Culture Shift: Navigating from a Volunteer-driven to Staff-driven Organization

By Lexie Kardal

Whether it is to help youth or about a passion for fashion, an association’s birthright commonly stems from volunteering. But what happens when paid staff members are introduced to a predominantly volunteer based association due to evolution and growth?

Take for example: Ontario Fashion Exhibitors (OFE). The initial one man operation has grown extensively over the past 20 years. What was once an exhibit that relied heavily on volunteers evolved to a full staff team; eventually becoming an association without any volunteer involvement whatsoever. Within the last few years, the CEO, Serge Micheli, CAE, CEM, has focused on re-engaging volunteers and incorporating the spirit of volunteerism back into OFE. Micheli has experienced the shift both ways; initially, introducing staff to a volunteer driven environment and now incorporating volunteers within his staff team. His experience is extensive and he recognizes the need for balance throughout; the balance of his staff, his resources and his leadership.

How can an association find the right balance? What role do CEOs, EDs, volunteers and paid staff play in such a transition?

Navigating such a shift requires balance to stay afloat and balance to ensure key players won’t abandon ship.

Balancing People

Paulette Vinette, CAE, President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting firm dedicated to providing strategic support to not-for-profit organizations, has been a consultant for 13 years and an association executive for over 30. Her experience with what works and what doesn’t during such a shift is extensive. When asked where to start she responded, “It is important to have a framework that makes both sides feel secure. The cardinal rule of the association needs to be known and carried out in order for success.”

Development and maintenance of good staff-volunteer relationships is key. A solid structure is essential and should be backed by policies and procedures to address the change.

The concerns of both staff and volunteers should be taken into account throughout the transformation. A clear outline of roles and responsibilities will create a blueprint of the process. Effective policy will dictate who does what, when and who reports to whom.

Micheli speaks of recent challenges his staff have faced based on resources. With a new president and changes on the board, the OFE association has started navigating towards creating more volunteer involvement with some of the workload. He reiterates the importance of balance between staff and volunteers.

“I find that volunteer members that have never worked in the role of a staff person at an association have a very different perspective of association management. The majority of the volunteer members that I work with have the betterment of the organization in mind at the forefront. We have created a comprehensive electronic volunteer management program and face-to-face orientation that helps both staff and volunteer members understand the association, each other’s role and responsibility, and we have assigned staff liaison roles to each committee or task force. In general, the board and the executive committee staff liaison role are assigned to the chief staff officer/executive director of the association. We design an organizational chart that shows all of the volunteer portfolios, staff liaisons and executive liaisons. In addition to the staff liaison, we created an executive liaison to each of the pillar committees. At each executive committee the executive along with the executive director quickly discusses any challenges with pillar committees, etc. All of this creates a better balance between volunteers and staff.”

The development of a communication plan that includes all levels of the association is vital, especially one that defines communication between the volunteers and paid staff members. Vinette adds, “The key is it needs to be a partnership; everyone should have enough maturity to welcome the transition and keep in mind who’s in the zoo.” She adds that volunteers and staff need to trust and respect each other in order for there to be a mutual ground to work on. Paid or not, everyone involved in the association needs to embrace the same vision and needs to be involved for the same reasons.

Misconceptions around the role of their counterparts can negatively impact internal relations between paid staff members and volunteers. Volunteers may feel threatened by the idea of a paid staff member lessening their responsibility, or feel devalued, thinking they are being replaced. New staff members may feel intimidated or out of place entering an environment largely made up of volunteers. Being prepared with set guidelines, boundaries and parameters will clearly define accountability. Both the volunteer and staff members need to understand the importance of the other.

According to Vinette, efforts should be made by all levels of an association to ensure their volunteers feel equally as important during and after paid staff members are introduced, as it should be when volunteers are introduced to a staff team. Volunteers and staff need to feel their contributions remain meaningful and fundamental in the association’s overall operation.

“I feel that one of my most important roles in association management is ensuring that volunteer members are well cared for as they are assets to the association, in addition to ensuring a balance and respect between volunteer members and staff,” says Micheli.

