Nonprofits Replacing Staff With Volunteers

The pros and cons of cutting paid staff positions

Group of volunteers working for a nonprofit organization.
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It is very tempting in tough times to cut paid staff positions and turn those positions into volunteer ones. Using volunteers to perform tasks or jobs that might otherwise be done by paid staff—often called job substitution—should only be part of an overall strategy for reducing costs during hard times.

But is it right? Does it work? What are the pitfalls or benefits? Here are some tips for doing it right:

Don't Lay Off Staff Intending to Substitute a Volunteer

If you lay off paid staff to bring on a volunteer you could cause problems for yourself. Such action is bound to cause other paid staff to fear for their positions and to resent and resist working with volunteers, fearing they might take their jobs.

However, when there is natural attrition or a general reorganization, use that opportunity to rethink how your organization is set up. Think about how you might reconfigure jobs so that some duties could be done by volunteers.

For instance, you have just promoted your receptionist to an administrative assistant position working with the development director. This leaves the receptionist job open. Perhaps a volunteer could cover those duties.

Some organizations may opt to limit the hours they are open to the public to five per day (10 a.m.- 3 p.m.) and use volunteers to handle the front desk. They have a different volunteer each day. That volunteer answers the phone, greets visitors, and performs an assortment of well-defined and documented clerical duties. At the end of the day, the volunteer uses a form to summarize the important things that occurred that day and any problems that may need to be resolved by the following day's volunteer.

This approach may work for an organization that has most of the bugs worked out, and if the volunteers are happy and loyal. Also, you would need enough trained volunteers to have a couple of additional volunteers in the office who take care of other office tasks, helping the organization even more.

Don't Use Volunteers for the Routine Tasks

Many volunteers are happy to do clerical work, get mailings out of the door, or run errands. However, whenever there is a task that your staff would really like to do but don't have the time to undertake, think about using a volunteer.

A volunteer could act as a volunteer coordinator, help write grants or research grant resources. They can be responsible for a newsletter, train other volunteers or even the staff, plan and implement special events, or a host of other things. Think creatively and look for volunteers that have special talents or experience.

Consider Finding and Using "Skilled" Volunteers

Skilled volunteers are usually specialists in those areas that a nonprofit is not. Such areas include finance, human resources, and marketing. These skilled volunteers are often employees at corporations. As part of their employer's corporate social responsibility program, they are given time by their corporations to spend time working with nonprofits.

There are also skilled volunteers in between jobs who might be very interested in keeping their skills sharp and adding to their resumes.

Skilled volunteers cannot replace staff, but they can replace expensive outsourcing and outside consultants. They can help you reorganize, conduct an organizational audit, develop that data needed to help the board make organizational decisions, find ways to save money on essential services or help staff focus on what is most important in their jobs.

Many nonprofits don't use skilled volunteers—also called pro bono work—as often as they should. Ask your local corporate foundations if they have a skilled volunteer program, or apply for a pro bono grant through the Taproot Foundation.

The Corporation for National & Community Service has a toolkit to help nonprofits get ready to use skills-based volunteers. You can also post your openings for volunteers with professional skills at Catchafire, an online matching service.

Don't Tolerate a Caste System in Your Office

In some nonprofit offices, there are paid managers or staff who go out to lunch daily, while the clerical staff and volunteers ate egg salad sandwiches in the break room, meanwhile holding down the fort until the managers returned. What a way to make clerical staff and volunteers feel like second-class citizens. Find ways to be inclusive and make everyone feel that they are vital to something very important.

Act Quickly When They Show Interest

Volunteers have lots of opportunities in many organizations. Act quickly when they show an interest in yours, or they will go somewhere else. It is common for potential volunteers to receive poor vetting by nonprofit organizations. Either the volunteer manager is tone-deaf to what the volunteer says about their amount of time available (feeling overwhelmed is as frequent a reason for volunteer flight as feeling underutilized), or the volunteer receives a superficial interview that does not uncover abilities and experiences that could be clues to settling the volunteer into a rewarding situation.

Keep an Open Mind

Yes, you might have a list of basic roles that you are always shopping for, but when your interview reveals other possibilities, don't be bound by precedent and rules. Don't hesitate to create a volunteer job that fits that particular person, their talents, and interests. You might be able to relieve a paid staff member of some task and shift it to a volunteer. That should allow your paid staff the time to spend time on other pressing duties. It should never, however, expose a paid staff person to possible job loss.

The bottom line is that it is to no one's benefit to cut costs by deliberately cutting staff and replacing them with volunteers, but there may be creative ways to enable volunteers to fill some roles if you do it wisely.