Volunteers Vs. Staff: Overcoming Different Perspectives

Written by Alicia Skulemowski on January 18, 2018

One thing that associations all have in common is a sense of purpose. A vision of a common good is the axis upon which the internal workings of an association spins – or at least should spin.

This distinctive aspect of the industry is disturbed by the fact that associations are also unique in their design: they have to rely heavily on volunteer efforts to move forward in pursuing their goals. Despite the shared aims of an organization, any individual will have their own motivation for volunteering, and therefore it’s usually the case that the perspectives of volunteers and association staff are radically different.

The push and pull between staff and volunteer leadership is an experience that many of us will recognize, and it has huge implications on the decision-making and strategic planning process. While the staff live the reality of their association every day, committing to their projects because it is their job, and prioritizing their productivity because it is their livelihood, volunteers bring a different perspective based on their own reasons for dedicating their time. Both groups of people have their own insights and experiences to offer, and if we don’t take communication and collaboration seriously, this can really destabilize the mission of an organization.

My association, STLE, is a fairly small one in terms of staff, and has a board of 24. I work with many committees as the staff liaison, and noticed throughout my involvement that these conflicting perspectives were coming to a head over the way we approach improving our governance structure. Volunteer training is a great example of this: while training was heavily embraced by staff, some volunteers pushed back at the notion because they felt they didn’t need to be trained on “how to be a volunteer.” Staff saw an opportunity to improve not only operations but the time and efforts of the volunteer members themselves, which I viewed as a valuable professional development opportunity for them, but the key stakeholders interpreted it as micromanaging. On the other side of the coin, the Board could at times feel like projects they valued as important for the organization were being sidelined by misaligned staff priorities.

This demonstrates how diverging perspectives can mean that people hear and interpret things differently. In order for everyone to be heard, and also to hear, it is important for staff members to be involved in board discussions. This can make communication more open, and can help dissolve any politics that might creep into the boardroom given the external projects of volunteer members.

Just as importantly, it requires honesty and transparency. When it comes to negotiating these different opinions, I believe the best thing to employ is radical candor. Unless everybody at the table is fully disclosing their opinion, people will be left without a clear understanding of why a decision has been reached, or of what to expect from a project. Volunteers therefore need, and deserve, as much information as possible, as well as an idea of how they are expected to view this information. This means that once a project is launched, the consequences and challenges will have already been thought through.

Ultimately, everyone involved in a decision-making process needs equal access to the “why.” Being able to speak freely in the boardroom, confronting the difficult decisions, requires maintaining an understanding of the “why” behind any strategy: this means that the common purpose can always be at the center of any discussion. Opinions then don’t have to be prioritized, and clashes don’t have to ensue. Disagreement can remain healthy, as long as there is proper representation and clear communication, and as long as the guiding light shining on the quagmire that can be the project planning process is the shared vision of the association.