Unionized school employees in Petaluma, California, some of whom have been laid off due to budget cuts, do not like it that parent volunteers are now doing the work they were once paid to do. But even more: the union does not believe volunteers should be involved in the schools at all. Loretta Kruusmagi, president of the 350-member employees’ union bargaining unit at Petaluma Junior High School in California, said of the parents. “Our stand is you can’t have volunteers, they can’t do our work.”
On the one hand, I completely agree that the primary reason to involve volunteers should never be to save money:
- In a recent blog, I chastised the Town and Country Inn and restaurant in Chattanooga, Tennessee for becoming a non-profit business so that it could lay off most of its staff and replace them with volunteers. That’s going all-volunteer for the wrong reasons.
- In another blog, I lauded the Pine Creek Information Center, a visitor’s information site the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state, near Mount St. Helens, for going all-volunteer for the right reasons — but offered some very strong cautions regarding how going all-volunteer can go so very, very wrong.
- And in another blog, I talked about the dire consequences of a state historical agency that started to involve volunteers and saw its service improve, but when they reported the volunteer involvement to their state funders, they focused on money saved, resulting in their budget being cut and a call to replace some paid staff with volunteers.
But, ofcourse, on the other hand, volunteer involvement is essential for all sorts of other reasons, and I question the credibility of nonprofit organizations and government agencies focused on services to the public, like schools and state parks, that do not involve volunteers in a variety of ways, including in decision-making roles.
I believe passionately that certain positions — even the majority of positions in entire programs at some organizations — should be reserved for volunteers. The majority of programming by the Girl Scouts of the USA is delivered by volunteers. The majority of programming by the American Red Cross is delivered by volunteers. Going all-volunteer can be the right thing to do for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with money saved: It’s been true for the Pine Creek Information Center, it’s been true for the Aid Workers Network, and it’s true of lots of other organizations.
Why involve volunteers? What are the appropriate reasons?
- Volunteer involvement allows members of the community to come into your agency, as volunteers (and, therefore, with no financial stake in the agency), to see for themselves the work your organization does.
- Community engagement is community ownership. Volunteer involvement demostrates that the community is invested in the organization and its goals.
- Involving volunteers — representatives of the community — helps educate the community about what the organization does.
- Certain positions may be best done by volunteers. Volunteers can do anything. They can be counselors, advisers, theater ushers, short-term consultants, board members, projects leaders, project assistants, event coordinators, event staff, first responders, coaches, program leaders, classroom assistants, and on-and-on. Always be able to say why your agency wants volunteers, specifically, in those positions rather than paid staff (and never say it’s to save money!).
- Involving volunteers creates support for your organization in other ways. How many volunteers are also financial donors? Have volunteers spoken at local government meetings or written letters to the editor of your local newspaper on your organization’s behalf? Are there any influential community members (elected officials?) who are former volunteers with your organization? What have volunteers done to educate friends and family about your organization and its mission?
- Involving volunteers can be a reflection of your organization’s mission. If you are a nonprofit theater, for instance, you probably involve unpaid ushers. What have ushers experienced that is a reflection of your mission (which may be to present theater productions of that are of cultural significance for your community, or to ensure that community members of all ages and backgrounds are introduced to and educated about the place of theater in our society, etc.). If you involve volunteers as interns, how could you tie this involvement to the mission of your organization?
- Involving volunteers can help your organization reach particular demographic groups — people of a particular age, in a particular neighborhood, of a particular economic level, etc., especially groups who might not be involved with your organization otherwise.
- Involving volunteers can create partnerships with other organizations (nonprofits, government, business). Involving volunteers from a corporation might spur that corporation to give your agency a grant. Involving volunteers from a government office could lead to a program partnership.
- Volunteer involvement can garner good PR (in media reports, government reports, blogs, etc.) regarding your community involvement.
There is no question that parents have the right to help out in public schools! Union president Loretta Kruusmagi is wrong, wrong, wrong to say otherwise. Just as the union of professional firefighters in the USA is wrong to “not condone” volunteer firefighters. Volunteers can, in fact, be the loudest non-Union voice in support of unions and other professionals. Since volunteers have no financial interest in the organization where they donate their service, their voice of support for professionals and their services, and their voice against budget cuts, can get the attention of the community, funders and the press.
For schools, nonprofits and others thinking volunteers are a great cost-cutting idea, see Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering.
To learn more on how to talk about the true value of volunteers, I highly recommend Susan Ellis’ outstanding book From the Top Down. The third edition has just been released.