide range of styles, situations and motivations into a cohesive unit.  Very few HR managers in business have any experience that would relate to this breadth of workforce.

Keep in mind, too, that in the majority of nonprofit and public organizations, volunteers far outnumber the paid staff. Even though each volunteer works far fewer hours than a single employee, the volunteer manager still needs to recruit, interview, place, orient, and coordinate every volunteer.  HR would go crazy at the patchwork quilt that defies neat scheduling and shifts.
Not to mention accommodating all sorts of short-term, single-day, and virtual service options.

2.   Volunteer program managers have learned to work from the standpoint of “people first, business second.”

Good volunteer management recognizes that to motivate people to continue volunteering you must understand those people and their needs and motivations – and concentrate on ensuring that you can meet those needs and motivations.   Of course, the point is that paying attention to people (volunteer and paid) actually ends up doing more to meet an organization’s mission than not.

Most businesses these days seem to operate on the theory of “business first, worker be damned.”
That might work on those who are desperate for a paycheck, but it doesn’t work well.  And it won’t work at all on those who have more important motivations in mind.

3.   Even the simple parts of volunteer management work differently from how HR tends to operate.

Let’s pick interviewing, one of our favorite unsung parts of volunteer management.  Interviewing, to us, is the thing that distinguishes really good volunteer program managers from the amateurs.  Rick Lynch, no slouch when it comes to the subtleties of volunteer management, once noted that the whole point of volunteer management is to “put the right volunteer in the right job,” the basic goal of interviewing.

In accomplishing that goal, however, experienced volunteer managers take exactly the opposite approach as do HR professionals.

In HR the point of interviewing is to find the one perfect candidate out of a group of 100 applicants.  That is, you pick one and then dump the rest.

In volunteer management we play a much more sophisticated game.  Basically we want to find out enough about all 100 to figure out which one would be perfect for the task we were originally soliciting candidates for and then to figure out what the rest of the group might do that would assist us in addition.

In short, we want as many people and talents as possible.

And to perform this task well requires a lot more understanding of the personality, motivations, interests and talents of each applicant than most HR professionals are likely to pay any attention to.  They’re too used to trying to cram applicants into pigeonholes – and a limited number of pigeonholes at that.

Ivan Scheier once described this as “the People Approach” and it remains a cornerstone of good volunteer management (see Rick Lynch’s earlier article on this).

4.  HR can’t hire anyone unless there is money for a salary. Money is not the key factor in seeking volunteers.

HR is a reactive department.  It goes into operation to hire employees as directed by someone else and only when the funds for paying wages and benefits are assured. 

Those in volunteer management, on the other hand, continually reach out to community members to contribute their time and skills in all sorts of ways and, as just noted, can be creative in welcoming the unexpected resource.  Filling vacant position descriptions created by front line staff members is of course one goal of volunteer recruitment, but volunteer program managers themselves can develop almost any sort of service roles they can imagine.

5.   With volunteers, recognition really is important.

While volunteers talk a good game about not wanting recognition this is only true part of the time.  To start with they mostly mean that they don’t want or need the trinkets and certificates that pass for recognition in organizations that don’t understand real volunteer management – instead they do want attention to and acknowledgement of their accomplishments and hard work.  And although they may not care much about plaques and pins, they will in fact notice when they don’t receive feedback and thanks for the work they are doing, all a vital part of the “motivational paycheck” with which we reward volunteers.

HR – to be blunt – doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to real recognition.  They concentrate on such things as pay ranges, promotion requirements, and other mechanisms of advancement through benefits.  In general, they leave it to direct managers to actually say thank you to employees, and they often don’t.   If you don’t believe this, just conduct a quick survey of your co-workers – nonprofit and government paid staff tend to be the most abused, neglected and non-recognized workers on the face of the earth.  

Which is Not to Say that We Couldn’t Learn a Thing or Two from HR

On the other hand, to be fair, there are a few things that HR professionals tend to do better than volunteer managers:

1.   Providing job-related training to supervisors and managers of people

Despite being hired to fill and accepting the role, most volunteer program managers begin work with absolutely no background, education or training in volunteer management.  Many then immediately are responsible for supervising respectable numbers of human beings who need some special attention. 

This is a bad approach.

