When is a volunteer role NOT a volunteer role?

Andy Fryar February 1, 2008 11
When is a volunteer role NOT a volunteer role?


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

This month’s hot topic has been generated following recent events in my home town of Adelaide, which saw volunteer managers take an unprecedented stand against a large local council who were advertising their newly created Volunteer Manager’s position as a voluntary one.

Here’s a small portion of that advertisement:

The City of Prospect is an attractive inner suburban council of approximately 20,000 residents. The City of Prospect currently provides a number of community, infrastructure and environmental services that cater for the needs of a broad range of people within the community.

Council has recently resolved to call for expressions of interest from suitably experienced persons who are willing to undertake the development and co-ordination of a volunteer development program for The City of Prospect.

The aim of this program is to engage people who are also willing to volunteer their time in providing assistance and support to many areas of council’s operation and activities. The Volunteer Co-ordinator would be expected to promote, recruit, co-ordinate and maintain a pool of volunteers and be responsible for their training, development, support and out-posting to the various areas of their interest.

Although, this is an unpaid position, the successful candidate will enjoy other benefits and conditions as available to paid staff of Council, these include:

~ Full volunteers insurance cover

~ Comprehensive induction and orientation

~ Training and development

~ Approved out of pocket expenses including travel allowance

~ Occupational health, safety and welfare

~ Staff code of conduct

~ Performance management

~ Invitation to Council’s Volunteers Christmas function

The reaction from the volunteer management community was swift and universal, with the Council’s CEO receiving many emails of protest from as far away as the United Kingdom – with the likely result being that the Council will reverse its original decision and now make the role a paid one.

Firstly, it was terrific to witness the volunteer management community band together with one voice and make that voice heard. When we band together we truly have a powerful voice, and we need to find ways of doing this more effectively both within the voluntary sector, to government and more generally. However, that’s not the topic for this month!

What I did want to raise was the fundamental question of why some volunteer management positions should only ever be paid ones while at the same time we are quite comfortable with others being voluntary? Where do we draw that line – and exactly what does that line even look like?

It’s probably important to also mention at this juncture that I don’t plan to try and answer this question – rather I hope to fuel some further critical debate around this important issue.

Our sector is indeed a unique one. It is unique in that we appear to be generally comfortable having both paid and unpaid colleagues as a part of our profession, indeed, as proponents of the value of volunteering, it would be hypocritical of us not to espouse the utilisation of volunteers for this purpose. Many VPM’s also have volunteers working directly with them in performing volunteer management duties and are well aware of the benefits that such roles bring.

So why is it in a case like that above, we feel a) that a boundary has been crossed and b) the need to make such a strong statement against the utilisation of a volunteer in this role?

Here are some of the more obvious reasons I imagine you are thinking of:

~ The council clearly have a large budget and can afford it

~ The role is a huge one …far too big to expect a volunteer to do

~ Other councils of similar size have a paid position so a precedent has been set

~ Its exploitation

While all of these are indeed valid reasons, I again ask where we draw the line between our comfort of this being a paid vs voluntary role and I ask you to consider:

~ What if the council had been located in a rural area with less money at their disposal?

~ What if the role had only been responsible for 50 volunteers?

~ What if the role had been divided into three smaller separate volunteer roles?

~ What if the council had appointed a paid person, who themselves in turn created volunteer roles to oversee this part of their job – would that have been acceptable?

So does the distinction lie in one or more of the following elements?

PROGRAM SIZE – Does the size of a volunteer program make a difference? Should a paid person be engaged when the number of volunteers hit some particular milestone? Why / Why not? After all, if you can oversee the work of 20 volunteers why not 200?

PROGRAM COMPLEXITY – Can we make a distinction through the work that volunteers undertake? Should a VPM position be a paid role if, for instance, volunteers are responsible for the care of children, but not necessarily if they are simply ‘stuffing envelopes’?

ABILITY TO PAY – In the case above, was it the council’s ability to pay (and choice not to) that became the bugbear? However, if we use this criteria, we then need to determine what a realistic level of payment is. Had the council offered a below award rate salary of say $10,000 a year, would that have made things any better?

INABILITY TO PERFORM – Do we make the assumption that someone who is paid to do the job can do it better than someone who is not paid? What if you were to volunteer your time as a Manager of Volunteer programs in a voluntary capacity – would your performance be any less professional?

EXPLOITATION – Can we argue that in the cited example that the engagement of a volunteer manager without payment (when payment could have been made) was exploitation of a volunteer’s time? Is this the distinction that makes the difference? How then do we define exploitation?

