Should you hire volunteers?

Hiring from within

I had someone ask me a question recently: "Is it okay to hire volunteers?"

In our current environment of staff shortages and burnout, organizations are scrambling to find qualified staff. I have found, though, many hesitate to tap into a pool of potential staff members that are right in front of them—volunteers.

In many cases, volunteers are seen as unpaid labour. We love them and appreciate what they do for us, but we often discount – or are completely unaware of – the skills they have.

You may very well have the perfect marketing coordinator stocking shelves in your thrift store, or your next executive director walking dogs at your animal shelter. Because we don’t see them doing work that takes a higher level of skill, we often unconsciously feel they don’t have that higher level.

But volunteers can make the very best of employees. Volunteers usually already have strong connections and commitments to the organization. They are already part of the culture, and know how things are done. They care about what you do. That speaks volumes for their potential commitment as an employee. (Read: less turnover.)

Through their volunteer work, they’ve also likely developed a clear understanding of the organization's mission, values and operations. Therefore, they won’t need to adapt themselves to the culture and processes. They’ll be able to hit the ground running and make a positive impact more quickly than a new hire who is still learning about the organization.

Additionally, the organization’s volunteers may already have built relationships with other volunteers and staff, which can be helpful in fostering a positive working environment.

Finally, hiring from within the organization helps to foster a sense of community and inclusiveness, and can help maintain continuity and encourage greater employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Remember, many people volunteer to gain work experience. Why not take advantage of the experience you’ve given them?

There are, of course, some risks involved with hiring volunteers. Sometimes managers overlook the best candidate in favour of someone they already know. This is known as the “familiarity bias.”

This bias can lead to less competent and skilled people getting hired than if you only looked outside the organization. For example, if a soup kitchen is looking for a new kitchen manager, a volunteer who has experience cooking for the program may not have experience in budgeting or inventory management.

So, when considering whether to hire a volunteer, you need to be as careful about reviewing their skills and qualifications for the position as you would if you didn’t have a history with them.

The other challenge that may come up is resentment amongst the other volunteers. Hiring a volunteer, for example, who has been with you for about a year, may cause volunteers who have been around longer to ask why they weren’t hired.

To mitigate this, ensure your hiring process is fair, objective and, most of all, transparent. If other applicants – or even just interested onlookers – know the skills and abilities you were looking for and how the successful applicant met them, any resentment should be negligible.

I’m not saying that you have to hire volunteers. But volunteers can bring valuable skills, perspective, and organizational knowledge. They also need to be held to the same standards as external candidates in terms of skills and qualifications. What I am saying is just don’t forget them.

Know that, even if someone only washes dishes for you, it doesn’t mean they’re incapable of a much more challenging position. Take a second look at them when you start hiring.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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