What to Know About Hiring and Firing Volunteers


By Tim Schuster

We build non-profits on the energy and generosity of volunteer labor. It’s a minor miracle, actually. They contribute and lead on behalf the mission and without financial compensation. 

Years ago there was a book with a red cover and big block letters called “Good to Great.” Business leaders loved this book, but social sector leaders said, “How does this apply to non-profits?” So, the authors wrote a resource for the social sector, and inside is a piece of wisdom that absolutely flips the paradigm on how we tend to think about recruiting both volunteers and staff people for non-profits and mission-driven organizations.
For instance, the authors say:
“Business executives can more easily fire people and—equally important—they can use money to buy talent. Most social sector leaders, on the other hand, must rely on people underpaid relative to the private sector or, in the case of volunteers, paid not at all. Yet a finding from our research is instructive: the key variable is not how (or how much) you pay, but who you have on the bus.”
If we don’t financially compensate someone for their work, at the very, very least they should thoroughly enjoy the people they work with. We may not cut a paycheck, but we can (and should!) provide a good, healthy volunteer culture.

Three Paradigm Shifts

The authors go on to provide three new ways of thinking about this.
1. “First, the more selective the process, the more attractive a position becomes—even if volunteer or low pay.”
2. “Second, the social sectors have one compelling advantage: desperate craving for meaning in our lives. Purity of mission—be it about educating young people, connecting people to God, making our cities safe, touching the soul with great art, feeding the hungry, serving the poor, or protecting our freedom—has the power to ignite passion and commitment.”
3. “Third, the number-one resource for a great social sector organization is having enough of the right people willing to commit themselves to mission.”

Three Radical (But Not Completely Ridiculous) Examples

This got us thinking. What if we took this line of thinking all the way. Let's try a few on size.

The old way: Would you be willing to join us?
The new way: “If you’re really good, you might be able to join our cause and help move us forward." 
The old way: We need volunteers! 
The new way: Our volunteers go through a stringent application process that includes an application, interview, and written statement of purpose. It’s a lot of work, but we attract amazing people and our volunteers know they will be working with amazing people.
The old way: Will you donate?
The new way: Our mission changes lives and it requires generous people to sustain our organization. We love our donors not because of the amounts of money they give, it’s because of their good vibes, encouraging words, and wise counsel. It’s not just about ‘getting more money.’ We care about the source of the money and that our donors care about the success of our mission. For that reason, we don’t take money from just anyone and we kindly ask that you apply to be a donor.

Immense Credibility with Donors & Funders

This kind of selectivity and exclusivity can help build credibility with donors and funders – because we all know it takes great people to move our mission forward. Imagine leading an organization that places a premium on the experience of its volunteers and staff people. Imagine the credibility it will build with your donors, supporters, and other volunteers. Imagine over time that it becomes easier to recruit amazing and talented professionals who work on behalf of your mission without financial compensation.
You can compensate people with the thing that costs very little and that we all need: belonging to a compelling and meaningful mission that makes a difference in the world. 

Popup Think Tank builds communities around difference makers. Our network of trained and certified facilitators host catalytic events for startup non-profits, social entrepreneurs, church planters, and missional community leaders.