Youth Assisting Youth is a non-profit charitable organization that provides a peer mentoring service to improve life prospects for at risk and newcomer children. What began as a group of concerned community volunteers 36 years ago now consists of 15 paid staff members and over 580 volunteers. Sally Spencer, CEO, suggests developing a grass roots board consisting of volunteers who have been there since the beginning to accommodate volunteer consultation. “The inclusion of those primarily involved in the development of the association will create sustenance and openness to a shifting vision. The volunteer’s voice needs to remain present in order for them to feel valued and secure.”

Balancing Resources

Often, the ability to hire and pay a staff member relies heavily on funding, which is not always a guaranteed resource, as it often requires justification; a challenge that happens on a reoccurring basis for non-profit associations.

Spencer explains: “Our staff compliment has been much higher, but we have had to reduce staff due to funding and financial restraints. The current shortage of staff is affecting the overall climate. The need for service does not diminish, and the pressure from desperate families only increases as we are unable to address the demand in a timely manner. We would welcome the opportunity to hire more staff as this also means more at risk kids would get service. We can only balance so many youth volunteer mentors in relation to staff ratios. My main focus is to secure funding that will enable us to hire more staff who can in turn match more at risk kids with youth mentors. We provide a lot of guidance and support to our youth mentors besides the initial training and home assessment. The case coordinators are constantly communicating with the mentors as to how the match is going and providing the right support and encouragement to ensure the mentor remains engaged. We ask a mentor to sign up for a minimum of a year, but with our support the average length of time we get from a mentor is five years.”

“Both the volunteer
and staff members
need to understand the
importance of the other.”

Balancing Recruitment

As volunteers acquire and build new skills, should they be considered as possible candidates when recruiting paid staff members? Their commitment to the association and its vision is evident. Why not take into account those who are comfortable and familiar with most aspects of operations when looking to fill a staff position?

Youth Assisting Youth has successfully filled staff positions from their volunteer base. Although the shift has been slight, the 15 paid staff positions have become an integral part of its operation. Spencer explains: “Over the years we have had staff members who have become mentors to a child on our wait list. We have even filled staff positions from our mentor pool if they were able to fit the criteria we were seeking. All job opportunities are communicated to our mentors/volunteers.”

Spencer explains a paid staff position varies in many ways from volunteer commitment. These differences must be clearly communicated to the volunteer candidate. While levelling the playing field for the recruiter, the information gives the volunteer candidate a clear definition of the shift in accountability associated with a new role. The bottom line in any recruitment situation is to employ the best person for the job.

Balancing Leadership

CEOs and EDs play a crucial part in balancing the roles of volunteers and staff during any shift in its culture. Supporting the shift requires sensitive leadership, effective communication and follow-up from the executive, as they are responsible and accountable for the work produced by their staff and volunteers. Their message needs to be effectively communicated while displaying sensitivity to those affected by the shift.

Vinette stresses that, “If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years through association management, it is to be sensitive to the people.”

Micheli recalls a situation where the directors of the OFE Association started getting involved with volunteer work. “At first they started working with the association staff. Both staff and volunteers started having difficulties understanding the balance of workloads, the type of work that each was responsible for and the limited staff resources. I found that I had to be sensitive to each person’s perspective on the issues, especially considering that the staff and the volunteers would see the big picture differently. There was no ‘one size fits all’ solution and being sensitive to each person’s feelings and perspective helped in everyone becoming more proactive in working towards a more balanced approach.”

According to Vinette, statements of authority are the key. “The top needs to make it clear. The outline for who is going to do what and when is crucial.”

Spencer agrees. “As CEO I am the catalyst of any change. There has to be a plan from the top and carry through. I feel the responsibility to make it the best of both worlds.”

Micheli feels CEOs and EDs should also make it a priority to ensure association related information is equally shared. Inclusive tactics like encouraging staff and volunteers to attend meetings and to sit on boards will foster a sense of partnership between functions. He says the OFE Board has embraced this. They recently began including select star volunteers in the board’s membership.

There are no guidelines or easy answers for balancing resources in the midst of a culture shift, especially when certain resources are ever changing. As with any significant change an association embarks on, the shift from it being a volunteer-driven environment to one that includes paid staff members will not be effortless. Achieving a balance that works for everyone will prove to be an intricate process.

About Author

Lexie Kardal

Lexie Kardal is a freelance writer from Winnipeg, MB. She has over 10 years experience in the administration field and certification in Human Resource Management.