Want to Capture Volunteer Talent? End your “Program,” Begin your “Strategy”

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Culture: People First

I object to the term “volunteer program.”

In our sector many organizations use this term to describe all the voluntary roles that perform day to day operations (i.e. actual programs and services). Recruitment, onboarding, training, engagement, supervision and recognition of people in these roles are managed within the “volunteer program.”

If I asked you to list all the programs and services your organization operates, would “volunteer program” be among them? No. Because volunteers aren’t a program. They are the people who bring your programs, services and mission to life. Just the same as salaried employees and board members do.

In my experience, it is rare to hear the word “strategy” alongside the word “volunteer.”

Let’s reframe how we think of our volunteers. Let’s include their role as part of a bigger strategy – your people strategy. Within this frame, we would ask: how do we integrate everyone into one high-performing team? Everyone, including salaried employees, board members and volunteers.

When we use the word “program” to describe how we work with people, we’ve lost the true essence. People who work with us – whether paid with money or paid in meaning – are dynamic, vibrant and able to transform our entire organization.

If you want to capture the talents of people to transform your organization and your mission, start by changing your vantage point. Take a look at all your people. Develop one robust, integrated strategy. One that is clear and consistent, yet adaptable and nimble enough to capture the best talent you require – whether as a volunteer, board member or salaried employee.

About the Author

Annastasia Forst contributed her creative and analytic work ethic (not an oxymoron) to Vantage Point as a past Director of Learning. She is passionate about working with many talented knowledge philanthropists to develop, deliver and evaluate Vantage Point’s board and executive leadership...


Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified) on

This is why the term 'volunteer resources' is preferred - or even human resources. 

But volunteers are not a strategy any more than staff are a strategy. What you do, how you use - ANY resource - that is strategy. 

Annastasia's picture
Annastasia on

I do think the term “resources” is a good one as well. What I find somewhat limiting is that when I say "human resources" people assume I am only talking about salaried employees. They do not include volunteers in that term. Like the saying goes, it's not what you say it's what people hear.

I like to use the term startegy to describe how we work with people - not the people themselves. I hope that was conveyed in the post.

I'm also not a fan of the word "use" when describing how we work with people. I think we develop and align people resources to mission.

Language choices can be so powerful and there are many different points of view. I'm glad you added yours to the discussion.

Jessica 's picture
Jessica (not verified) on

I truly enjoyed this concept and have begin strategizing how this may be implemented in the organization I work for. The above comment really hones in on implementing a human resource component to volunteering - "we develop and align people resources to mission".

It is still difficult, though, to redefine what to call this non-program. Possibly an Advisory Council - one that branches from the Board of Directors that functions as a "volunteer" HR department?

Annastasia Palubiski's picture
Annastasia Palubiski (not verified) on

Is your end goal to integrate volunteers and salaried employees as one team? Then it would make sense to look at them together within the same organizational-wide HR strategy. It is essentially workforce planning and human resources development, but you are including volunteers in the process, not only salaried employees.

Are you in an organization with an HR department? Or do you have one person responsible for HR strategy and planning? Could strategy around volunteer engagement live with this department/person? Could they engage a task force or expert to work with them on developing and integrating volunteers into their current workforce planning?

If you want to bounce some ideas off me, feel free to drop me a line at 604.637.8290. I’d be happy to continue on the conversation.

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