May 2, 2024

Episode #108: Definition of a Volunteer – Why It Matters to Be Precise 

In this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast, Tobi Johnson delves into the nuanced and often overlooked topic of clearly defining a volunteer and why it matters to be precise. Tobi shares insights into the definitions provided by various authoritative bodies like the Department of Labor in the U.S., the United Nations, and the implications for nonprofits in handling volunteers according to labor laws and tax regulations.  

She also advises non-profit organizations to consult with labor lawyers and CPAs for legal and tax advice to ensure they remain compliant while fostering a healthy, transparent, and respectful environment for all forms of contributors. Tobi shares her top suggestions for how your non-profit can clearly define volunteer roles, the importance of distinguishing between different types of workers, and the strategic communication necessary to maintain clarity and trust.  

Definition of a Volunteer – Episode Highlights 

  • [00:30] – The Complex Definition of a Volunteer 
  • [03:43] – Legal Considerations and Volunteerism 
  • [08:01] – The Impact of Clear Definitions on Nonprofit Operations 
  • [09:08] – Defining a Volunteer and Its Implications 
  • [14:18] – Clarifying Volunteer Roles and Expectations 
  • [19:37] – Final Thoughts on Volunteer Identity and Organization 

Definition of a Volunteer – Quotes from the Episode

“The psychological contract changes when volunteers are unclear on their role in the organizations. They may have different expectations than you about their rights around what they could claim, what resources they have the right to, what access to information and what levels of authority, you name it.” 

“Transparency and clarity lead to trust and good conversation about people’s identities in their organization. People’s identities are deeply associated with their community giving. When we are unclear about who is and is not a volunteer, we rob community members of their ability to clearly and confidently claim their contributions.” 

About the Show

Nonprofit leadership author, trainer, consultant, and volunteer management expert Tobi Johnson shares weekly tips to help charities build, grow, and scale exceptional volunteer teams. Discover how your nonprofit can effectively coordinate volunteers who are reliable, equipped, and ready to help you bring about BIG change for the better.

If you’re ready to ditch the stress and harness the power of people to fuel your good work, you’re in exactly the right place!

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Episode #108 Transcript: Definition of a Volunteer – Why It Matters to Be Precise 

Tobi Johnson: I’m your host, Tobi Johnson, and today I want to talk about something a little bit wonky and that is the definition of a volunteer. I want to talk about why it matters to be super precise at your organization around what you mean by quote unquote volunteer. The definition of a volunteer can be very powerful, and it seems super wonky. 

It seems sort of neat to argue about it, but I want to talk about why it’s important today. Why it matters to be precise. You know, according to the Department of Labor in the U.S., a volunteer is, quote, an individual who performs hours of service for civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectations, or receipt for compensations for services rendered. 

In Canada, volunteers are defined as people who give their services without any express or implied promise of remuneration. The United Nations has described volunteer activity as activity that is not undertaken for financial reward, that is undertaken voluntarily, and that benefits someone other than the volunteer. 

True volunteers are those who work toward public service, religious, or humanitarian objectives, do not expect or receive compensation for services, and do not displace any genuine employees. So those are kind of the Guidelines when we think about volunteerism, but you’d be surprised how many people are called a quote unquote volunteers. 

People who are given a stipend are called volunteers. People who are interns that are coming to volunteer through school are called volunteers. And we start to build a very large kind of amalgam of messy pile of folks that we all call volunteers and what we call volunteering. And I think that this is to the detriment of the community. 

The Enterprise of Volunteerism. I want to talk about this a little bit today. It’s not that I’m trying to be discriminatory or keeping people out of the enterprise of volunteerism. What I think is important is that we are clear about what are the kinds of activities that the community can get involved in at our nonprofit. 

And volunteerism is only one. of many ways. Maybe the community gets involved as stipend workers or national service members. Maybe the community will get involved doing part-time work for us. Maybe the community will get involved as interns, um, that are learning while they’re doing, and maybe come Our future nonprofit workforce, or maybe people are getting involved as volunteers. 

And so, when I think we spread the definition of a volunteer too wide, we really start to dilute the power of what volunteering is all about. Now I want to talk a little bit about some legal stuff, but I will say and put this caveat out there, I’m not an attorney. And so, if you have legal questions about your volunteers, you absolutely must speak with your organization’s attorney and hopefully they have expertise in labor law, but you can also Contact your local bar association and they do pro bono work. 

