Recently, there seems to be a trend of volunteer departments either going paid, filling in with paid staff or completely going out of business. There are a variety of reasons for this, and an even wider variety of pitfalls and outcomes that occur when making the transition. What amazes me is that volunteer organizations often don_t see the progression, or even the downfall, coming. This article, the first of a two-part series, will look at the slippery slope that causes departments to go paid and how to avoid it, while the second will look at the drawbacks of being paid, or combination organization.
Fallacies & Facts
In order to understand why volunteer organizations transition into paid services, you must look at both the fallacies and facts behind the causes. The first fallacy is that it_s inevitable that all volunteer departments will go paid. If this sweeping statement were true, it would mean the collapse of volunteer organizations nationwide, and that_s not the case. Although organizations may be having difficulties recruiting and retaining members, many still have membership waiting lists.
Another fallacy is that, if the volunteers disappear, there will be more paid jobs. This is a frequent misconception on both the EMS and fire side, but, unfortunately for too many communities, the loss of volunteers would mean the loss of service overall. Many rural communities can_t afford to support their volunteer service, never mind pay for staff. Without an EMS agency, county or regional mutual aid services typically have to respond from many miles away, raising response times and depleting resources.
Belief in these fallacies shifts the burden of the collapse from a local issue to a national or systemwide issue. When there_s nothing that can be done at a local level, this reaction is convenient. Nationwide trends do affect volunteer organizations, but we need to realize that it_s the lack of response to shifting trends that causes collapse, not the change itself.
A great example of this is the often-stated concept that fewer people want to volunteer, which means organizations are forced to go paid. This is neither fact nor fallacy, but rather both. Volunteerism is changing in some areas, especially as communities urbanize and grow. Potential volunteers have more choices of where to spend their time and less time overall to spend. The problem is that organizations don_t react to this trend, and instead try to do business as usual.
Organizations often fall into this trap and pay crews "just to cover days," and then wonder what caused their demise. The management, board of directors or whoever provides oversight is put into a tough spot when they have to pull the trigger and move toward paying staff. At this point, it_s their only option. Paying members becomes a "quick fix" until things get better, but all too often results in resentment and further degradation in volunteerism.
Don_t Knock One Over
We must focus on how to be proactive and avoid going paid at all. The solution is to address recruitment and retention issues before the point of no return, and this only comes from professional volunteer management. It may make the most sense to pay an administrator to handle this, something that hospitals, the American Red Cross and other organizations reliant on volunteers have been doing for years.
Administrators of volunteer departments can handle all recruitment and retention issues: scheduling, paperwork, applications, incentives and more. Managing volunteers takes a specialized skill set that requires tact, knowledge, experience and a true concern for the volunteers that goes beyond what_s in the chief_s job description. The administrator doesn_t replace the chief, but rather helps run the organization on a daily basis to ensure all needs are met.
If you think you don_t need one, just look at the turnaround time from the moment someone expresses interest in volunteering until they_re actually riding as a member of your organization. Handling issues promptly, during a member_s initial application and throughout their career, prevents volunteers from losing interest and you losing a member.
We should all know by now that in EMS prevention is better than trying to cure things later. But we_re all used to being reactive rather than proactive. Invest in a volunteer administrator and face the issues affecting your organization today to avoid spiraling downward.JEMS
Jason Zigmont, MA, NREMT-P, is an EMS instructor, executive director of the Center for Public Safety Education and the founder of VolunteerFD.org. He_s also a PhD candidate in adult learning at the University of Connecticut. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.