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Why Job Equity for Volunteer Engagement Professionals Maximizes Overall Impact of Your Nonprofit

Karmit Bulman  | Published on 5/9/2018

How often do you think about how essential volunteers are to achieving your nonprofit mission? Do you truly understand volunteerism and how critical it is to the success of your program? Do you understand what your organization’s volunteer engagement staff do? What skills they bring to the table? To better understand these issues, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) embarked upon an important research study in June 2017. We learned that the lack of true understanding about the essential nature of volunteers and those who lead them, undermines the effectiveness of nonprofits. We learned that there are affirmative steps that can be taken to address the issues. For a copy of the full report click here.

The MAVA survey data demonstrated that volunteer engagement professionals (VEPs) are unlikely to serve on the organization’s executive leadership team or to be included in high level strategic planning. Reasons given included: there can only be so many people at the table and there are worries that things will become too top heavy. Nonprofit CEOs said having the VEP voice heard through their supervisor is adequate and that volunteer management is seen as a support function, not a strategic one. VEPs are excluded from the strategic planning process because their role is not seen as senior enough to be included or volunteers are not perceived as impacting the bottom line. Volunteer involvement is seen as cost free. A related underlying cause of VEPs not being valued is that working with volunteers is seen as different from working with staff – particularly around availability and accountability - and some staff don’t like working with volunteers. Volunteers are seen as more trouble than they are worth.

Nonprofits often view the VEP as an entry level role belonging to a profession without a body of knowledge and certification. The VEP is seen as a tactical, not a strategic position, with a narrow scope of responsibility. The MAVA study also revealed that some feel the VEP pay discrepancy might stem from the connection of VEPs with volunteers, who are seen as free or not dependable and easier to manage. However, several CEOs acknowledged that it is a misperception that the position does not require high-level skills and that the reason that VEPs are paid less is that the market allows them to do so, perhaps because VEPs are often younger and in an early phase in their career and there is no clear career path in the profession. Compounding the problem further, the survey found that VEP positions are more likely to be eliminated first during times of financial difficulty. 

Why are VEPs most likely to experience high turnover, unwillingness to make the job full-time, or a combination of two positions? CEOs who addressed the unique challenges faced by VEPs reflected that VEPs are in fact a second-class citizen in the workplace. Because it is so easy to replace unsatisfied VEPs, the CEOs seemed to accept the inevitability that VEPs will have challenges and will not last long in the organization. The unwillingness to make the job full-time or combining the position with other duties exemplifies the misunderstanding about the depth of high level duties required of a VEP. Since many CEOs see the job as clerical, they justify their decision to make the job part-time or combine it with another position.

MAVA's study showed that many nonprofit staff feel that volunteers are an added bonus and that finding and keeping them simply requires a staff person with a friendly personality who can draw them in and keep them happy. However, MAVAs research revealed that most CEOs are fully aware that a volunteer engagement professional must have the same skill set as the highest leaders in the organization. Qualifications and skills for Volunteer engagement professionals were seen as comparable to development directors, program directors and human resource directors. Survey respondents opined that all four positions require a person with experience developing community partnerships, building and expanding programs, success with personnel management, recruitment, selection, placement, training & supervision. 

The reality is that volunteers are the secret sauce in nonprofit success. Along with paid staff, they are a nonprofit’s greatest asset. As nonprofit revenues decline and as underserved populations needs grow, volunteers are needed now more than ever. Volunteers have high-level skills that may be the key to maximum mission capacity. However, volunteers need the same supports and infrastructure paid staff need. Volunteer skill sets need to vetted and volunteers need careful job placement, onboarding, supervision and recognition. They are not a magical free resource.

What can Nonprofits do to highlight the essential nature of volunteerism and the related importance of the volunteer engagement professional?

When asked this question, nonprofit CEOs had a number of recommendations that ranged from articulating the value of volunteers and the value of the VEP position to how to structure the position. Most of the CEOs understood that it was essential to visibly show support for the value of volunteers in contributing to the organization’s mission. Supporting information should be provided to the Board, staff and the community with the aim of creating a culture that values volunteers. 

The time has come for a call to action. Many strategies surfaced for action that can be taken on a personal, organizational, local, statewide and national level. Most CEOs acknowledged that action and culture change must come from the top level of management and leadership in the organization. In the words of some of the largest nonprofits CEOs in the nation: 
1) Make the VEP position essential by articulating the connection between volunteers and development and the strategic role of volunteers with programs and outreach.
2) Restructure your organization to put volunteerism and the staff who lead volunteers in a more visible role. 
3) Have the VEP on the executive team and integral to all teams that involve volunteers.
4) Pay VEPs a fair wage for a high level strategic staff role. 
5) Make sure to use volunteers at a higher level; this leverages talent to advance programs. Put more volunteer resources at a higher level in the organization.

Input from almost 500 top decision-makers and 50 volunteer engagement professionals in nonprofit organizations confirmed that there is work to be done so that nonprofits can reach maximum mission capacity through effective volunteerism. The time for change is now.

For access to the full report, please click here.

For trainings and keynote presentations regarding this research study, please contact kbulman@mavanetwork.org.