Saturday, March 19, 2016

Accountability: Maintaining a Reputation of Integrity with Paid and Volunteer Employees

Accountability: Maintaining a Reputation of Integrity with Paid and Volunteer Employees

Nonprofit accountability remains more complicated than in the for-profit sector due to the complexity of relationships that exist when a portion of the workforce is made up of volunteers. Accountability has its roots in the demonstrable integrity of the organization.  According to Douglas, et al, (2004), one of the main ways to ensure the reputation of the company remains one of integrity is to ensure there are not only clear policies but also a “culture of expectations” that volunteer and paid staff members must follow consistently—including a process for the identification and rectification of suspected violations (p. 1752). The methods for ensuring a sound culture of expectations include recruiting and screening volunteers, training and evaluation systems that are comparable to the paid employees, and clear lines of hierarchy with processes for conflict management. When these issues are addressed by a volunteer manager whose role is defined and respected by the other members of the leadership team, nonprofit organizations (NPOs) build a reputation of integrity rooted in transparency and consistency. 


Word of mouth is an important tool in the nonprofit sector for recruiting volunteers, staff, and professionals as well as feeding the trust relationship between the organization and the community. Too often, nonprofit organizations focus on recruitment efforts for professional and paid staff while accepting whatever volunteers present themselves for service. Volunteers are defined as individuals motivated to donate their time and efforts to a nonprofit organization, bringing with them a vast array of knowledge and experience above what the organization can afford (Pynes, 2013, p. 382).  Word of mouth can be augmented by social media postings by staff, leadership, and volunteers who have had direct experiences with the organization. Whether through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram, whenever the name of the NPO shows up on the internet, the potential to recruit new volunteers exists in full. In this way, creating a social media component to the strategic plan that addresses branding, audience, and a frequency for posting can aid in getting the word out about the organization in the right places such that the right people are exposed to the message. For example, providing a post to the company Facebook page regarding a reflection on a past event, an upcoming event, or a upcoming need that can be shared by affiliated and interested people boosts the signal and reaches more readers than those specifically linked to the NPO’s Facebook.


If recruiting is the first part, the second part is vetting volunteers. In order to ensure volunteers are assigned to appropriate tasks, they must be screened not only for ability but also for accountability. Screening processes provide information that will maximize the use of volunteers in the organization. Screening processes must be defined in enough detail to obtain the information necessary from the candidates for service in the shortest amount of time; time is a valuable resource, and not many nonprofits have time to spare. Volunteers may be assigned to tasks based on availability, frequency, and existing skillsets. However, not all volunteers are a good fit for the organizations.  In order to maintain a reputation of integrity in the community, turning away volunteers must be done with tact and respect. Kosarin (2015) suggests a courageous approach to turning away candidates by addressing the situation immediately and face-to-face when possible, keeping the conversation respectful and general, and speaking from the volunteer’s point of view with compassion (p. 2). Selecting and matching volunteers to appropriate tasks sets up an atmosphere of respect and promotes positive relationships not only with the volunteers themselves but also with the paid employees.


The volunteer staff who serve the NPOs are the “golden goose” of the sector: the volunteers work for the organization without expectation of monetary compensation allowing the resources to be utilized in other areas (Tenbensel, et al, 2014, p. 927). After going through the vetting process to ensure the volunteer candidates are well-suited for the work of the NPO, they must not only be matched to roles that suit their strengths but also be given the training necessary to successfully perform the duties assigned to them. Training programs will range from orientation to a one-time role to extensive training for long-term roles. Training for volunteers may be built on a hierarchy such that there is a clear progression through the pyramid of volunteer activities from the most basic tasks designed for one-time work-shifts to habitual scheduled shifts involving more difficult or time-consuming tasks. Over time, there will be an overlap between the roles of the paid employees and those of the long-term employees, and providing training comparable to the paid employees will soften the relationships between the two levels of staff.


