HR Should Run Volunteer Organizations

I read a quote a long time ago – I think it was from Peter Drucker – that said something along the lines of:

“If you want to really understand management, manage volunteers.”

I find that concept more and more relevant to what today’s managers must do in order to drive performance within their organizations.  While the economy may be a concern and employees are keeping their heads below the log to keep their salary and benefits – at some point that will change and if you don’t set the foundation now – you will be looking at empty cube farms.

I think one way to start preparing for the inevitability is to start viewing your employee base as volunteers and begin working with your management teams to change how they manage.  Once you start thinking about employees as volunteers – the entire relationship between employee and company changes.

Think about it…


  • Are passionate about their work – and want to have impact.
  • Aren’t bound by the same command and control requirements that “employees” have.
  • Can leave when they want if they don’t think things are moving in a direction they like.

Managing volunteers is tough, tough work.  Managing volunteers takes different skills.  In most cases a manager of “employees” can simply say – “do this,” and it gets done.  Managers of volunteers don’t have that luxury.  I think it really changes how you look at motivation and influence if you remove the handcuffs of “employment” from your view of managing performance.  It makes you work harder at aligning your goals and their goals.  And that is a good thing.

Some examples:

  • For volunteers you create mission, passion, drive to achieve specific goals and a shared end-game – people don’t volunteer for squishy missions
  • For volunteers you continually reinforce individual contribution to the overall goal in order to maintain engagement
  • For volunteers you allow greater leeway for personality and individual style – you’re just happy to have a productive member on the team (volunteers are a scarce resource)
  • For volunteers you work harder to find their true value and where they can contribute the most – you don’t force them into roles they aren’t suited for
  • For volunteers you listen to their ideas more (why not – they have the same goal in mind and are as passionate as you are right?)
  • For volunteers you forgive small mistakes in light of the greater good
  • For volunteers you ask for recommendations for more volunteers

Managing volunteers means valuing their individual contributions.

Managing volunteers isn’t about directing effort as much as it is about allowing effort to find its best path. 

As a manager – take a few minutes and ask yourself –

“What would I do different if all my staff could just walk out tomorrow?”

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. P Walker says:

    I like the the thought process reading this article requires; simply to visualize employees and coworkers differently. Which I’m convinced is essential if one desires to achieve a higher level of engagement, performance and ultimately results.

    Recently I began focusing on and operating under a similar view. Instead of volunteers though I began thinking of employees and coworkers as “the primary customer”. The changes such views can facilitate are mind boggling.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Anytime you can twist your point of view you get a different picture of the situation so looking at employees as customers is a great way to do that. I would suggest though that one thing I’ve seen over the years when you treat employees as customers – you tend to go overboard and forget that the relationship between an employee and a company is really a two way street – responsibilities on both sides. When you think of them like customers you may ignore the fact that they too have to meet you in the middle somewhere. Be careful you don’t make that relationship too one sided.

      Hope to see more of your comments here in the future.

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