Treat volunteers like employees? Great idea, awful idea

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersBack in 2009, the Volunteer Centre South Derbyshire, in England, featured one of my posts from UKVPMs (a discussion group for volunteer managers in the United Kingdom) on its blog in response to an article that says treating volunteers like employees is a great idea. I’m flattered that they thought my thoughts so worthy!

Here was the situation that I commented on:

In this commentary in the Guardian, the writer talks about a volunteer DJ at a small Christian radio project in South Manchester, England, who was fired when staff became aware that he is gay. The writer’s conclusion is that the employment laws need to apply to volunteers in order to protect them from being fired for no good reason.

Here was my response from UKVPMs (edited a bit for clarity):

On the one hand, I don’t believe in requiring volunteers to do things that staff are not required to do: background checks should be for everyone, not just the volunteers. The anti-discrimination policy of the organization applies to everyone, not just paid staff. Neither paid staff nor volunteer staff should be exploited or mistreated or neglected.

But on the other hand, I also come from the point of view that:

  • volunteering with a nonprofit is a privilege, not a right. I involve volunteers so long as it explicitly benefits the mission of the organization, and if forced to choose, my loyalty would be to the mission of the organization and those it serves rather than to a volunteer.
  • volunteers are human beings and should absolutely be expected to be treated as such, however, they are NOT employees, and therefore are not entitled by law to any of the same legal benefits of an employee.
  • volunteers are managed by a volunteer coordinator, rather than a human resources director, because volunteers are NOT employees.

So I read this article with a lot of empathy and sympathy, but then cringed at “Volunteers should be protected against unfair dismissal.” Legally protected? If so, legally protected how?

The primary consequence of an employee being unfairly dismissed is that he or she loses income. There are other consequences, but loss of income is the primary consequence, and we all know that income is necessary for survival. The laws that protect employees from being unfairly dismissed aren’t designed to do anything other than to prevent an employee from losing income and to restore an unfairly-treated employee’s lost income; the laws aren’t designed to restore anyone’s dignity or honor.

What would be the legal redress of a volunteer wronged? If a volunteer is granted the ability to sue regarding dismissal, what will the compensation be if whatever deciding body sides with the volunteer? Will he or she receive money? If so, say goodbye to volunteer involvement at probably most organizations; they aren’t going to risk that kind of financial expenditure. Reinstatement? The organization will be forced to involve the volunteer in his or her previous role? Does that volunteer then become untouchable, meaning the organization will have to keep the kinds of files, including regular evaluations, on volunteers that they maintain for staff in order to justify the disciplining, the requirement for training or the firing of a volunteer?

I guess in summary: I don’t ever want any volunteer dismissed for arbitrary reasons, I don’t ever want any volunteer mistreated or exploited, and I want us all to work to make sure that never happens, but I also don’t want volunteers to become employees, for a variety of reasons that I hope I’ve made clear (not sure I have).

And so I don’t really know what the answer is…

And I still don’t.

2 thoughts on “Treat volunteers like employees? Great idea, awful idea

  1. Tina Lowery


    What a great post and great question.

    The specific example of the person being fired because of their sexual orientation is as I think you are getting at in a sense I side issue. Volunteers can not be discriminated against and so the dismissal in this case would fall under ( in Canada where I am from) a Human Rights violation.

    The issue or question, are volunteers employees? Now that is a tricky one! First let me say I don’t have a good answer to this one either. It is somewhere in between I think, in a way I can’t still full explain or maybe even understand. But is is something I have been really thinking about over the last couple of years.

    For example I recently have been exploring the idea and pushing the boundary a little between volunteers and our colleagues in HR. There are certainly many similarities in tasks and duties and the overlap between HR and Managers of Volunteers . At the very least the role of a coordinator of or manager of volunteers shares many HR related functions.