Evaluating the volunteers aids in maintaining and improving their performance, but too many organizations keep this process applicable to the paid staff alone. Moxham (2010) suggests management link the measurement categories to the desired improvements: measure those items most important to the mission of the organization or most in need of global improvement throughout the organization (p. 350). Performance management must be clearly defined just as all other processes. The employees and volunteers should be informed of the parameters for measuring performance and the criteria for success. Making the process transparent and open will set up the staff to deliver the expected results and keep outcomes predictable, which is particularly important when an outcome is not favorable, such as the restriction of volunteer roles/duties or dismissal from duty.

Managing, not Coordinating

One of the most commonly overlooked yet elegantly simple manners of setting clear expectations is to answer two basic questions form the point of view of the volunteer: to whom am I accountable and for what? (Tenbensel, 2014, p. 931). Managing volunteers has commonly been done through the use of a volunteer coordinator. Nesbit and Rimes (2016) point out the effect of improperly managing volunteers. Too often, an organization places a manager with the primary responsibility of managing paid staff indirectly responsible for volunteer coordination and performance (p. 166). Improperly coordinating the management of volunteers in relation to paid employees can lead to substantial stress, burnout, and ultimately, employee turnover (Nesbit and Rimes, 2016, p. 166). This also creates a more pronounced hierarchy between the paid staff and the volunteer staff that, without proper management, has shown disillusionment and frustration—and ultimately distrust in the leaders of the organization. Proper management of the volunteer staff through the use of an actual volunteer manager, as opposed to the popular volunteer coordinator (Nesbit and Rimes, 2016, p. 167). When these individuals are a natural part of the management team, the hierarchy between the volunteers and paid staff diminishes and allows for better teamwork.

Conflict Management and Disciplinary Action

Another point of interest in the dynamic between paid staff and volunteer staff is the method of response by the leaders when conflicts arise. Providing guidance through a clearly defined process to arrive at a resolution during conflict, whether between volunteers and staff or volunteers and other volunteers, is a responsibility of the volunteer manager and may require teamwork between the volunteer manager and the manager of the paid employee. Managing conflict in this way is an integral part of capacity building, “the art of strengthening an organization’s ability to accomplish its mission,” because properly managed conflict builds and maintains trust among all levels of staff (Gallicano, 2013, p. 384).  Trust is the response to perceived integrity, and integrity comes from transparency and consistency. As stated above, presenting consistency in policy and process, particularly when there is a potentially negative situation to be addressed, builds integrity and maintains accountability. The conflict resolution process must be an overarching one, one that is applicable to all staff whether paid or volunteer, and one that is common knowledge. Gallicano (2013) points out how pivotal volunteer relationships are to their collaborative commitment to a movement or cause (p. 370). Without an overarching policy, the assumed bias will lie with the paid employee. Further, just as in any mediation scenario, credibility comes not from a “neutral, disinterested mediator,” but from the perception that the mediator has a “special knowledge and insight into the situation” AND is committed to finding a “mutually satisfying solution” for the good of the organization (Gallicano, 2013, p. 371). Keeping expectations and outcomes predictable keeps staff and volunteers more engaged in the process, and presenting an unbiased but dedicated front in the face of conflict helps all involved to be more likely to come to an issue resolution based on consensus.

Long-term performance of an NPO is based on their ability to “link and maximize social values as defined in their mission” (Costa, Rasmus, and Andreaus, 2011, p.470). NPOs are an increasingly important part of the global society, and as such, there is an increased demand for transparency and accountability. The systems for maintaining accountability are directly influenced by the organizational reputation and their ability to manage not only their paid staff as seen in the for-profit sector, but also to manage the tapestry of volunteers who rally to their causes. Hiring, evaluating, and managing the volunteer staff in parallel ways to the paid staff creates an atmosphere in which there are clear expectations as well as a clear process for resolution when expectations are not being met with one overall result: nonprofit corporate accountability. Accountability is the key to building and maintaining trust with the community and target groups the NPOs strive to serve.


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