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Managing volunteers

I could not help but comment on the article carried in the media about so called “Grumblings at BARP” which on closer inspection I perceived to be some dissatisfaction between paid employees and volunteers.

Now this article is not about whether the CEO/Executive Manager should be paid large sums or not. Instead, it is about the difference between managing paid employees and voluntary employees.

It would appear that some managers are very often oblivious of the different strategies that can be used to motivate their workforce. I am not saying that every management theory will work in every organisation but what is most common in all employee-management conflict is the inability to motivate staff. The article this week is about the differences between motivating paid employees and volunteers.

According to research (Boezeman & Ellermers, 2009 from the Leiden University Institute for Psychology) unlike paid workers, there is a dearth of literature about managing volunteers. Therefore, since little is known about the attitudes of these special employees toward work, management practitioners and psychologists believe that volunteers’ job satisfaction is driven by intrinsic factors.

Now, most students of management will tell you that in order to ensure that workers (volunteers and paid) are satisfied with their work one must first consider what psychologist Maslow termed, needs. Let me explain, Maslow was of the opinion that motivation was stimulated by the desire to gratify an unsatisfied need. In explaining this, he suggested that a manager should seek to understand which needs were important to employees.

In the case of volunteers one can assume that the satisfying of social needs and to some extent esteem needs would rank high on their needs list. Therefore, given that these needs are intrinsic, one can further suggest that if charitable organisations fulfil these intrinsic needs the bond between employees and the organisation would be a powerful one.

On the other hand, paid employees are motivated by the fulfilment of different needs. They, unlike the volunteers, are seeking job security and advancement opportunities that may be of no interest to the volunteer. Paid employees may also be interested in the fulfilment of basic needs like obtaining and repaying a mortgage or car.

They may be interested in increasing financial reserves, living in certain neighbourhoods and being able to pay insurance and school fees for children. The most interesting part to note is paid employees are motivated by increases in salary and although one may argue that a charitable organisation needs qualified persons to take it to the next level, one must consider the foundation/origins of the resources and the perception of the donors (Boezeman & Ellermers, 2009).

It is important to note also that volunteer workers may consist of a labour force of persons who for the most part see volunteering as a means of giving back to the society that was instrumental in making them the type of individuals that they have become. As such, needs such as autonomy, competence and relatedness are vital to their job satisfaction.

One must note that the management of non-profit organisations must be sensitive to the fact that the revenue of such organisations originates for the most part from voluntary and limited resources. Therefore, they should not use the same strategy that a “for profit” organisation uses to motivate their employees.

Besides, it is vital that managers seek to maintain job satisfaction among volunteers and seek to understand and address their concerns. For instance, issues that affect the work climate of a volunteer organisation can impact negatively on the intrinsic motivation of the volunteer team and hence they should not be ignored.

Furthermore, the work climate for volunteer employees must include autonomy where the individuals have a choice regarding work schedules and work conditions. Moreover, the need to feel some measure of success and achievement is vital to the success of volunteering. He or she needs to perform tasks in an atmosphere that enables feelings of relatedness and the support of respect from others.

Unfortunately, if job dissatisfaction emerges the volunteer may rethink his or her intention to remain a volunteer and the organisation may then suffer the consequences of losing much needed expertise.

Therefore, one can only suggest to managers of volunteers that it is necessary to understand the needs of these individuals, which must focus wherever possible on satisfying intrinsic needs. It is not surprising that conflict will emerge if there is one paid employee who is perceived to be over compensated for his or her work. If I may use an old adage, the situation could be viewed as resembling “a cat among the pigeons”.

Instead of focussing on luring talent with attractive wages, which as we all know is not a strong motivator for sustainable high performance, the organisation could instead focus on its original mission and vision.

Sometimes collaboration and strong communication skills create the atmosphere that will produce the creativity to take the organisation to the next level. As we all know, when money becomes the only motivator trouble emerges as it only serves to feed a self-serving bias. Until next time … let’s keep volunteering alive.

* Daren Greaves is a Management & Organisational Psychology Consultant at Dwensa Incorporated. e-mail:, Phone: (246) 436-4215

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