So, if you need advice on whether this person should be considered a volunteer and how they should be treated in terms of category, you need to get a labor lawyer to help you with that, and so, I encourage you to do so as you move towards clarifying who is a volunteer. What is the definition of a volunteer at our organization? 

Now, of course, I just mentioned some legalese or what are countries, governments talk about, and the United Nations talk about volunteerism. Those are great guidelines, but you’ve got to take it a step further. Before I talk a little bit more about volunteerism, and if you want to know more about what the law says about volunteers, check out our website, Tobi Johnson and Associates article, Volunteers and the Law, Legal Considerations for Your Nonprofit. This will give you some additional items to think about, but again, that information does not replace the advice of an attorney, but it can help you start to figure out what questions you want to ask your attorney. 

So, I’ll put that link in the show notes. One question I often get from non-profit employees is, can a non-profit employee be a volunteer? And according to the law, it is permissible, but there are guidelines. So, we can’t disguise free work or working for free as volunteerism. that doesn’t follow labor law, and we are required to be paid for our work as workers. 

There are some guidelines that help us stay within the law. One of them is that employees can’t provide volunteer services that are the same as, similar, or related to their regular job duties. So, if your job duties revolve around event management, then people can’t ask you to volunteer for an event. 

Because you’re basically working for free. within your job scope. So, you’ve got to really look at your job description and make sure if you step up to volunteer, you’re not doing anything that’s in your job description. Second is that non-profits cannot require employees to perform volunteer work during the employee’s normal working hours, even if it is different than their job. 

So, if you’re a 9 to 5 or Monday through Friday, then folks can require you or ask you to volunteer. Well, they can ask, but it’s not a smart thing to do during the week when the work, your regular work week. But you might volunteer for the organization on the weekends. The other thing to remember is that nonprofits can only provide nominal perks or rewards for employees who serve as volunteers. 

So, we’re talking like t shirts, right? We’re not talking about gift cards. Even if you give gift cards either to employees or volunteers, they are often taxable. So it’s important to know that there’s a whole sticky situation around gift cards. And you should talk to your, not only your attorney, but your CPA, organization CPA, around buying gift cards for volunteers. 

Because in the end, the volunteer has to come claim them over a certain amount, has to claim them in their taxes, and they’ll be taxed on those. So sometimes there are unintended consequences of the things we’re trying to do with our volunteers. Again, I’m not a lawyer, so check with your, or a CPA, so check with your attorney or tax advisor for questions related to labor and tax laws, specifically when they come to volunteers. 

So that’s just a little bit about the definition of a volunteer. Some things to think about if you’re an employee volunteer, but in the end, I think the most important thing is that we. Determine and clarify for everyone what a volunteer is. And so, after the break, I’m going to talk about this in more detail, why it’s important and how to do it. So, don’t go anywhere. We’ll be right back with my rundown on the definition of a volunteer and the implications this definition has for your nonprofit. So, we will be right back.  

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Okay, we’re back with my rundown on the definition of a volunteer and the implications this definition has for your nonprofit.  

So, why do we do this? Why is it important to, to be precise? And we need to decide. How do we make the decision? First, the rationale. Sometimes we have the urge to set up a big tent for volunteering, invite everybody into all kinds of activities is our volunteer, considered volunteer activities. 

We believe that this is inclusive. This is an inclusive practice that we accept all kinds of ways for people to contribute to our organization’s mission. But, I would argue that when we are muddy about who is and is not considered a volunteer, we can put our organizations in trouble with the law, first off, and in addition, this imprecision can impact team morale. 

When we think about Who is a volunteer and who isn’t a volunteer? When it’s money, your team members, your regular employees start to feel like, well, wait a minute, who has, who is doing something that’s similar to my job? And if it’s a volunteer, I’m worried that that person will take my job. So making sure that everybody has a clear lane to run in is really important. 

It helps our coworkers feel like they have job security. And it helps them feel like their work is different than volunteer work, and it should be. So we can really impact team morale, that’s just one example of the ways that we can impact team morale and degrade trust when we’re not clear, right? So sunshine and clarity brings trust and transparency, right? 

We want to do that. We want to have a transparent view of what volunteerism is. You know, when we don’t know who a volunteer is, then volunteers are not able to Uh, submit their taxes accurately. So again, because if they receive anything that’s counted as income, they need to report it and pay tax on it. 

