Talent Pool

Nonprofit Quarterly editor-in-chief Ruth McCambridge spoke to Shannon Maynard and Robert Grimm of the Corporation for National and Community Service about their work, the latest research on volunteering, and trends in effective nonprofit staffing management. This article is from the fall 2008 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Working Nonprofit Style.” It was first published online on September 21, 2008.


: Describe your philosophy about managing staff—paid and unpaid—at nonprofit organizations and why firm distinctions between these categories of staff don’t work.

: The nonprofit sector was really founded on the sweat, labor, ideas, and innovations of volunteers, of people who weren’t getting paid. And over the last century, as the sector has professionalized, we’ve created all kinds of divisions for ourselves, particularly around volunteers and paid staff. We’re also faced with a whole new set of challenges in terms of human capital, looking at an aging workforce and the possibility that baby boomers are going to retire. And we’ve got Millennials on the other end who have basically grown up as digital natives, having spent their whole lives connected, plugged in to the Internet, and thinking about social networks in a whole different way.

We’re sort of in a state of turmoil, and turmoil and chaos can breed reevaluation and reinvention. I think we have a chance to break down some of the silos and artificial divisions in terms of looking at the labor that goes into achieving societal missions on behalf of nonprofits. We’ve got to be more resourceful and look at how we achieve some economies of scale.

One way of doing that is to think strategically and more broadly about what are we trying to accomplish, what kind of people power do we need, where does it make sense to have paid positions, and where do we supplement or expand the capacity of paid staff by bringing in volunteers? Many organizations have also gotten into a rut with the way they’re using volunteers. Some organizations…haven’t taken that step back to look at the big picture and…see where volunteers could be most useful.

: The professionalization of the nonprofit sector has maybe gone too far, partly driven by thinking that volunteers can’t do a lot of things that they indeed can do. And we also are now dealing with a general stereotype that if you don’t pay for it, it’s not worth that much. We may really have to change our lexicon and stop using a word like volunteer, because sometimes people see volunteers as though they’re amateurs and can’t do highly skilled activities. We may have to change it to other terms that reflect the role and its potential.

To do that, you have to take a talent management approach and see talent as something that you need to invest in and mobilize, whether it’s paid or unpaid. This requires . . . you to ponder the needs of the organization from top to bottom and think about how paid and unpaid staff could together address those needs.

:What do you mean by “talent management”? Also, what are good engagement strategies, and how do they overlap between paid and unpaid staff?

: First, recognizing that to get the most out of your paid or unpaid staff, you’ve got to invest in them. But you’ve got to have a plan of investment. Part of the problem is a lot of nonprofits suffer from the fact that there’s huge staff and volunteer turnover as well as huge burnout. It’s a phenomenon in volunteering that I’ve come to call the “leaky bucket.” And an organization that doesn’t do a very good job of managing and retaining paid staff is not going to do a good job of managing and retaining volunteers.

So you have to see them as together, and one of the practices of organizations that are doing that well is that they have a person who is an important senior person in the organization and is in charge of talent management, paid and unpaid. They really carefully listen to the skills and interests, for example, that volunteers offer, and then plug them in to where their interests and passions fit with the organization’s needs. They provide training for staff and volunteers. They develop an environment where paid staff believe that to be successful they have to work well with unpaid staff. So it’s really breaking down some of these standard stereotypes about what a paid staff person can do and an unpaid staff person can do. What’s also extremely important is recognizing the achievements of your talent, paid or unpaid.

: Talent management captures the flexible approaches that other organizations are taking in terms of working to meet the preferences and the needs of their workforce. Most of us, when we talk about the work we’re doing, it is work that has been structured around these clear positions, and you have these roles and responsibilities. That’s what creates, sometimes, the clear barriers between staff and volunteers, and the whole old construct where nonprofits say, “We’ve got this volunteer position to fill, we need someone to come in and be present on site from 9:00 to 5:00” when most people with jobs are working. So talent management breaks down those old paradigms and looks at the projects, the skills, and the talents and how to put together a team…to accomplish the outcome. Talent management brings with it a flexibility that takes into account how people spend their time and the technology that we have today that makes it a whole lot easier to go out and seek talent.

What are the barriers to changing from a hierarchical, paid workforce-centric organization to a more open system?

: One of the barriers is the way foundations fund staff positions, and often positions are funded based on project and grant proposals, and can spend x percentage of their time working on the funded project. There are some barriers there that you can work around, but it requires management and leadership to step back and reevaluate their current human-capital strategy.

: Sometimes the stereotype of the volunteer—what is a volunteer job and what isn’t—is a strong barrier. Another strong barrier is the fact that a lot of the leadership or the heads of some nonprofit organizations just don’t see the valuable role that volunteers could play in their organization. They’re willing to invest a lot in fundraising, but they haven’t yet recognized the value of investing in volunteering or talent.