Resources for the Difference Between Volunteers & Employees

VAN Logo - largeSquareVAN meeting – Feb. 2017

What’s the difference between an employee and a volunteer?  This was the question for our last Professional Gathering on Feb. 22, 2017.

Some of what we discussed (though all can be debated some):

  1. Employees have more regulations and mandates around them. Many of these are best practices (though not legally required) as well for volunteers such as background checks, references, good on-boarding practices, etc.
  2. There are more legal remedies to fire staff than volunteers. (Which isn’t to say you can fire a volunteer, but employees have legal protections around them.)
  3. Liability reasons may mandate employees provide certain tasks, such as elder personal care, or other areas where a client may be injured if activities are done incorrectly, etc. Some organizations say some areas fall under employees because of confidentiality, and others say as long as volunteers are trained in confidentiality and sign a form confirming it that they can do the tasks. There are no legal rules around this.
  4. Differing motivations can separate the two as employees are paid, but employees may also be similarly motivated as volunteers to make a difference, be part of a team, social aspecst, leadership opportunities in the job, etc.
  5. Generally, volunteers are given more leeway in respect to time off. They are treated more gently with more understanding that life happens.  They have more flexibility.
  6. A key distinction between employees and volunteers is responsibility. Volunteers should all report to a staff person (which doesn’t mean you can’t have volunteer chairs they report to as long as the chair reports to a staff.)
  7. Employees are paid and volunteers receive compensation in intangible ways. But be very careful with grey areas such as paying for gas/mileage or stipends.
  8. A volunteer’s position should never exactly mirror a paid staff’s position description. There should be some difference or volunteers can sue for salary since they are doing the same job as a paid employee. Often the difference is that the employee can supervise volunteers and other employees but volunteers can’t. Most organizations say that volunteers must never be alone (for liability reasons) and that there must always be a staff person available to supervise and provide support.

Salary/Payment generated a lot of discussion. What do you pay for your volunteers – their food handlers card, CPR training, driving record, background check, mandatory trainings?  All these are legally fine to pay for but many organizations ask the volunteer to pay or contribute toward the cost.  What about mileage? Do you pay for a volunteer’s mileage or give them a gas card or just give them the total miles they drove as a volunteer so they can deduct from their taxes?  What about a trip leader at a senior center?  Does the person who drives get a free excursion or half off?  The key is that you only cover the cost of volunteering and that it never veers into paying for time given which looks like a salary.

Which brings up stipended volunteers like interns or Americorps/Vista volunteers. They receive a monthly stipend. So some organizations have differentiated employees and volunteers by if the stipend is taxed or not. Sometimes, these individuals fall under H.R. and sometimes under the volunteer program.  Many organizations say if we are not paying the salary (stipend comes from government, etc.) then they fall under the volunteer program.

The bottom line is that boundaries and expectations need to be clearly stated.  The non-profit organization needs to be clear about the differences and act accordingly. We’d love to hear your comments!

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About Lisa Yeager

Lisa Yeager has more than 15 years experience in Volunteer Management. She has lead volunteers at the Bellevue Art Museum, WACAP, Hopelink, Encompass, Autism Speaks (Walk Now for Autism), and the Sno-valley Senior Center. She has won the DuFort Award for Volunteer Management, and Program Manager of the Year in 2000. She is currently Treasurer and conference chair for VAN.
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One Response to Resources for the Difference Between Volunteers & Employees

  1. Amy Ezzo says:

    One way to help differentiate volunteers from AmeriCorps is to use term “AmeriCorps member” as designated by the Corporation for National and Community Service. They are indeed not volunteers and the program specifically outlines that they should be referred to as “members” . AmeriCorps members have their own set of benefits, guidelines and procedures as outlined in the grant agreement with the non-profit.

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