    In some organizations, such as the one I work for ( in Health Care) Volunteers and the role of the volunteers are designed to contribute to the patient experience. Any new volunteer role I consider is measured in part by this guiding question, what value is there to the patient for this interaction, task, or duty to be performed by a volunteer rather than a paid staff person? The gift relationship between volunteer and patient cannot be replaced by a paid staff person. As well the volunteer is seen as a peer I could go on but hopefully you get what I am trying to say here. I would go so far to argue that if done well and if the right role has been created it is not that volunteers are taking away “jobs” from staff but that the volunteer, that is unpaid staff, are better suited and will provide the best patient outcome. Therefore volunteers are filling a role one that is uniquely suited to a volunteer and not a paid staff person.
    So are these volunteer staff? That is if we are to fully integrate them into the work force and the work plan then maybe they are. Or maybe calling them staff is different again then calling them employees? I for example often use paid and unpaid staff but rarely do I call my volunteers employees.
    The question as to where volunteers fit has long been a puzzle. I think we do fit in and could align with some of the principles and practices of HR – and in most well run volunteer programs we already do. We have to be careful to weight out what we would gain by doing this and what we would loose. Not just for our programs but I think for our profession as well. Not a perfect fit but worth taking a look at.
    Really good question one that I don’t have an easy answer to but I am so pleased that you asked it. I think we need more of these puzzles to ponder over and to really push our thinking!

  2. jcravens Post author

    ” Volunteers can not be discriminated against and so the dismissal in this case would fall under ( in Canada where I am from) a Human Rights violation.”

    We have similar discrimination laws here in the USA, for **employees**. In Canada, nonprofits can argue that they are exempt from charges of discrimination under Section 41 of the B.C. Human Rights Code:

    “If a charitable, philanthropic, educational, fraternal, religious or social organization or corporation that is not operated for profit has as a primary purpose the promotion of the interests and welfare of an identifiable group or class of persons characterized by a physical or mental disability or by a common race, religion, age, sex, marital status, political belief, colour, ancestry or place of origin, that organization or corporation must not be considered to be contravening this code because it is granting a preference to members of the identifiable group or class of persons.”

    It’s the same in the USA: nonprofits are allowed to have statements of faith, for instance, and if the nonprofit determines that a volunteer is in violation of such because he or she is gay, or has a child out of wedlock, or gets divorced, or whatever they think is in violation of their statement of faith, the nonprofit can fire a volunteer for such, legally.

    In fact, in the USA, a nonprofit can turn away a potential volunteer or fire a volunteer for ANY reason, stated or unstated – nonprofits are under no legal obligation to take anyone as a volunteer, let alone keep them. I’ve chosen not to take on volunteers because I, personally, don’t think their personality is a good fit for the organization – was I wrong? Should they sue? Do we want to change this, in the USA and elsewhere, and force nonprofits to take **everyone** who wants to volunteer? What kind of burden would that put on nonprofits, especially financial? Would organizations choose to just not involve volunteers anymore as a result?

    Another consideration: if a volunteer were fired from a nonprofit with or without cause, what does the **volunteer** sue for? The volunteer can’t sue for back wages – there are no wages. Sue for punitive damages? It would be quite difficult to prove that he or she was harmed by being fired as a volunteer in the USA. Not saying it wouldn’t be possible, but like libel, in the USA, it’s quite difficult to prove. Sue to force the organization to take the volunteer back? I know of a case of this happening in Germany… but haven’t been able to find one in the USA.

    One final note, and maybe this deserves a blog of its own: in Canada, Kimberly Nixon, a transgendered woman, launched a human rights complaint against Vancouver Rape Relief, a nonprofit, for excluding her as a volunteer peer counselor for raped and battered women. After 12 years of legal pursuits, in 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada denied her appeal to have her case heard, leaving the B.C. Court of Appeal’s decision in December 2005 as the last word on the dispute. From this article, :
    “While it may appear that Rape Relief discriminated against Nixon because she was born with a penis, they have a different rationale. Rape Relief’s collective belief is that far beyond a person’s biological make-up, socialization and experience are what shapes individuals. It’s part of their philosophy that women experience the male-dominated world differently than men. That was the 34-year-old organization’s original argument for why they should be allowed to exclude men when their women-only policy was first challenged in the 1970s, and they feel it’s relevant to whether they should admit transsexual women.”

    It’s noted in the article that “both parties agreed that Nixon was a woman and that gender existed on a continuum — it wasn’t binary, despite the social convention of dividing everyone into categories of male or female” and “both the tribunal and Rape Relief accept that Nixon has a genuine interest in counselling other women, and she has done so both before and after her filing the human rights complaint.”

    The case continues to be a source of controversy in Canada and abroad, as I understand it. Your thoughts about it?


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