So just because you call somebody a volunteer, if they get a stipend, they need to put that and you need to provide them with 1099 and they need to, to report that as tax or as income so it can be taxed. So, you can get volunteers in hot water that can impact team morale as well. The other thing is when volunteers end up being considered or defined as an employee, they have certain additional rights and they must be paid, and as I mentioned, taxed accordingly. 

And so, when people are paid a stipend over a certain amount, again, you need to talk with your CPA about this, they have certain rights. And we need to make sure that they are afforded those rights as employees. All kinds of rights that our employees get. If a person is not considered a volunteer under the law, they may not be covered. 

This is another important thing to know and to be able to slice and dice who is a volunteer and who is not. Because if they are not a volunteer, they may not be covered by the Federal Volunteer Protection Act or other good Samaritan laws. And so, there are actually Good Samaritan laws that protect volunteers from liability when they are volunteering, and they must be working within their scope of work and training and authority level. 

And when they move out, when they color outside the lines, they’re not covered by the law in that way. And so, we need to be clear who is a volunteer and who is not, and when they are on shift and when they are not. That’s also important. So, if, God forbid, there were a legal kerfuffle or a lawsuit, that that volunteer and your organization would be able to protect them. 

If some volunteers are paid or given a stipend, I talked about the tensions between paid staff and volunteers. There’s also tensions between other volunteers who are not paid. You know, if some volunteers are getting paid and they’re considered volunteers, and other people who are considered volunteers are not getting any payment, that could create tension and a sense of unfairness. 

In addition, when you set up the expectation of a continued perk of payment, people treat this type What some people call volunteering, I don’t call it volunteering, that it’s people treat it differently. Once money is involved, it is transformed. The activity is transformed into something else. It’s an immediate thing that happens. 

It’s the way people think about their work. I’m getting paid. So often when that payment. Sun sets, maybe the grant goes away, or there’s no money in the coffers, or the volunteer finished that project, and then you’re asking a volunteer elsewhere for free, there’s tension there. And so again, it’s got to be really specific. 

So here’s where you’re volunteering. I mentioned how to discern this. One way to do it is to say, we have a part time contracting role or project that you could work on as a stipend worker. This is different than your volunteering. Are you interested? Not, hey, you’re going to continue to volunteer, but for this project as a volunteer, you’re going to get paid a stipend. 

So you really want to have a specific line in the sand so people understand that when they are changing roles and identities in your organization and when those roles and identities change back. So having a time frame for some of these projects. The other thing that’s really interesting is that I believe, and I kind of intimated this, but the psychological contract changes when volunteers are unclear on their role in the organizations. 

They may have different expectations than you about their rights around, you know, what they could claim, what resources they have the right to, what access to information and what levels of authority, you name it. And, you know, we talk about psychological contracts in Volunteer Nation episode 101, Tap the Power of Psychological Contracts with my friend Pam Cappellini. So, if you want to learn more about psych contract, in a nutshell, both paid staff and volunteers come to the enterprise of volunteering with certain expectations, certain promises that they believe the other side has made. And when those promises aren’t kept, then it can lead to a breach and even a violation of people’s; they call it a psychological contract breach or psychological contract violation that can impact productivity and maybe even cause people to leave. 

And so, when people’s roles are constantly shifting in an organization or they’re unclear about their roles, they may be forming expectations or their psychological contract that they believe the other side has promised them may be off base. It may not be what the organization can provide. Again, clarity is important here, specifically a lot of psychological contracts is formed here implicitly. So, we don’t ever even tell people that we have these expectations. We think they’re a given. We assume, hey, they should know this, right? Andso,o when you don’t have clarity around the definition of a volunteer at your organization, you are setting yourself up for a very complicated site contract formation and additional conflict. 

And so, clarity, again, transparency and clarity lead to trust, leads to clarity, leads to good conversation. about people’s identities in their organization. People’s identities are deeply associated with their community giving. When we are unclear about who is and is not a volunteer, we rob community members of their ability to clearly and confidently claim their contributions. 

It’s like, what do you do for the nonprofit? Well, you know, I’m kind of a worker there, but I’m kind of a volunteer. You want to give people clarity so that they can claim their contributions. They should be able to brag on it, right? Because they’re doing important work. Also, when we leave the definition of a volunteer unclear, we send the message, this is really important, we send the message to coworkers, leadership, volunteers in the community that volunteers aren’t worth full consideration. 