PROFESSIONALISM AND RECOGNITION – I wonder if one of the key definitions is the less tangible or measurable element that those of us who already manage volunteer programs don’t feel that we are recognised enough for the professionalism and specialised role that we bring to our organisations? Is this a strength or simply an insecurity?

Now far from answering all your questions about this topic, I hope to have actually opened a giant can of worms – and I invite you all to add your two cents worth to this debate.

It is an important debate to have and I do believe that if we are to continue to move ahead as a profession then we need to be clear in our thinking about such matters.

Let’s hear your thoughts!


  1. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Response posted on March 4, 2008 by Jennie Holdom, Volunteer Coordinator, Catholic Care, Australia

    My response to this hot topic is very simple and is also highlighted by other respondents. If this co-ordination position is a volunteer position then are all other co-ordination, supervision positions in the council that require the same level of experience etc also volunteer positions, if not WHY? This also raises the question should full time positions be volunteer positions? To me this ad represents the brick wall we are often hitting against as a profession.

    I think DJ said it all in his comment “ If it has four legs, barks, wags a tail and looks like a dog then it probably is a dog. This ad, to me, looked like a call for someone to do the job for free” It is not about if a volunteer could do the job it about should we ask a volunteer to do the job?

    I often have to think about wether this is a profession I want to be involved in, when I see these sort of articles. For some it is simply about exploitation. Volunteers are a valuable asset to any organisation, they are not free! We need strict guidelines on how volunteer should be involved in organisations.

  2. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 11, 2008 by Andy Fryar, Director, OzVPM, Adelaide, Australia

    As a follow up to the original story cited in this Hot Topic I thought it was useful to post an email I received today from the City Of Prospect

    Dear Sir/Madam

    Council has recently reconsidered its call for expressions of interest from interested persons to undertake the coordination of volunteers on a voluntary basis, and has now decided to re-advertise it as a paid member of Council’s staff.

    Council’s Administration will now review the composition of the position and then it will be publicly advertised.

    We will undertake to inform you as soon as the position has been advertised in the press.


    Joseph Fayad

    Manager Community Development

    The City of Prospect

  3. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 10, 2008 by Jayne Cravens, Coyote Communications, Bonn, Germany

    For me, the first and most prominent boundary that was crossed was that the council’s * other * positions having to do with management, policy setting, staff recruitment and training, etc., are paid. The volunteer manager’s position looks to be as complex and responsibility-laden as the other paid positions by the council. The position will require as many hours as the paid positions, and will require candidates to be highly-skilled, just as with the other paid positions.

    If the council’s other, similar positions were filled by volunteers — the head of human resources, for instance, or the head of IT services — then I would feel differently, because the volunteer manager position would not be “singled out”; you could easily justify it by saying, “well, actually, all managers here are volunteers!”

    There was a second boundary crossed as well: I don’t believe the council could answer the is-this-really-a-volunteer-position question, which is: if the council had all the money it needed to hire all of the staff it needed to do absolutely anything that needed being done, it would still reserve this position for a volunteer because…

    Response posted on February 8, 2008 by Susan J Ellis, President, Energize Inc, Philadelphia, PA, USA

    Thanks for framing the question, Andy! Of course I agree with all the comments that this issue has nothing to do with whether or not a volunteer would be competent in the role. A QUALIFIED volunteer – absolutely! Just as I’d fight against a paid position if the Council hired an UNqualified employee to do this role.

    Here’s another element that I think has been implied, but not stated: internal comparison. What types of roles does the Council now perform by hiring paid staff and at what salary or level of authority are they placed? Perhaps in that rural Council you imagined, just about every role is done by a volunteer. In that case, seeking yet another volunteer to do volunteer management matches the pattern. If someone can run the health department or the fire department as a volunteer, why not the volunteer department? Also, in this smaller setting, the amount of hours and effort should also be much more part-time.

    But what about the larger and urban Councils with many employees already? This is where the rub comes in. In Adelaide, they seemed to have been seeking a volunteer out of the misguided assumption that somehow, naturally , a volunteer could or even should manage other volunteers (don’t employees manage other employees?). Would they have attempted to recruit a volunteer for any other vacancy? Undoubtedly not. And that’s the heart of the problem. They would automatically set standards, look for high qualifications, and set aside a competitive salary for any position they felt was essential to the city. Volunteer involvement, however nice, was seen as peripheral, so why not find some way to do it that costs less? One can further assume that the Council members and staff would also not expect much of the volunteer who came forward, or would feel that they couldn’t demand top-notch work from her (it would be a lovely lady, right?), and so the whole thing goes back to not valuing volunteers first.

