Volunteer shortages are squeezing not-for-profits

Dealing with staff shortages

I saw a very discouraging post on Facebook today. It was written by a leader of volunteers in an
organization dealing with staff shortages.

He was writing about how important things weren’t getting done, and the staff that were there were
just trying to shove things off onto the volunteers. When the leader told the staff that the volunteers
were starting to resent it, he was told that they’d “just have to suck it up!"

It is a terrible situation.

And it’s only one of the problems that can come up in the current environment, when staff shortages
are rampant in most organizations.

Even if a volunteer doesn’t mind picking up the slack caused by a vacant staff position, the more you ask
them to do the more likely it is that they will burn out.

When things aren’t getting done, health and safety can be compromised, and clients can fall through the
cracks and not receive services they require.

Resentment can begin to fester between staff and volunteers, leading to a higher likelihood of losing
both volunteers and more staff. It can start a vicious downward spiral.

Taken to the extreme, it can even cause the closure of an organization and the abandonment of those
who depended on it.

But what, as a leader of volunteers, can you do about it?

Start with remembering that you are a leader, and as such, you have more power than you might think.

Here’s what I suggested to the leader mentioned above.

1. First, gather as many of the facts as possible around the impact that the volunteers make, even in
regular times.

2. Develop a clear understanding of what would happen if the volunteers, or even some of them, left.

3. Come up with suggestions that would make the work of both staff and volunteers easier (what
doesn't really need doing, what can be streamlined or automated, etc).

4. Then go in front of the board and executive at their next meeting, explain your concerns and offer

They should pay attention if they want the organization to thrive (and chances are that the directors are
volunteers too). And if you come with solutions, not just problems, you are more likely to get support.

At the very least, you’ll start a conversation.

In addition, take this as an opportunity to train the staff.

In many cases, staff, unless they work closely with the volunteers or are volunteers themselves, are
blissfully unaware of what a massive impact the volunteers have on your organization. They may not
know the skill sets or the limitations of different volunteers. They may not see the value of them.

And they may not realize what would happen if the volunteers disappeared.

As the leader of the volunteers, it’s up to you to educate the staff on these facts. You can also provide
them with ways to help support the volunteers so that the volunteers can help them even more.

Come up with quick, friendly talking points to respond with when a staff member is disrespectful to the
volunteers or tries to overload them. Try not to sound resentful (even if you are); just point out the
natural consequences of their behaviour. Volunteers leaving and more work for them.

Staff shortages are pinching most not-for-profits.

They don’t, however, need to pinch them out of existence. With a little planning and creative problem
solving, many of the issues can be resolved.

If you’re going through this, my heart goes out to you. If you need help or just want to talk, give me a

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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