Does your NFP recruit volunteers differently from paid staff? Starlight Foundation’s Kerry Shields explains why that needs to change

Kerry Shields is the National Volunteer Manager at Starlight Children’s Foundation, a not-for-profit that seeks to improve the lives of children and teens who are seriously ill or in hospital. Kerry’s team is responsible for attracting, recruiting, engaging and retaining more than 3,000 volunteers, whose contribution of more than 55,000 hours equated to over $1.6 million in value to the organisation in 2015.

Ahead of her presentation at the 2016 Not-For-Profit People Conference, we spoke to Kerry about the value of approaching volunteer recruitment in the same way as paid staff.

Hi Kerry, thanks so much for chatting to us! Tell us about what volunteers do at Starlight.

We’ve got over 3,000 volunteers that take on a variety of roles – about 600 of those volunteer with us regularly with us in our program delivery, and we also have volunteers who come into our office to help us.

All of our state and national board members are volunteers as well, so we’ve got volunteers at all levels of the organisation.

We also have about 2,500 volunteers who are part of our events volunteer team – they work at a variety of different events like corporate partner events and community events.

Volunteers play a pivotal role in many not-for-profits – so why do you think the approach to their recruitment versus that of paid staff is often so different?

Fundamentally, I think it comes down to how much the organisation actually values the contribution of volunteers. It’s really easy for an organisation to say they appreciate their volunteers or that they do an amazing job – but how many of them actually put a dollar figure against that contribution?

If an organisation’s volunteers were to all walk out the door tomorrow in a mass exodus, it’s important for the organisation to really understand what cost that would have to their business. And if they needed to replace all those volunteers with paid team members, how much would that cost them? How would they continue to run their programs, raise money and continue advocating for their cause?

So I think once an organisation is able to quantify the financial value of a volunteer like they do for a paid employee, it begs the question: why wouldn’t you take the same approach for recruiting volunteers as you do for a paid employee?

So did you always recruit paid staff and volunteers the same way at Starlight? If not, when did you start and what prompted the change?

No, we didn’t!

Volunteers have always been a part of our team at Starlight, but the volunteer experience really came to light about six years ago.

It was at that point where, as an organisation, we really needed to address the low engagement of our paid employees and the alignment of our volunteers with our business objectives.

We began to utilise the skills and experience of those volunteers, and really put in the effort to allow them to contribute to the organisation and really empower them.

A big changing point culturally at Starlight was starting to refer to everyone as being part of the Starlight team rather than distinguishing between employees and volunteers. As part of that, we also reworked all our processes and policies so that it referred to our team – that included our recruitment and selection process.

And what’s the impact on volunteers, paid staff and the organisation as a whole?

I think when an organisation doesn’t have alignment across all its strategies, processes and people, it’s really easy for someone to make their own path – and that can often lead to people management challenges and disengagement across teams.

So one of the key things we’re really proud of at Starlight is that when you walk into our offices you really struggle to differentiate between an employee and a volunteer.

We’re aligned because of our staff values, and we’re really clear on our mission, vision and strategy. Everyone on the team is across that and aware of that, and all working towards the same goal.

One the other key things we work on is really providing positive Starlight experiences to all of our stakeholders – the kids and families to which we provide our programs, the hospitals and healthcare professionals we work with, and our team. And we know that if our team is having a really great experience, they’ll provide great experiences for our other stakeholder groups.

And what are some of the challenges of recruiting volunteers in the same way as paid staff?

Sometimes a manager doesn’t understand why recruiting a volunteer takes as long as it does – they still need to have interviews and reference checks, and managers can feel a little bit frustrated with that.

So we really need to work with our teams across the organisation and work closely with those people managers. We take a proactive approach and like to have regular conversations with them – really understand what’s going on in their business plan for the year ahead, and also where they might need additional resources.

And we get a seat at the table for planning any big events and projects. That just helps us to stay on the front foot and be proactive with those managers. Therefore, the time to recruit isn’t such an issue because we’re planning ahead.

And finally, what have been the key benefits you’ve observed at Starlight since it began recruiting volunteers in the same way as paid staff?

We’ve seen lots of benefits by using the same processes. Number one: it means managers are aware there’s one process to recruit anybody into the organisation. It standardises it and it creates less confusion.

And overall, it’s allowed us to increase the retention of our volunteers because we’re properly selecting and placing them into roles where they’ll be successful and having the biggest impact. So they naturally feel that alignment and they want to stay for longer.

Thanks Kerry!

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