    Depressing. But bravo for the volunteer management community response!

  4. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 7, 2008 by Dave Thomas, Volunteering Development Officer, Volunteer Centre – Nottingham, UK

    You have certainly opened a can of worms that has made me take a fresh look at my own working and volunteering experience. I am paid to manage volunteers in my “day job”, but I also volunteer on a steam heritage railway, where I have the title of Volunteer Liaison Officer” – a volunteer coordinator by any other name.

    * It isn’t about numbers because there are about 25 volunteers at work and more than 150 at the railway.
    * It can’t be complexity; volunteering at the railway is pretty complex.
    * It isn’t even about ability to pay; the railway makes money from its visitors and from a few other sources.
    * I try to be just as professional in each of my roles and believe that my performance in each comes up to the same standard.

    So am I and my fellow railway volunteers being exploited? I don’t think I am. I feel comfortable with this because I am passionate about trains – and steam trains in particular. My involvement in the railway has become one of my major hobbies – to the extent that I, and every other volunteer, pay a subscription to be a member of the railway as well as giving quite a lot of time to maintain, operate and develop the service we give to our fare-paying visitors. (Incidentally, no-one claims volunteer expenses either.)

    So the railway does not recruit volunteers in order to deliver a service, although that is what they actually do. We recruit railway enthusiasts and provide them with the opportunity to “play trains”.

    Back at work in the Volunteer Centre, we invite volunteers to deliver some key parts of our service. For example, almost all of the interviews we carry out with potential volunteers for opportunities in hundreds of organisations across the city are carried out by volunteers. Other volunteers carry out follow-ups on those interviews or are in regular contact with volunteer-involving organisations to update the thousand or so volunteering opportunities on our database and website.

    These volunteers are recruited and managed specifically to help us deliver the Volunteer Centre service. Their motivations for being here are about things like gaining and using skills, meeting people, making a difference and “putting something back”.

    I am suggesting that even if the line is not carved in stone, we may be reach our own understanding, based on the motivation of our volunteers and the culture and ethos of the organisations into which they are being recruited.

  5. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 7, 2008 by Sr Margaret Guy, Australia

    The main difference between a volunteer and a staff member is that the latter is PAID. I do not think it just to ask a volunteer to fill in for a staff member on a regular basis and it is not just to ask a volunteer to fill a full time staff position.

    16 hours a week is the limit to a volunteer’s hours according to the Centre for Volunteering NSW. It is important to look after the organisation’s volunteers and recognise them in different ways,celebrations,certificates and remuneration for out of pocket expenses.

    Some of our services in Sisters of Charity Outreach are completely run by Volunteers from the Coordinator down to each of the workers but the hours are shared. Also staff are available for referral at least by phone. Being a volunteer based organisation,we have a huge contribution from volunteers-about 40-45% of our services.

  6. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 6, 2008 by DJ Cronin, VPM, Brisbane, Australia

    If it has four legs, barks, wags a tail and looks like a dog then it probably is a dog.

    This ad, to me, looked like a call for someone to do the job for free.

    I don’t believe that anyone who spoke out in recent times against this was saying that a volunteer wouldn’t be capable of doing this job. That is ridiculous and after 11 years volunteering and volunteer management for me to even think like this would defy logic.

    What got to me, after a little investigating, was that the council seemed to be implying that they “chance” a volunteer first and if that didn’t work then they would make it a paid position – just have a look at council minutes on their website. To me it demeaned volunteers and volunteer management. It also brought back some memories!

    Several years ago I became aware of another position being advertised as a volunteer role and it was for a volunteer coordinator at a hospital. As a volunteer coordinator myself I was concerned by this development so I contacted the person in charge and voiced my concerns. They informed me that the position would only be voluntary for six months “to see if things worked out” and then they would pay! Well! Talking about getting me Irish blood up! Back then I wasn’t aware of AAVA or didn’t know about any volunteer manager networks. Thank Goodness that they exist and that I know about them now. I kept an eye on this position and this person lasted 3 months until they rode off into the sunset. Nothing happened there for ages but they eventually employed a full time paid coordinator.

    If there is someone in the country who is employed as a volunteer manager and they work for a similar council then how do you reckon this might make them feel?

    It may all come down to a lack of understanding or ignorance about volunteer management. “Volunteer managers get paid??? Who knew?” And if the position was advertised as a paid role for $10,000 a year I would hope that some people would kick up a fuss about that as well.

