3 Deadly Management Blunders Nonprofits Commit with Unpaid Staff – by Graham Kenny

Nonprofit organizations are facing a crisis globally. Services are in high demand, there’s a shortage of paid staff, support from donors is in decline and inflation is undercutting income.

Nonprofits, however, have a superpower that is not available to profit-oriented organizations. Because they are typically working towards a cause – whether that be conservation, the community, or a cure – they can inspire people to donate their time and skills. Building a strong relationship with unpaid workers can make or break a nonprofit organization.

But in recent years, Covid-19 has thrown “volunteer programs into disarray”. “There’s a rupture in the relationship,” says Jennifer Bennett, director of education and training at VolunteerMatch, a nonprofit that helps organizations recruit unpaid staff. The challenge for nonprofit managers is to reignite people’s desire to donate time, skills, and energy.

Here I look at three management mistakes leaders often make when it comes to attracting and retaining unpaid workers. I also outline the levers you can pull in your nonprofit to avoid these errors becoming fatal.

Mistake 1: Taking workers for granted.

Paul was a member of a well-known, international nonprofit organization involved in community projects. He describes the time he was pushed to resign by the organization’s management.

“I had a young family – and a mortgage,” he says. “I was trying to juggle those with building a business. So, I missed a few meetings.” Paul was alarmed to receive an abrupt email from the organization’s CEO reminding him of his attendance obligations and suggesting he should re-consider his role.

Paul’s shock was because no one had contacted him to see how things were or whether he had any problems. “Nothing like that,” he said, “just an out-of-the-blue email. You’d think I was on the payroll.”

Paul’s relationship with the organization didn’t recover. After a while, he decided he had better things to do with his time. Once unpaid workers begin to feel that they’re being taken for granted they soon start looking over their shoulders for the exit.

How to address it: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Heather is an unpaid staff member of a nonprofit which provides information, support, and research funding to cancer sufferers. Eighty percent of the workforce are unpaid. The organization describes them as its “heart and soul.” Their contributions include ferrying patients to and from treatments, planning events, coordinating fundraising activities as well as office support and administration.

Heather loves being involved, and has been for 13 years, because “you feel valued,” she says. “There’s a general level of appreciation that runs through the organization with people saying, ‘thank you’ at every turn.”

This includes phone calls, text messages and thank-you notes. “Whenever we’re involved in events, we receive a thank-you note – simple, but so often forgotten,” says Heather. Then there’s recognition awards. “Whenever we reach a goal such as a funding target the organization produces a certificate.”

The effect on Heather is significant. She concludes, “You feel you get more out of it than you’re giving.”

Mistake 2: Lack of vision.

Dieter is an unpaid worker with a fire service. The organization’s role is to fight bush and grass fires in rural areas and about 65 per cent of the firefighters are staff who provide their skills freely.

Over the years, Dieter has noticed a drift in the organization. “When I first joined,” he said, “things were more relaxed, and I felt valued. We knew the importance of our role in the community. But over time this has changed. The job has become more complex.”

“Training is more rigorous now and I feel more like an employee than a volunteer staff member. I’ve lost that feeling of serving a worthy cause.”

Dieter puts this down to a lack of vision by management. He feels that those in charge should focus on the huge importance of the contribution that unpaid staff make. Otherwise, it can start to feel like a thankless task with a lot of rules, regulations, training, and equipment. “The original vision I had of serving and saving the public has drifted away,” he says. “It’s become drudgery.”

How to address it: Tell stories to demonstrate results.

Jennifer volunteers as a staff member in a nonprofit whose aim is to eliminate trachoma from the eyesight of indigenous children and adults. It’s a disease of the eye caused by a bacterial infection and is a health problem in 42 countries. Blindness from the disease is irreversible.

Her energy is sustained by the organization’s leadership, she says. “They’re very good at articulating the big picture and explaining results.” She explained that while there’s a lot of work involved in raising money for the organization, there’s a strong narrative about its impact.

“One thing they do is use ‘stories’ to personalize results,” she says. These include improved eyesight for a grandfather in Myanmar, repairing the vision of a seven-year-old boy in Vietnam and transforming the eyesight of a five-year-old girl in Burundi. “You’re never unsure of the worth of your work,” she says.

Mistake 3: Poor matching.  

Norm joined his nonprofit to raise money and awareness in the fight against polio, “to be part of the community” and “to give back.” He also wanted to meet others in the local area, and, having recently retired from a senior management position in the city, put his considerable skills to good use for a worthy cause.

“I was disappointed,” he said. “The organization failed to recognize my management skills and instead assigned me to jobs like cooking sausages at a barbecue and selling raffle tickets.”

Suffice it to say that Norm’s needs were not being met and he has started looking elsewhere for a cause which can use his skills more effectively.

How to address it: Tailor skills to organization needs.

Alice is an unpaid worker for a nonprofit organization which visits seriously ill children in hospitals bringing “fun and laughter” to patients. The organization used a skills and goals matrix to match her with roles that aligned with her passion, goals, and skills.

As Alice says, “I was never a frontline person so visiting hospitals and entertaining children was never going to be my thing.” However, she found her avenue to contribute by assisting in administration. That was her career “in a previous life.”

Importantly, Alice says, the organization doesn’t shy away from addressing self-interest encouraging staff to ask, “what’s in it for me?” Management knows that unless this is addressed unpaid workers will soon drift away.


Make sure that, as a nonprofit manager, you turn your attention to the management errors you may be making. Take a good, hard look at how you’re positioning your organization in attracting and retaining unpaid staff. Recognize that you’re dealing with workers who are not bound to your organization and lift your head above the detail to take a strategic view.

About the author

Graham Kenny is CEO of Strategic Factors and author of the book Strategy Discovery.  He is a recognized expert in strategy and performance measurement who helps managers, executives, and boards create successful organizations in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors. He is a regular author in the Harvard Business Review and has been a professor of management in universities in the U.S., and Canada. You can connect to or follow him on LinkedIn.