Fellow workers inside our organization, volunteers are workers. They’re not paid employees, but they are workers. They’re a special class of worker in our organizations, and so we need to give them that level of respect by giving them a clear definition. So how do you do this? Well, first of all, you look at the law. 

You make sure that you’re aligned with the legal definition of a volunteer. Then you got to move, you know, the law, where the law leaves off, ethics step in. So you want to think about the ethics of how you’re defining volunteers and other types of workers and think about the full compendium of workers at your organization and categorize that. 

And be very specific about when they become that specific category of worker and when they leave or end that specific category of worker, that identity. And again, some people may have more than one category. You need to be clear, right? And then you can communicate it. Make sure that your board of directors has approved these categorizations. 

This needs to be agency wide. This is not the job of only the leader volunteers. This is actually a human resources function. So you need to collaborate with your HR person. for your executive to make sure that you have a clear list of categories of workers. This is my key takeaway. Take the time to build a clear definition of a volunteer for your nonprofit. 

Do them the honor of defining a formal scope of work. Do that for every one of your workers. In addition, make it clear when one becomes an active volunteer and when they are no longer considered an active volunteer associated with your organization. I can’t tell you how many organizations I speak with who when I ask them how many active volunteers they have, they tell me, I’m not sure. You need to know. So, in this case, define what is the mechanism for a volunteer to become inactivated and what is a mechanism for them to become active? At what point in time you must define it. When do they become active? 

Is it when they sign a volunteer agreement? Is it when they start their first shift? Is it when they complete the application and you send them a welcome email? When is it? And when they leave the organization, when they become inactive, is it when they have missed x number of shifts? Is it when they tell you? 

Obviously probably when they tell you of course, but there’s more, you know, there’s a little bit more muddiness to this sometimes. Is it when a volunteer hasn’t contributed their time for the past? You know, 90 days? What is it? And I would send people communication when they have been inactivate. Now I wouldn’t send people communication. 

You have been inactivated as a volunteer. We use these terms, active and inactive. inside our organizations as we manage a workforce. That’s not the way we should be communicating with the public about their work with us. To just say, hey, we’d love to have you back. We realize that you’re, you have no longer been contributing. 

We’d love to have you back for the time being. If you’d like to reactivate yourself or if you’d like to get involved again, please contact us. But we’ll assume right now that you’re not interested. And now, again, you can copyright that and you can wordsmith that, but just be careful about the ways that you communicate this. 

We don’t need to be bureaucratic with our volunteers. Finally, make sure you call out that your organization’s board members are also volunteers. They are a class of worker within your organization. Admittedly, they have specific additional fiscal and governance responsibilities that they hold, but they are also a category of worker that is a volunteer. 

So, you have categories of workers. categories and subcategories of people in your organization of workers. Also, make sure that emeritus volunteers, interns, national service members, stipend and contractors and employees are defined so that everyone clearly knows the guidelines and the rules and laws that govern how they are treated. 

So, again, it’s not rocket science. But it does take some clear decision making and I think you need to run it up the flagpole to your leadership around what are our definitions for the types of workers within our organization. And it also calls out volunteers as workers as contributors, and I think that’s a good thing. 

Now, volunteers, again, are not employees. They shouldn’t be treated by employees. They are not motivated by the same things employees are motivated by. And so when I say worker, that is not the same thing as employee. Employee is a type of worker, but there are lots of other types of workers too. Right? So, I hope this has helped you think through this very wonky topic of the definition of a volunteer. 

It does matter that you are precise. It tells the world that volunteers matter that much, as well as your other workers. And it gives everyone a clear sense of their identity and helps them form expectations around their role, their scope of work, that are realistic. Right? This also helps you around helping people understand what’s in scope and out of scope for what they do. 

I hope this has helped you think through the neat part of our jobs, defining volunteers. And yes, it is important to be precise. So, thank you for joining us for this episode of the Volunteer Nation. I hope that this has given you some new ways to think about how you’re defining volunteers and to maybe investigate areas that are muddy or gray or unclear and figure out how to get them clear. 

If you like this episode, please share it with a friend or colleague who might need some volunteer inspiration. and maybe a better approach to get some traction. So next week I’ll be here same time, same place. So I hope you’ll join me on the Volunteer Nation.