HR has been responsible for the creation of a body of knowledge around supervision and been responsible for promulgating the rather reasonable notion that one can do better supervision if trained than if simply making things up as one goes along.
There is a category of worker in the U.S. federal government that qualifies for the term “supervisor.”  This is usually a higher grade of job, with subsequent perquisites, one of which is qualifying for training in how to do supervision.  In most federal agencies you actually have to be in a “supervisory” job before you’re allowed to attend this training.  To qualify as a “supervisory” job there is a simple requirement – you have to be in charge of other people, managing their performance.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not apply this principle and definition to their own volunteer programs.  “People” in these regulations, is defined as “paid employees.”  You can be responsible for managing large numbers of volunteers and not qualify as a supervisor or be allowed to attend supervisory training, since apparently volunteers are not considered as sufficiently human to require formal management training. 

You can find the same short-sightedness in too many other organizations, everywhere.  The person managing volunteers is barred from certain training, pay levels, and promotions because they do not manage paid workers, only other people who don’t count.

HR probably wouldn’t put up with this kind of nonsense if they were in charge of volunteer management.

2.   Keeping personnel records

One egregious sin a volunteer program manager can commit is to not keep good records of interactions with individual volunteers – a basic personnel file for each worker.

Failing to do so causes a number of problems.

One of these is causing the organization to occasionally totally lose track of some of its volunteers – effectively disappearing them.

Another is a common affliction experienced by new volunteer managers whose predecessor failed to keep records:  total ignorance about the volunteers currently and recently participating.  This is an especially fatal malady when you discover that one of the volunteers is a trouble-maker but you have absolutely no written record of any of their past relationship with the organization.  Even more important, lack of records leaves no indication of the enormous positive accomplishments of volunteers to date, nor identifies the best volunteers to seek out as leaders.

HR, if nothing else, has taught us that paperwork (and well-constructed electronic databases) actually can have a purpose, especially when it comes to personnel matters.

3.   Thinking of itself as a real profession

If nothing else you have to accord HR a nod of recognition for the fact that it has worked long and hard to be accepted as a true profession.  If you want a rather startling experience, compare the website of the Society for Human Resource Management ( with that of any of the websites of professional volunteer managers around the globe.  We sometimes talk a good game – they are actually winning that game.

People who work in HR tend to think of themselves as professionals, and they tend to work hard to maintain and expand their professional expertise.  They belong to professional associations as a natural part of their work; they educate themselves in the nuances of their work; and they tend to view themselves as having a career within their field.

McDonaldsWe sure could use a lot more of that kind of thinking among leaders of volunteers.

This isn’t to say that HR managers are perfect, which brings us back to McDonald’s.

HR professionals are accustomed to applying marketing techniques in their recruitment efforts, and often do this much better than do volunteer managers.  To the right is an example of one such recruitment effort produced by McDonald’s and it’s a pretty good one, in our estimation. 

In fact, if you were a volunteer program trying to recruit either teens or retirees, the tagline slogan of “Friends, Fun and Flexible Hours” wouldn’t be a bad thing to steal.

But even the most sophisticated of HR programs can do things that we suspect the most novice volunteer manager would avoid.   Note, for example, the tag line at the bottom of the Ad – “People.  Our Most Important Ingredient.”

McDonald’s might well be training volunteers for the London Olympics but we really hope they aren’t responsible for their care and feeding…

To add or view comments

Mon, 11/01/2010
Thanks for replying, Susie -- although your story is disheartening. Maybe you can share a copy of this article with her and open an honest discussion (she doesn't have to see your comment!)? My most important advice is to deal with it now, before the situation gets worse. You need to engage someone with executive power, who is on the organizational chart above both of you and can validate both your perspectives (hopefully, with more emphasis on YOURS). Also, have you considered getting some of the volunteers affected to meet with you about strategy -- and perhaps to take the HR person to lunch with you and talk it out? Good luck. Don't let this fester.

Tue, 11/02/2010
Have you written about the difficulties inherent in having volunteer management in the Advancement/Development department recently? I keep hearing from agencies that are planning that placement. Thenks.
In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/06/2010

This is an excellent idea for a future Points of View -- thank you, Ruth!  As you imply, being teamed with the development or fundraising staff brings a whole different set of problems, including:  the "message" that volunteering is only another form of getting on the list to be asked for money; separation from the daily service delivery of the organization (even though volunteers are part of that); the potential for the volunteer resources manager to be diverted into work on major fundraising campaigns; and more.  Stay tuned for a fuller discussion.

