Sunday, September 23, 2007


(News-Herald, September 20)I’m a big fan of volunteerism. I think the world is vastly improved when we all give time and effort to things that we value.

In an area like ours, volunteers are essential. The gold standard for Venangoland volunteerism is set by the volunteer fire departments. In a world where churches have to beg, plead, and arm-twist just to get someone to teach a one-hour Sunday school class, here are folks who volunteer to have their lives interrupted at any moment so that they can run off and risk themselves to protect other folks’ life and property.

It’s not that easy to find firefighters who will make those kind of sacrifices for pay; it’s nothing short of miraculous that so many of our small townships can put together full groups of people who do the work as volunteers.

It’s tricky to manage volunteers, particularly (and ironically) in non-fire department situations where the stakes are so much lower. But part of the trick to managing volunteers is remembering one simple principle: everyone, even a volunteer, gets paid. The key to working with volunteers is understanding who pays them, and how.

Now, I’m not talking about money. Volunteers work for all sorts of things—recognition, fellowship, a sense of power, a chance to meet hot chicks, feeling good about serving. None of these things are monetary, but they’re all mighty important to people who want them.

Managers who don’t understand this often shoot themselves in the foot by giving volunteers unintended pay cuts.

If Aunt Ethel always volunteers to knit the silver doilies for the church bazaar because it makes her feel proud to be the keeper of the silver doily tradition—well, that’s her pay, and even if you give her what is, on paper, a promotion to the frozen linguini concession stand, to her it’s a cut in pay, and she will probably not be happy about it.

Maybe Cousin Bruce likes to pain the sign for the annual firehall grilled pig jowls dinner. His pay is having his kids point and say, “Look, Daddy’s sign! How do you paint a pig’s nose like that, Daddy?” Having a professional sign painter work on the sign to “fix it up” cuts Bruce’s pay to zero.

These are obvious examples, but we are surrounded by less obvious ones. Many people who are paid workers on a job also do volunteer work at the same place. Eunice is paid to be an administrative assistant in Accounts Receivable, but she manages the coffee fund as a purely volunteer job. Her payment is a tiny bit more power over her co-workers and a little extra status.

These mixed jobs can create a dangerous situation for both workers and management. The volunteer worker faces the danger of an instant pay cut. At any point, management could grab a job that has been volunteer work and assign it to a paid employee. “The coffee fund should be handled by the accounting secretary,” declares The Boss, and now Eunice has lost her extra pay and her job.

And unlike the usual victim of a firing, Eunice remains there in the office. Not always great for the atmosphere.

Some workplaces depend far too much on volunteers. These are workplaces that would be in deep trouble if all their employees ever started doing only what they’re actually paid to do.

If you’re a manager, the other danger in using too much volunteer labor is that volunteers often do not really work for you.

Say that Chuck Gruntmuscle has been hired by the First United Church of Suburban Scrubgrass to coach their junior woodchuck ragball team. Chuck does it because he loves to see the team members get excited about the game, he enjoys winning, and he even enjoys the regard of the players’ parents.

Even though the church has hired him, Chuck is not paid by them. So in a very real sense, Chuck does not work for them, which is something they may discover when they decide they want Chuck to coach in a particular way and realize they have no leverage over him except to fire him completely.

That’s why so many mostly-volunteer jobs come with a small stipend. The pay scale may work out to something like one-point-oh-two cents an hour, but that’s not the point. The payment formalizes the employer-employee relationship, clarifying for whom the volunteer works.

That’s another part of the beauty of volunteer fire departments. They receive their pay from the communities they serve; it is the perfect relationship, as long as folks in the community don’t try to stiff their firefighters by skimping on support and recognition. It’s easy to take them for granted, but anybody doing valuable work deserves to be paid—in whatever currency they value.

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