    The litmus test – if any organisation is paying staff – then they need to pay their volunteer manager or coordinator as well. If they argue that they can’t afford it then they must be asked why they can afford the HR manager, the Marketing manager or the fundraising manager. If they say that these are vital roles and in order to get the best people they must pay then they have already shot themselves in the foot. That is to say they have demonstrated not only what they think about volunteer managers but their volunteer teams as well.

    To conclude, I believe that the reaction to this ad has been a defining moment for our sector. We spoke up. Our voice has been heard. We are becoming more relevant and rightly so. And we are prepared to stand by each other when the need arises. Plus we have utilised the forums, websites and AAVA to good effect. We are finding our feet and growing confident in who we are and what we do. Remember that we work in a profession that uplifts humanity!

    “ All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
    Dr. Martin Luther King

  7. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 5, 2008 by Karen Sacke, Volunteer Resources Consultant, Toronto Rehab Lyndhurst & Rumsey Centre, Toronto, Canada

    VPM positions should be paid. I’m going to compare a VPM job with a HR Manager’s job. In both cases it is the Manager’s responsibility to recruit, screen, interview, place, orientate and sometimes supervise the candidates. Therefore, why should one job be paid and one not? I realize it becomes a little dicey when you consider the number of charities/non-profits whom do not have the funds to pay for a VPM. However, somehow these same organizations are hiring staff and more than likely paying someone to conduct the hiring. So my position stands. I don’t think program size or complexity should make a difference.

  8. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 5, 2008 by Sandra Reid, Volunteer & Transport Coordinator Home Assist Community Services City of Playford Grenville Centre, Adelaide, Australia

    It would be interesting to hear the union’s point of view, and how they recognise volunteer roles in organisations such as Local Government.

  9. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Response posted by Lynda Kings, Volunteer Manager, Anglican Retirement Villages, Castle Hill, Australia

    I agree with the valid points you have made – one aspect that you don;t seem to have canvassed is the time that the volunteer would be expected to attend to the role. This role in particular would be a full time position or close to it and as such would seem to cross the line of a volunteer role.. Also the advantage for many people of volunteering is the flexibility that it affords ie if they need to go from one shift per week to per fortnight then most organisations can accommodate this request. I doubt this would be the case in this instance.

  10. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Response posted by Ciro Castellanos, Volunteer Projects Coordinator, Open Family Australia

    I do agree with many of the points made in the article, including the one about council having a budget which could afford to pay a volunteer manager, the points following including program size, complexity etc… do reinforce the argument, however I believe volunteering in this role would have taken a person’s ability to have a paid job taken away from them.

    I believe volunteering is something we do for the love of a cause, and after we have meet our immediate needs.

    I have volunteered myself with a number of organisations in the past, and the fulfilment obtained from the roles undertaken have been enormous, however I could not do fulltime volunteer work which seems to be what council advertised for. To be able to volunteer I would need to cover travel expenses, participation expenses, etc, which I could never be able to do if I had no paid employment,

    In any case, maybe council should look at making all other positions within council to be volunteer positions and wait for the reaction of employees; it amazes me to think that the many people involved in bringing out of an ad like that all agree to look at this position as a volunteer position.

  11. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Response posted by Carole Hadley, Manager Regional Services, Eastern Palliative Care, Australia

    Good Morning, this is a topic of great interest to me, as a Manager, of a community based not for profit organization, I am vehemently opposed to, I believe using people. A lot of people are willing to give time to an organization, but we must always remember that they are giving of their time, and if over used will leave the organization feeling not valued.

    I have 3 co-coordinators of Volunteers and we are constantly asking the question is this the role of a paid person or a Volunteer. To manage Volunteers we are constantly reviewing policy, procedure risk management to mention a few, this is a big task and needs committed staff to work with our volunteer team of 120- persons. The roles are varied and many from Committee of management to fundraising, home based visiting, Bereavement walking groups working with paid staff for a particular project.

    I understand that the dollars for all organizations are spread thinly, but believe that any Volunteer Management role should be rewarded by a paid position, any one will tell you that the hours you are paid for go over and beyond to provide a program .The benefit to our organization in having such a committed Team of Coordinators of Volunteers we cannot do without. It is our role to value and recognize at our AGM the work that the Volunteer do for us is recognized in a public forum. I would also like to add that in the 9 years that this organization has been functioning that we have not had to advertise our service as we are sought out by persons interested in the organization and wish to assist. We are also unique as some of the Volunteers have been with us for longer than 9 years, this I believe is due to the dedication of the Coordinators in supporting the Volunteers.

    Thanks for the opportunity to respond,

Leave A Response »