3 Ways to Mess Up a Volunteer Hire


Some might assume that the biggest challenge in running a volunteer organization is to find volunteers. However, as VP of SBM I found that that was remarkably easy. There was a far greater difficulty which became apparent as soon as I hired our first volunteers: Making them productive.

Volunteering, compared to other jobs lacks the usual, material incentives and reward structures that make people build great things together. How to exactly rectify this issue I have not as yet come behind, but I would like to share some of my worst mistakes and learnings here, so you will not need to start at zero should you ever be in my shoes.

1. Hiring a Friend

Especially in volunteering, this mistake is made and repeated very often. A job must be done, you have a close personal connection who can do it (possibly for free), therefore you ask them for help. Is that not marvellous? Is that not better than hiring some (possibly expensive) 3rd party? Is that not what networking is all about?

First, “network” and “friendship” are two very different things, and must be kept separate! Both will deteriorate if mixed excessively. Free service sounds nice, but always involves a principle-agent problem, a general difficulty in volunteering. Asking someone to “do a favour” begs for missed deadlines and sloppy execution. Adding friendship makes it a dangerous test. Now, your implicit value proposition to your friend is: “If you don’t do this, we wont be friends anymore”, a contract, in which the agent can only minimize their losses.

Though you would never state it that way, this is what your working relationship will ultimately end up at. This is ok for a professional network, where trading favours and cold exclusion from the network if they are badly executed or not reciprocated are the norm. However, this is not the position you want to put your friend in.

Second, because they are your friend, they are less likely to admit that they are not able to do the job. No-one likes to disappoint a friend, so they will act enthusiastic first and then go about the task with an “I’ll do what I can” attitude. You see the results, are pleased that something has been done but say its incomplete and demand changes. Your friend, willing to give it another try for you, you are friends after all, “does what he can” again. And again you will demand improvements. This cycle will repeat until you are too annoyed to ask your friend who, frustrated and ashamed not being a help, starts avoiding you. Friendship killed.

Does that mean you should exclude your friends from working with you? Not at all! Rather, you should make sure that:

  • From the start both of you fully understand that you are not asking for a friendly favour, but for someone who can do the job.
  • Settle on a tangible reward which you can throw into the fire in case the work does not get done. Better than throwing your friendship into the fire.
  • Your friend is able to do the work (next chapter). Do not take his word for it!

2. Not Assessing Ability

Making sure someone has the ability to do the volunteer job before hiring is almost obvious, but far from simple. Skills and motivation, while profoundly important are not enough. Ability includes something largely invisible to the recruiter and even the applicant. Therefore, it is often overlooked and can lead to detrimental effects, seemingly without any cause.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Is a prospective hire really suitable, if they already work on two mini jobs along side full time studies? Hardly!

How well can you employ your magnificent skills, if you are partying every night and take weed against the hangovers? You probably can’t!

Can you be a good event organizer if you are in another part of the world while the event is happening? Definitely not!

Such and similar questions assessing external effects as part of a volunteers ability need to be asked during interviews, because applicants rarely see these issues themselves and are likely to keep them secret if they do. Few like to freely admit that they are overworked or have an addiction. It is your responsibility to find out about such things beforehand. After recruitment, you need to to constantly engage with your team to track any potentially negative changes in their environment.

Because these external effects are often overlooked, every attempt at improving productivity internally will be futile and cause deep frustration. Often, no one will see the root cause until it’s far too late. Therefore:

  • Make sure the applicant has the ability (time, location, personal circumstances etc.) to do the job. Ability includes more than skills and motivation.

3. Assuming Pure Motives

I always thought that any student organization was run by fervent volunteers, people selflessly sacrificing their spare time to peruse their great interests and building something they love!

As it turns out, my idealistic view on volunteering is the exception in reality. In almost all cases there is an ulterior motive. Most people are after extra influence, free stuff, CV entries and fun times, not inner fulfilment. Therefore, although regrettable, good incentive setting is as crucial in volunteering as in any other job.

The lesson here is simple and depressing: Reward your volunteers with extra influence, free stuff, CV entries and fun times. Punish your volunteers by withholding extra influence, free stuff, CV entries and fun times. Be benevolent and cruel! Be the fist and the helping hand! Even volunteers need a corporate machine of hierarchies and incentives to keep them together and productive.

But I do not want to put this answer into clear bullet points, like I did in the previous chapters. I, against my better judgement and mounting experience, keep trying to inspire and promote freedom in the volunteering positions. I believe that, if someone truly loves what they do, hard barriers of authority and rules undermine creativity and restrict possibilities.

What are your views on this? Should volunteers be treated like workers that are paid in extra influence, free stuff, CV entries and fun times, rather than money? Or should volunteers be free to volunteer as they see fit?


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