Sat, 12/04/2010
Thank you Steve and Susan for writing such a compelling article which aptly describes the differences between Volunteer Managers and HR Managers. One other skill that volunteer managers possess, which you alluded to when you said "HR would go crazy at the patchwork quilt that defies neat scheduling and shifts", is the ability to problem solve. When a volunteer, you weren't expecting, suddenly appears and all of the tasks have been allocated; or when a volunteer decides that they feel like a sit down job today and you had allocated a more mobile job for them or visa versa; the problem solving must be subtle so that the volunteer is unaware of any dilemma and the volunteer should always feel valued, appreciated and needed.

Tue, 08/14/2012
I came across a blog about the Olympic Volunteers, which provides a good read. Roy Lilley in his contribution... In his view Macdonalds had done a good job with training (and by inference, selecting) the volunteers. Listening to the person responsible for overseeing this process on the radio at the weekend, the key strategy was to encourage volunteers to show their personality whilst performing their duties. Sound like a good balance was struck between discipline and freedom. ------------------ "I'm used to his voice. To be kind; it's not an announcer's voice. On the early train he is the luckless soul telling us he is; "In the midw of der trayn" and "There are deelays on the undergraand; Circw, Districkt and Norvern Lynes". It might be one of those occasions when it's OK to shoot the messenger. Last Saturday it was different. "There aint no delays everyfink is working just right. 'Ope yous all 'ave a great time and see plenty of medws and enjoy yer Olympics". Blimey! The packed train broke into spontaneous applause! I arrived at a very different Waterloo; not the normal morose high-viz jacket wearers, engrossed in texting. On duty were the bright eyed Games Makers, eager and helpful. I ventured a question; "Good morning, I've got an all zone travel card, am I better going to St Pancras and getting the Javelin, or go by tube from here, please?" The grey haired bloke with the handle-bar moustache, cheeks as red as the cherry-top uniform, didn't hesitate; "Oh, you're nice and early old chap, jump on the Tube to Stratford; it'll take you right there. I hope you see plenty of medals - have a good day, enjoy your Olympics". 'Enjoy your Olympics'.... Wow, there it was again! And, do you know what, I think he meant it. At Stratford we were cajoled, teased, sung to and stewarded by more happy, smiling faces. 'Have a nice day', gave way to 'gimme a high five' and again, 'enjoy your Olympics'. We swept through security and into the unreal world of the Olympic Park. A place that is safe and clean and staffed by people who really seem to care about what kind of an experience you have. There is no litter, no one frowning, no one unhappy. By chance I had picked Super-Saturday but whatever the excitement created by the Olympians, the winning, the medals, the wave of enthusiasm, the noise, it was made even more memorable by the volunteers. They were fabulous. I suspect, when the Olympics and Paralympics leave town, there won't be a politician who will not prey-in-aid the Olympics for this and that policy. Worse, I suspect, there will be no PowerPoint presentation that will not have a picture of a glistening eyed Olympian and a tubby manager standing in front of a screen telling us our workaday would change for ever if only we can duplicate the efforts of people we can never hope to emulate. Be sure to walk out! Forget all that. Yes, the success and effort and achievements are heroic and epic, but there are two more things that will endure, could touch our lives and give us food for thought. The first; John Major, when Prime Minister, made part of the National Lottery dedicated to funding and encouraging sport. Track the path of the funding to the increase in medals. When we stand in the queue to buy a Lottery ticket we make it possible for a youngster to run, jump and heave themselves to the top of the winner's rostrum. It must be worth a quid. The second; volunteers. You probably know one. There are 70,000; you must live near one. The Games Makers are us, this nation; diverse, varied and assorted but they are young at heart and desperately want you to have a good time. Every manager should have a PowerPoint image of a Games Maker in their presentation and ask; how can we be like that? Dedication to a cause, selflessness; from now on, anyone who pretends they can talk about leadership, pontificates about management, or lectures us on inspiration and motivation needs, first, to be sure they can spell out in plain English why the Games Makers volunteered, gave up holidays, laughed in the torrential rain (most of them never saw a live event) and committed themselves to making sure we all had a fabulous visit to 'Our Olympics'. Many Games Makers work in the NHS. They will come back with a story to tell and we should listen carefully. They were trained by McDonald's!"