Why involving volunteers may not be a good idea

A couple of years ago I read Adam Grant’s excellent book, Originals. In the book, Grant – a highly respected organisational psychologist – explores how non-conformists change the world, using a wide range of stories, research and insights to challenge accepted wisdom about creativity and originality. In an early chapter he argues that it is more effective to influence change by pointing out the flaws in an argument, not the strengths. This got me thinking.

Over the last few weeks on this blog I have been exploring how, in these changed times, leaders of volunteers are going to have to engage in some tricky conversations.

We are going to have to navigate objections related to paid staff job security and ensuring safe volunteer engagement practice is applied and followed by everyone.

We are going to have to educate colleagues and bosses about why we can’t just magic volunteers into existence to meet the needs of clients as incomes fall.

In short, we are going to have to step up our influencing and advocacy around volunteering.

So, what can we learn from Adam Grant’s idea to help us with this? What if we argued why involving volunteers might not be a great idea? What might such a proposition look like? Here’s my three-point take on how it might look:

1 – Involving volunteers is not a quick fix

Until someone invents the instant volunteer (just add water, microwave for two minutes and stir!), involving volunteers effectively takes time. You’ve got to develop the right roles, identify the target audience, create engaging recruitment materials, go out and find people, interview them, select them, induct them, train them and support them. And you won’t get them to make a regular, long-term commitment on day one. You’ll have to cultivate a relationship with them, deepening their commitment and giving them flexibility in how they volunteer. There is no quick fix to your problems to be found here.

The good news is that if you do it right, you’ll probably gain a supporter for life. But it’s going to take time.

2 – Volunteers may not give an immediate return on investment

For all the reasons listed above, it’s going to take a while before you see the benefits of volunteers getting involved in your work. Fundraising volunteers have to build relationships with others to bring the income in. Service delivery volunteers need time to settle into their roles to truly make a difference. You’ve got to be patient and committed to see the benefits that will come in time.

Done properly though, the return on involvement and return on investment can be huge.

3 – We will have to give up some power and control

Volunteers don’t want to be told what to do all the time. They don’t want to be micromanaged. They are intelligent, skilled and passionate people. They want to unleash their talents for the good of your mission, not work as mindless servants to the paid staff. So you’re going to have to relinquish some control, trusting the volunteers to do their best and not squeezing out their creativity and enthusiasm.

When you get this right, will you have some amazing new ideas and effective people working with you.

As we continue to come out of lockdown, organisations must look carefully at how they involve and deploy volunteers. Covid-19 has accelerated the changes in volunteering that we always knew were coming. We can’t do what we’ve always done and expect the same results. We have to change. This was clearly laid out recently in an article from Civil Society magazine, “Coronavirus crisis shows charities need to change approach to volunteering, leaders say.

In my response to this article I said:

”What’s crucial is that this isn’t just dismissed as something for Volunteer Managers to act on. The points Karl, Paul and Tiger make are all important, but can only be addressed if everyone in an organisation is willing to take volunteer engagement seriously, including at a strategic level. This isn’t some quick fix a Volunteer Manager can address on their own. It takes a whole organisation to make this happen.”

The key to effective change around volunteer engagement is how we can help our colleagues embrace this change in mindset. Adam Grant’s idea of arguing against an idea might enable us to spot how we might better argue for that idea, increasing the chances we will successfully influence others.

What do you think?

How would you pitch why involving volunteers isn’t a good idea in your organisation? How might that help you make a better case for volunteer involvement?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

4 thoughts on “Why involving volunteers may not be a good idea

  1. We’re dealing with parochialism and hierarchy in the regions – where there has been a way to involve volunteers but often informal, highly unregulated and based on whether or not you like someone. Having a volunteer contract that is the minimum a programme should have, sort of like the governments minimum contract for paid employees may give volunteer leaders some food for thought. However, those that really need them are those who wouldn’t look at them. How do I get the people who really need to change to listen?


    1. Good question and no easy answers. One approach is to avoid the over formal contract language, talking about agreements instead. Just as in any relationship in life there is an agreement as to how it will work, so too with volunteering. Just don’t make it a Sheldon Cooper roommate agreement!


  2. Hey Rob, good points. The obvious one that comes to my mind is financial. While the benefits of volunteers take time to accrue as you note, the organization still has to pay salary (and benefits) etc for the leader of volunteers. The unfortunate conclusion that may organizational leadership teams come to is that the overall financial sustainability of the organization may be jeopardized, particularly during this pandemic, if revenues don’t arrive in time. While larger nonprofits may have endowments or other cash reserves that can (or sometimes can’t) be eaten into, fiscally conservative boards frown upon doing so except as a last resort. Which means that leaders of volunteers are often put on the chopping block.

    I am not sure of an effective counterargument. One that I’ve tried is engaging volunteers in the fundraising process. Though as you note this takes time to cultivate at substantial scales that can alleviate serious revenue loss associated with the pandemic. Another counterargument I’ve made focuses on lost services and impact from the reduction of the volunteer force. Yet without staff time available to train and supervise volunteers impacts can easily turn from positive to neutral or worse, introducing increased risk and liability. A third is that volunteers can step up to more advanced roles with more responsibilities as staff are furloughed or laid off due to decreased revenues associated with the pandemic. Yet asking volunteers to do the work of paid staff obviously has challenging ethical, moral and legal pitfalls. So, I am just not really sure how to counter any of these issues.


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